It has come to this: America’s deadliest pathogen may be its own president.
In one sense, COVID-19 is Trump’s dream come perversely true—it has licensed his endless voracity to consume our mass consciousness. He has hijacked a pandemic to extend his unfiltered dominance on Fox News across the entirety of television. The very lethality of our dilemma provides him with a housebound, captive audience for “press briefings” awash in lies, self–promotion, and dangerous pseudo-science—and blissfully free of real-time fact checking.
It is Trump unbound, the perfect reflection of his toxic inner landscape. As Al Franken puts it:
The president’s mental illness allows him to be both intellectual sloth and supremely confident jerk, ever convinced that he (and he alone) can do everyone else’s job better than they. Generals, climate scientists, public health experts. And he’s always right. Because he’s a psychopath. And this Donald Trump brand of psychopath is never wrong. Even when being wrong will cause the additional deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Cloaked in his new role as the “wartime president,” Trump attacks the media for asking questions or challenging falsehoods—in other words, for striving to protect Trump’s viewership from Trump himself.
A recent example is particularly disturbing: This Wednesday, Paula Reid of CBS asked him about the fact that experts “on both sides of the aisle have said that reopening the country by Easter is not a good idea.” Our president’s response combined vitriol and paranoia: “I think there are certain people that would like it to not open so quickly, I think there are certain people that would like it to do financially poorly, because they think that would be very good as far as defeating me at the polls.”
When Reid tried to follow-up, Trump snapped: “I think it’s very clear that there are people in your profession that write fake news. You do.” He never answered Reed’s question—in his infinite self absorption, the question itself threatened his prospects in November.
So deep is Trump’s fury at all who challenge him that this creates its own force field. One can see Drs. Fauci and Birx struggle to speak truth while mollifying a narcissistic ignoramus wholly unfit for his office: their primary mission is to protect the public, and they can only do so by serving as involuntary props in Trump’s daily theater of self.
In the real world, these professionals know all too well, things are not yet as bad as they will be. By the time you read this, our toll of confirmed deaths will be over 2,200—and within a few days the total will eclipse the number of people killed on 9/11. Hospitals are contemplating Do Not Resuscitate orders for dying patients—solely to protect the doctors and nurses on whom the lives of others depend. A typical president—or human being, even—would be sobered to his marrow.
But not this president. He continues to advocate reopening some—or all—of the country for business by Easter, yet another holiday which, like Thanksgiving, he seems to associate with himself. Says the public health expert Dr. Larry Brilliant: “I think history would judge it an error of epic proportions.”
By now, more Americans appreciate that the indispensable predicate to relaxing social distancing is mass testing—and that, Trump’s lies notwithstanding, we are nowhere near that milestone. But social distancing facilitates other necessities: the mass production of masks, gloves, ventilators, and other lifesaving equipment—an imperative Trump has ignored by failing to activate the Defense Production At—as well as the separation of potentially contagious Americans from the medical personnel essential to combating COVID-19.
But for Trump, social distancing is just another enemy menacing his reelection. “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down,” he insists. “We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem.” On Fox News, he put this proposition even more baldly: “Look, you can lose a number of people to the flu [his studiedly deceptive misnomer for COVID-19]. But you’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression. You’re going to lose people. You’re going to have suicides by the thousands. You’re going to have all sorts of things happen. You’re going to have instability.”
All that and worse: We might lose Trump as our president.
Fearful of defeat, Trump seems hell-bent on actualizing the tacitly Malthusian belief that accelerating deaths by pandemic will be good for the economy—or, more precisely, himself. A sane leader would find rational ways to protect as many lives as swiftly as possible, the better to assure a safe return to a sustainable economic health.
Instead, Trump promotes the cruel and nonsensical notion that economic health involves swiftly and needlessly sacrificing other Americans. It would truly compound the tragedy of COVID-19 if our response is to replicate Trump’s economic and social myopia—and, thereby, his unvarnished contempt for human life itself.
If the media doesn’t turn off his self-aggrandizing propaganda sessions, we should. Not everyone will, but anyone can. And as a matter of literal fact, Trump can’t order millions of Americans to do his bidding.
Our state and local leaders still have choices, and so do we. We can choose to listen to them, and to experts in public health, serving as examples while pitching in however we can – on our own, or in our communities.
By resisting Trump we can, together, still summon America’s best self.