Americans have stepped through the looking glass into the mind of Donald Trump.
On Monday, the 3,000th American died from COVID-19. At this writing, the death toll is over 5,300. As you read this many more will have perished.
No matter. Proclaiming his grandeur in the third person, Trump recently tweeted:
“President Trump is a ratings hit. Since reviving the daily White House briefing Mr. Trump and his coronavirus updates have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million on cable news, roughly the viewership of the season finale of ‘The Bachelor.’ Numbers are continuing to rise…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 29, 2020
For Trump, America’s craving for hope as deaths proliferate bespeaks, instead, its mass adoration for an incurable narcissist who proposes to affix his own signature to the stimulus checks so many desperately need.
So swiftly does his daily deluge of falsehoods, contradictions, and self-exculpation swell that the New York Times sorts them into categories: “Playing down the severity of the pandemic”; “Overstating potential treatments and policies”; “Blaming others”; and “Rewriting history.”
Reality vanishes. When a Democratic Super-PAC ran a videotape of Trump’s most egregious misstatements, his campaign threatened to sue.
One pronouncement consumes the next: Democrats are overhyping the danger because “this is their new hoax.” He may quarantine New York and Connecticut. If you want a test, you can get a test. COVID-19 is just like the “flu.”
And all of this as we pay in fatalities for his original sins: ignoring warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies about the outbreak, and failing to prepare the tests and stockpiles needed to combat the virus.
Yet he learns so little. Until Sunday, he meant to celebrate Easter by relaxing social distancing – which, public health experts estimated, would cost between 1.6 and 2.2 million lives. That any imbecile would have known better only intensified the relief when, at last, Trump heeded Drs. Fauci and Birx – and the warnings of campaign advisors that the dead would doom his re-election. By this point, Dr. Birx explained, if Americans at large observe social distancing “perfectly,” we may confine our fatalities somewhat in the range of an appalling 100,000 to 200,000 lives.
Another president would have taken his own harrowing history of sustained and fatal misjudgements as a mandate for self-reflection. Trump called into Fox & Friends to congratulate himself:
I’ve gotten great marks on what we’ve done with respect to this. I’ve gotten great marks. And even from almost every Democrat governor, so I’ve gotten great marks also. But we want to always make sure that we have a great president, that we have somebody that’s capable.
His greatness metastasizes. As states struggle, Trump refuses to combat the maldistribution of resources among them, setting off a Darwinian competition for lifesaving equipment. His administration, he informed them, is “not a shipping clerk.” Despite the pleas of embattled governors, Trump did not invoke the Defense Production Act to spur ventilator production until March 27—while venting prior grievances with the CEO of General Motors.
His idea of leadership combines self-exculpation with finger-pointing. “I don’t take any responsibility at all,” our president told us. His list of scapegoats grows: Barack Obama; the media; Democratic governors; a brace of females from Nancy Pelosi to Mary Barra. When Yamiche Alcindor of PBS asked about equipment shortages in states like New York, Trump snapped back, “Don’t be threatening.” Assertive women unravel him.
As do assertive governors. Washington state’s Jay Inslee is, per the president, a “snake” and “failed presidential candidate.” Gretchen Whitmer is a twofer—just “the woman from Michigan” who has “no idea what’s going on.”
Like an ersatz Godfather, Trump demands obeisance: “It’s a two-way street,” he says of helping desperate governors save the lives of American citizens. “They have to treat us well, also.”
His sociopathy no longer shocks. What does is how extravagantly he flaunts it.
Ever callous, Trump has relied on America’s geopolitical divide. Early on, the pandemic thrived in blue states and cities. No more. Michigan is suffering; so, inevitably, will Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. New Orleans is a hotspot. Outbreaks threaten the South—which is already suffering from its widespread rejection of Medicaid expansion.
Three out of four Americans have received directives to stay indoors. The Los Angeles Times reports that “Trump’s campaign advisors are terrified that the coronavirus outbreak . . . will soon scythe across the rural areas that remain deeply loyal to Trump.”
One might think that such politically-selective prioritization of some lives over others defines the moral bottom . But two days later, there was this:
Trump adviser working with WH officials on messaging for pandemic said Trump “took a gamble” that warmer weather would cause Coronavirus to dissipate, siding with aides pushing back on dire warnings coming from doctors. "He took a gamble and got it wrong,” adviser said.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) April 1, 2020
In a teleconference on Monday, governors from Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico pled with Trump for testing and other resources. Trump’s response—”I haven’t heard about testing in weeks”—was so defiant of reality that it seemed, quite literally, insane. When asked about the call, Trump said of the governors: “I think for the most part, they were saying, thank you for doing a great job.”
The combination of such ineradicable pathology with a lethal pandemic could, at last, undo a presidency which has defied political gravity.
Despite his uptick in approval, polls show that most Americans believe Trump did not combat the pandemic swiftly enough. A new Washington Post–ABC News poll confirms that the voracity of this virus is sinking in—as reflected in stockpiling, self-sheltering, and familial fears of infection. Seniors are dying; the young proving vulnerable.
Experts warn that even if the number of cases drops later this spring, we should expect the virus to return in the fall – continuing its gruesome cycle until a vaccine is deployed. The reality of COVID-19 cannot be blustered away. That it has not yet ensnared Trump does not mean that it won’t.
Take Trump’s firewall—the economy.
Forecasters predict that it may contract by as much as 15 percent; the first wave of unemployment claims was nearly 3.3 million – five times higher than the apex during the Great Recession. But the hemorrhaging of jobs, investments and savings has only begun. Yesterday’s jobless claims—6.6 million—doubled the previous week’s record, bringing the two week total to nearly 10 million. As Dylan Matthews writes in Vox, this rolling disaster resembles the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana—but on a national scale—more than that of a traditional recession.
The current $2.2 trillion stimulus—and any thereafter—may be swamped by massive economic catastrophe. Harvard economist and historian Kenneth Rogoff told the New York Times: “This is already shaping up as the deepest dive on record for the global economy for over 100 years. Everything depends on how long it lasts, but if this goes on for a long time, it’s certainly going to be the mother of all financial crises.”
No person would wish for this. Especially given the aberrant psychology of this intellectually-impoverished and ignorant president.
The envelopment of COVID-19 would torment even a president richly endowed with judgement and character. But what of a leader enslaved by a crippling character disorder?
By nature Trump cannot unify a nation, or bind state and federal officials in selfless common effort. He cannot even process reality, or see past the moment. The tightening grip of this plague could further intensify his most deleterious traits—blame shifting; lying; fury at criticism, denial of truth; rejection of fact; encasement in self—even as his desperation to stave off defeat at the polls breeds calamitous misjudgments.
The pandemic could begin to abate. The wider availability of testing may combine with America’s collective enterprise and good sense to help stem its terrors. Trump’s instinct for self-preservation may cause him, however fitfully, to further heed expert advice. But we are still at the beginning of his trial—and ours. It will become worse. As it does, so may he.
Seven months remain until November.