To a striking degree, Donald Trump’s administration evokes the final days of the mad king of some Ruritanian backwater, spewing splenetic ravings while his shrinking cadre of sycophants struggles to steer their foundering ship of state.
Take these incoherent ruminations from a mid-July press conference:
But we had, in 2016, something even more so, but we got in, and we had 306 to, I guess, 223, which was a tremendous margin of difference. You remember, they all said, “He cannot get to 270.” I went to Maine a number of times, where we just freed up lobster fishing and fishing. Just—they took away 5,000 square miles from Maine. I just opened it up. And I just got rid of tariffs in China. And we’re working on European Union, which charge our fishermen tariffs. And I said, “You’re not going to do that.” So we freed it up for Maine. But if you take a look, we went up there recently. There were crowds. Thousands of people lined up going over to a factory where we were opening up for—we’re making swabs. A beautiful, big, new factory, making swabs.
Problem is, he does this pretty much every day.
Emulating a frightened oldster hearing the first, faint echo of senescence like a distant signal on a transistor radio, Trump bragged to Chris Wallace about acing a test designed to detect the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia. But his problem is different—instead of entering his second childhood, Trump seems never to have left his first.
These recurring scenes from a Peter Sellers movie might have a certain seriocomic fascination had Trump not failed the most serious test of real-world leadership: a rolling public health disaster which has afflicted sickness, death, and privation on many millions of Americans.
Once again, COVID-19 is surging. Our total number of cases is heading toward 5 million; our fatalities already exceed 160,000. Asks Ed Yong in the Atlantic:
How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.
Yong provides the obvious yet appalling answer: “Trump is a comorbidity of the COVID-19 pandemic. He isn’t solely responsible for America’s fiasco, but he is central to it.”
Trump’s abdication of responsibility proceeds apace. He has no national testing strategy; no plan for the reopened schools he so noisily demands; no road to reviving the economy; no disciplined or sustained message about social distancing and wearing masks. Nothing but the prattling of a self-absorbed child regurgitating willful make-believe—claiming that the virus will disappear or that hydroxychloroquine is great.
By at least February, any sane president would have rallied the country to curb the coronavirus before disaster struck, fusing federal power with the expertise of scientists to distribute vital resources, facilitate testing, and develop a national public health regime. Instead America’s ersatz Nero heeded the discordant notes of his own incessant fiddling, downplaying the threat to life and health while spreading disinformation that endangered all who believed him.
In the Washington Post, Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker explain his lethal incapacities:
People close to Trump, many speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid discussions and impressions, say the president’s inability to wholly address the crisis is due to his almost pathological unwillingness to admit error; a positive feedback loop of overly rosy assessments and data from advisers and Fox News; and a penchant for magical thinking that prevented him from fully engaging with the pandemic.
Instead of listening to science, Trump looks for affirmation from the fever swamp of right-wing media, recycling falsehoods, bogus conspiracies, and patent quackery. To please his base, he has mocked mask-wearing, campaigned against the public health measures recommended by his own administration, and shifted blame to everyone from the Chinese to Barack Obama. The only unifying theme is the cosmic self-pity which disqualifies Trump from leadership and destroys his empathy for others—licensing Trump’s laser focus on himself as the pandemic’s chief victim.
All this creates the bizarre dissociation from reality he exhibited in his interview last month with Chris Wallace, in which he asked his press secretary to fortify his own bubble of ignorance: “I heard we have one of the lowest, maybe the lowest mortality rate anywhere in the world.”
So pathetic was this spectacle that, for the moment, Trump descended from the mad king to Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, insanely fixated on demented self-delusions nurtured by her slavish retainers—which, as with Trump, prove deadly for others. This raises a frightening question: does Trump remain simply a sociopathic and remorseless liar of convenience, or has he become so addicted to his own fantasies that he has taken leave of the world as perceived by normal humans?
Daily, Trump’s statements suggest the latter. The Washington Post reported but one example: “In wide-ranging, often erroneous comments on ‘Fox & Friends,’ Trump claimed the virus was spreading in a ‘relatively small portion” of the country (it is spreading nearly everywhere); said children are ‘virtually immune’ to the virus (they are not); and once again insisted the outbreak ‘will go away like things go away.’”
