|With Trump, the Pathology Is the Point|
By Andrew Sullivan
Photo: Getty Images
It’s perfectly clear by now that the United States does not have a functioning president or administration. It also seems clear that this does not matter to a sizable chunk of the population. They just don’t care — even when it could lead them to lose their lives and their livelihoods. A year ago precisely, Trump’s approval rating was, in FiveThirtyEight’s poll of polls, 53.8 percent disapprove, 41.1 percent approve. This week, the spread was 53.1 percent disapprove and 43 percent approve. Almost identical. None of the events of the last year — impeachment, plague, economic collapse — have had anything but a trivial impact on public opinion.
Neither, it seems, does the plain evidence of Trump’s derangement. Yesterday, at a Ford plant in Michigan, the president reiterated that he was once named “Man of the Year” in Michigan, something that never happened and an honor that doesn’t exist. He insisted that Obama had left no pandemic preparation behind — “we took over empty cupboards. The cupboards were bare” — which is untrue. He said he owned a lot of Lincolns but then he said he didn’t. When referring to the anti-Semite and Nazi-supporter Henry Ford, he ad-libbed, “Good bloodlines, if you believe in that stuff. Good blood.” In a factory where mask-wearing is legally mandatory and where every other executive was wearing a mask — and one who spoke with a Perspex visor on as well — Trump refused to wear one in public, though he apparently put one on behind the curtain. When asked why he wasn’t wearing one, he said: “I don’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” The official taxpayer-funded White House trip was also used to give an overtly partisan campaign speech, breaking the law. Just one completely bonkers day from a president who has effectively refused to do the job.
Count the objective COVID-19 failures in 2020 alone. The president was briefed on the looming viral threat, both internally and externally, multiple times in January. But he does not read his briefings — he doesn’t actually read anything — and is uniquely un-briefable in person, according to a story in the New York Times: “‘How do you know?’ is Mr. Trump’s common refrain during his 30- to 50-minute briefings two or three times a week. He counters with his own statistics on issues where he has strong views, like trade or NATO. Directly challenging him, even when his numbers are wrong, appears to erode Mr. Trump’s trust, according to former officials, and ultimately he stops listening.” In other words, the officials who tell him things he doesn’t want to believe are soon sidelined or fired. This is the behavior of a 2-year-old. In a man in his 70s, it’s a form of pathology.
He grabbed a chance to stop travel and immigration from China at the end of January — he loves to use his untrammeled executive power to keep foreigners out of the country — but then, nada. So he was aware of COVID-19 when it could help him do what he already wanted, but utterly unaware when it presented him with policy options, like a lockdown, that he didn’t like. As I said, like a 2-year-old. He was told by the National Security Council, and even in a memo by his favored protectionist, Peter Navarro, that if action were not taken swiftly, half a million Americans could die. But he never read the memo — he doesn’t seem to read any memos — and demurred from doing anything about it.
He even predicted at the end of February that “you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” (Asked two months later about this prediction, he said — of course! — that he was right: “Well, it will go down to zero, ultimately.”) He said it wasn’t a threat, and would go away, like a miracle. Put simply, these are delusional attempts to describe his own fantasies as an objective reality — like how the Russians did not try to interfere in the 2016 election, his inauguration crowd was way bigger than Obama’s, tariffs are paid by the Chinese government, and that anyone in America could have gotten a COVID-19 test. This is a form of psychological disorder.
When the CDC’s Nancy Messonnier finally warned the public in clear terms on February 25 that they should get ready for a serious ordeal, Trump exploded that her statement had upset the stock market. By that point, he was dug in, and conceding reality was too much for his psyche to bear. He believed that if he said COVID-19 wasn’t a threat, it wouldn’t be. When the deaths started mounting, and the cases soaring, he did accede grudgingly to a lockdown, along with masks and social distancing. But it didn’t last long. Soon enough, he openly subverted his own policy by tweeting that the states needed to be “liberated” from the public-health measures he had himself proposed. At the beginning of this period he praised China for its transparency; by the end he was claiming that the Chinese hid the information from him. He has said both that the virus came out of the blue and no one predicted it, and that he always believed, before anyone else, that it would be a dangerous pandemic.
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I know we’re used to it, but there is no rational or coherent explanation for any of this. There is no strategy, or political genius. There is just a delusional pathology in which he says whatever comes into his head at any moment, determined entirely by his mood, which is usually bad. His attention span is so tiny and his memory so occluded that he can say two contradictory things with equal conviction repeatedly, and have no idea there might be any inconsistency at all.
His COVID-19 press conferences were proof of his mental limits. He couldn’t understand basic questions. He had no grip on epidemiology. He believes that tests are bad, because they make America look bad, and then boasts of his record in testing (which is, of course, not good). When a White House staffer, Vice-President Pence’s spokesperson, Katie Miller, tested positive for COVID-19, this is what Trump said: “She tested very good for a long period of time. And then all of a sudden today she tested positive. So, she tested positive out of the blue. This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily, right, the tests are perfect but something can happen between a test where it’s good and then something happens and then all of a sudden, she was tested very recently and tested negative.” With anyone else, we would assume he was drunk when he said that. His sobriety is indistinguishable from alcoholic stupor.
He grossly misunderstands what his scientific advisers tell him — like the notion of getting UV light into the body somehow, or injections involving bleach. And he has revealed an inhuman and sociopathic inability to feel empathy for the sick or the frightened. Asked in a press conference what he’d say to fearful Americans, Trump, instead of knocking the softball question out of the park, dismissed the reporter as “bad.” Pushed to answer a question posed by two consecutive women reporters, he walked out of another presser. Of the 28 hours he spent talking in these briefings up till April 26, a Washington Post analysis found that four and a half minutes were taken up with his expressing any kind of sympathy for the victims.
Under Trump’s ultimate command, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention inexplicably fumbled the creation of a test, producing a dud, and the FDA made it extremely hard for private-sector companies to create and distribute one of their own. When asked this week how he accounted for the low rate of testing in the U.S., compared with many other countries, Trump simply said what he wanted to be true, that the U.S. was “way ahead of everybody … testing at a level that nobody has ever dreamt possible.”
When it was pointed out that what mattered was not the number of tests as a whole but tests per capita, Trump responded: “You know, when you say ‘per capita,’ there’s many per capitas. It’s, like, per capita relative to what? But you can look at just about any category, and we’re really at the top, meaning positive on a per capita basis, too.” I have no idea what he is trying to say and neither does he. But it’s a lie. Per capita, the U.S. is not “way ahead of everybody”: We’re behind Russia, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Australia, Italy, Austria, and New Zealand. And this is only true because, as Alexis Madrigal has reported, the CDC has been counting antibody testing as well as COVID-19 swab testing, so the numbers are inflated. How the CDC has been reduced to this squalid error is beyond me.
The key thing, however, is that none of this seems to matter to the supporters of the president. For them, the pathology seems to be the point. It is precisely Trump’s refusal to acknowledge reality that they thrill to — because it offends and upsets the people they hate (i.e., city dwellers, the educated, and the media). The more Trump brazenly lies, the more Republicans support him. The more incoherent he is, the more insistent they are. Bit by bit, they have been co-opted by Trump into a series of cascading and contradicting lies, and they are not going to give up now — even when they are being treated for COVID-19 in hospital.
Tribalism is now not just one force in American politics, it’s the overwhelming one, and tribalism abhors reality if it impugns the tribe. But you can’t have both tribalism and public health. When you turn wearing a simple face mask into a political and cultural symbol of leftism, when you view social distancing as a concession to your enemies, you deeply undermine the power of millions of small impediments to viral outbreak.
What we are seeing is whether this tribalism can be sustained even when it costs tens of thousands of lives, even when it means exposing yourself to a deadly virus, even when it is literally more important than your own life. We are entering the Jonestown phase of the Trump cult this summer. It is not going to be pretty.