This followed Trump’s surreal interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios, a spectacle aptly described by Ryan Bort in Rolling Stone:
Trump genuinely seems to think at the top of this clip that he’s about to put the idea that he’s mismanaged the pandemic to rest by showing Swan a few charts his aides printed out for him. As Swan soon realizes, Trump is touting that the death rate by the case is lower than in other countries. Far more pertinent, obviously, is the percentage of the American population Trump has let die from COVID-19, as Swan quickly points out.
“You can’t do that?” Trump says.
“Why can’t I do that?” Swan asks.
“You have to go by . . . you have to go by . . .” Trump begins before shuffling some papers and trailing off.
But for the rest of America, reality bites—hard. Said Dr. Deborah Birx on CNN: “What we are seeing today is different from March and April—it is extraordinarily widespread.” In the latest manifestation of his penchant for projection, Trump called her remarks “pathetic.”
It fell to another member of his captive coronavirus task force, Admiral Brett Giroir, to discredit yet again one of Trump’s most persistent quack cures: hydroxychloroquine. Little wonder, then, that public health officials fear Trump will pressure the FDA to approve a vaccine before it is proven safe and effective—which is to say, before November.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of Trump’s departure from reality is his failure to comprehend that containing COVID-19 is, and always was, the indispensable prerequisite to reopening the economy. Particularly astonishing is this most self-interested of president’s failure to comprehend his own political self-interest. Rather than grappling with the linkage between public and economic health, he attempted to transform America into a Disney World wherein the economy could rebound on its own.
Our real-world reward is the largest quarterly economic decline—9.5 percent—in the 70 years since the government began posting such data. This news broke immediately after our tangerine soothsayer assured us that “the recovery has been very strong.” Sixteen-plus million unemployed Americans were no doubt relieved to hear that.
Rationalizing Trump’s failure to deal with the pandemic, his economic adviser Stephen Moore lionized his crippling myopia: “He’s so focused on the big problem, which is getting the economy up and running and trying to get businesses up on their feet. That’s been their priority.”
What’s so scary is that Moore is not the biggest fool to advise Trump on the economy. That distinction goes to the time-tested buffoon Larry Kudlow, who continues to celebrate our “V-shaped recovery” despite the ongoing slump driven by COVID-19.
In the Atlantic, Annie Lowery summarizes the comprehensive results of such mindless compartmentalization: “Failed businesses and lost loved ones, empty theme parks and socially distanced funerals, a struggling economy and an unmitigated public-health disaster: This is the worst-of-both-worlds equilibrium the United States finds itself in.”
Trump’s refuge from reality is that the stock market is thriving. But a chasm of privilege separates Wall Street from the real economy. At least for now, financial institutions and the wealthy are largely insulated from the economic depredations of COVID-19—principally because of prior stimulus spending spearheaded by Democrats, and interventions from a Federal Reserve Trump so often disparages. But for millions of Americans trapped in this pandemic, work is either dangerous or unavailable.
Trump’s indifference to their plight accounts for his abstention from working with Congress to craft a further stimulus bill that would renew enhanced unemployment benefits—which, humanity aside, helped prevent our economy from collapsing altogether. Democrats proposed such legislation by mid-May; Trump and his party still have not. “Starting this week,” Robert Reich wrote last week, “more than 30 million Americans will no longer receive $600 in extra weekly unemployment benefits. As a result, tens of millions will not be able to make rent or mortgage payments. More will go hungry, including children. The economy is likely to slide even further.”
Why delay unemployment benefits? Because, Kudlow advises, “We don’t want to create disincentives to work.”
If only we could disincentivize Kudlow—according to Catherine Rampell, five recent expert studies concluded that enhanced unemployment benefits did not inhibit workers from seeking re-employment. At least when Caligula named his horse a consul, he included the entire horse.
Cosseted by sycophants like Moore and Kudlow, Trump also floated a proposal so irrelevant that not even Republicans embrace it: a payroll tax cut which, by definition, does nothing for the unemployed. Instead of engaging with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Trump disparages them for seeking to prevent a potential financial collapse of state and local governments that would accelerate unemployment and hamstring the providers of essential services like the K-12 schools which Trump insists must re-open, the police departments whose funding he so loudly defends, and the hospitals and public health institutions to which he has delegated the brunt of this pandemic.
Instead of trying to find a legislative solution, Trump on Saturday issued four executive orders of dubious constitutionality and design, including deferring payroll taxes through December and providing $400 weekly in unemployment aid—part of which would be paid by the cash-strapped states for which he refuses to provide relief. As the New York Times observed the day before, anticipating Trump’s unilateral move: “It was not clear that he had the power to do so without Congress, which controls spending, or that any set of executive actions could stabilize an economy devastated by the pandemic.”
This is dereliction on an epic scale. But, increasingly, Trump spouts hallucinatory nonsense like a man awaking from a fever-dream. “We’re going to be doing a very inclusive healthcare plan,” he said in July. No such legislation existed—except, perhaps, in Trump’s Lotusland of the mind. Nonetheless, Trump said to Wallace of Obamacare: “We’re getting rid of it because we’re going to replace it with something much better.” He would sign a new plan into law “very soon,” “within two weeks”—or so he promised three weeks ago.
Not to worry. Trump now promises to reform healthcare by executive order—a literally impossible task which, Lindsey Graham nonetheless assures us, “he’s pretty excited about.”
What is so unnerving about this folie à deux is its utter evanescence. No one else on Capitol Hill can verify that such a plan exists—nor, except in his imaginings of monarchical omnipotence, can Trump transform healthcare by presidential fiat.
But there is one larger mercy: Unlike a Ruritanian potentate, America’s president must run for re-election.
This goes badly. Trump’s approval ratings are underwater. In early August, the Washington Post summarized his week:
A slew of public polls showed Trump falling further behind Biden, who now leads by double digits nationally; Trump demoted his campaign manager Brad Parscale and replaced him with longtime GOP operative Bill Stepien; nearly 25,000 Americans died of the novel coronavirus, and a record 2 million were infected; Trump canceled the Republican National Convention celebrations; the economic recovery from a record contraction slipped into reverse; and 30 million Americans lost their $600 weekly federal unemployment assistance after the White House and Congress struggled to negotiate a stimulus package.
What stands out amid this self-inflicted wreckage is that, as ever, Trump found someone else to blame—the erstwhile genius Parscale. But this cannot obscure what would be obvious to anyone but a pathological narcissist: that Trump’s most insuperable problems fester within.
Denuded of self-awareness, Trump looks in the mirror and sees himself in the eyes of his adoring base. But in his suffocating solipsism he refuses to perceive how many Americans will vote against him out of ineradicable loathing.
Instead, Trump demonizes Joe Biden. Consider this semi-hysterical tweet:
One trembles at the thought. But, on Thursday, Trump further informed us that Biden was out to kill off Christianity, the Bible, and God himself: “He’s following the radical left agenda, take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything, hurt the Bible, hurt God. He’s against God.” Even worse, Trump added, “He’s against energy, our kind of energy.”
Such incoherent vituperation captures Trump’s central problem: Compared with Trump himself, Biden is Mr. Rogers. Trump’s ad hominem lunacy isn’t working, and his time is running out: Early voting in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin starts in mid-September, and Trump’s campaign seems to be writing off Michigan.
In desperation, Trump has declared war on the ultimate reality which separates democracies from monarchies: that, come November 3, voters will render judgment on his presidency. Hence his preemptive claims of voter fraud spawned another hallucination—postponing the election itself.
Oblivious to John Lewis’s funeral, Trump tweeted:
That this would abridge the Constitution eluded America’s premier historical illiterate. What’s real is a fear of mail-in balloting so deep that he threatens not to honor the electoral results.
Trump’s solution is to sabotage another of our institutions: the postal service. The Washington Post reports that his new postmaster general, a Trump mega-donor, is cutting overtime pay, shutting down sorting machines early, and requiring letter carriers to avoid extra trips—all of which operate to delay mail deliveries.
The almost certain effect will be to undermine voting by mail, and therefore the election itself—which is precisely what Trump wants. Observes the Post: “A delay in delivering ballots to voters and then returning them back to election officials could cause people to be disenfranchised—especially in states that require ballots to be returned by Election Day, voting rights experts warn.”
This would force Americans to vote in person at risk of their own health or, Trump’s preference, to have their ballots discarded. This evokes the maddest of monarchs: having abandoned his duties to America, he would trash its democracy to save himself. Because nothing ever matters to Trump, but Trump.
“It is what it is,” Trump said of our national death toll. And what it is, more terrible to say, is the perfect expression of everything Trump is.