In one of his reckless political rallies yesterday, Donald Trump happily listened and nodded while his fans chanted, “Fire Fauci!” over and over, imploring Trump to get rid of the nation’s top epidemiologist, Anthony Fauci. Trump finally told them with a grin to wait to see what he will do after the election, and the crowd cheered knowingly.
This is the perfect ending to a perfectly horrendous presidential campaign. Not only has Trump lied repeatedly about the course of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic—telling people that we have “rounded the corner” even as we spike to the worst case levels thus far, saying that he has solved the pandemic, that he would deliver a vaccine before Election Day, and on and on—but now he is telling us that the most trusted epidemiologist in the country is not going to be welcome in his administration for much longer. Not that Trump ever listened to Dr. Fauci, but to say this on the weekend before the election is simply stunning.
This year, I have decided to write two pre-election columns, summarizing key reasons why Trump should be turned out of office. Yesterday, I addressed what Republicans think should be Trump’s winning issue: the economy. The title of the column captures my bottom line: “How in the World Can Republicans Think the Economy Is Their Strong Suit?” As I argue there, both before and during the pandemic, the Trump/Republican economic program was/is a disaster, although I acknowledged that every other issue is so bad for Trump that it was understandable that Republicans might have wanted him to focus on something other than conspiracy theories and personal grievances.
But writing about the economy normalizes this election in a way that is perhaps unavoidable but is nonetheless ultimately beside the point. When over 230,000 Americans die during a pandemic, that simply has to be the issue that decides the election. Trump wants to pretend that the coronavirus is no big deal, and he is not even interested in stopping the next 200,000 or more deaths that are forecast even under the best scenarios.
If the economy was supposedly Trump’s best issue (and it is still a big loser for him), the pandemic is clearly his worst. A leader who not only fails to address the biggest health crisis in a century but who has undermined the public response every step of the way should not even be running for reelection, much less returned to office.
By almost any measure, Trump was already the worst President in the nation’s history. His willingness to do nothing while hundreds of thousands of Americans die, however, is in an entirely different category of catastrophic failure of leadership.
Sociopathy Is Not New to Republicans, But …
Prior to the 2012 election, I found myself concluding something that I had never imagined myself thinking. Having grown up in a moderate Republican family, I had migrated to the Democratic side of the aisle after Richard Nixon’s disastrous presidency and felt ever more comfortable with my decision when Ronald Reagan rose to power via the racist “Southern strategy” that Nixon had created. Even so, I thought of the difference between the two parties as fundamentally a matter of policy priorities, the classic liberal/conservative split with plenty of overlap and very few extremists on either side.
By the time of the 2010 Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party, however, we had seen the rise of a new wave of coldblooded conservatives who firmly rejected the “compassionate conservatism” that the Bushes claimed to represent. True, it was difficult to find much actual compassion in the conservatism that especially the younger Bush espoused, but it was at least possible to believe that most Republicans—leaders as well as voters—were at least not trying to hurt people. They supported regressive and harmful policies, and they at best downplayed racial and gender injustices, but one could still believe that they were simply misguided in their attempts to try to reach goals that were shared among most Americans.
When the 2012 Republican ticket for President and Vice President started to lie shamelessly, I was thus taken aback. Even so, it was when I realized that the Republican leadership in Congress had begun to adopt policies that were gratuitously harmful to defenseless people that I began to think that there was something more sinister at work.
In a Verdict column late in 2012, I wrote:
[T]he Republican Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to a recent report, advanced an agenda during last year’s contrived debt-ceiling standoff “to reduce programs for the poor, including eliminating nutrition and education financing, increasing work requirements for those on food stamps and cutting certain job training programs. Those efforts underlie the fight over legislation to this day.”
This was something that I had never seen before. One of the top Republicans in Congress was specifically demanding that, among other things, Democrats agree to eliminate nutrition programs that help children in poor families. The amount of money was tiny in the scheme of the federal budget, so the savings were nothing more than a rounding error in the negotiations. But every dollar that would be cut, as meager as the total was, nonetheless represented food almost literally being taken from the mouths of children whose only mistake in life was to have been born into poverty.
Because of that, I wrote that the Republican leadership in Congress had become sociopathic. I did not use that word lightly, and I carefully researched the definition of the word and its use by psychologists and psychiatrists. I also made clear that I was not ascribing sociopathy to the typical Republican voter, preferring to believe that most Republicans would never have gone along with such a cruel scheme if they had known about it.
But Republican leaders themselves knew what they were doing, and they not only did not care whether their policies inadvertently harmed innocent children and other defenseless people, they insisted on policies that inflicted that harm.
They were, in short, sociopaths. Yes, some of them hid behind discredited notions like “dependency theory,” which purports to prove that a social safety net becomes a “hammock” that encourages people to become shiftless moochers. Supposedly, it was necessary to be cruel to be kind, giving “takers” the kick in the pants needed to make them become self-sufficient.
Relying on a baseless theory, however, does not negate the sociopathy. There are, after all, plenty of coldblooded killers who spin wild fantasies about how their crimes were ultimately to the benefit of the victims. Having a rationalization does not make the cruelty any less cruel, and the supposed benefits that would flow from harming helpless people were never going to be realized. It was all pain (on purpose), and no gain for the victims.
… Trump’s Brand of Sociopathy Is a More Virulent Strain
In retrospect, however, I have to give the pre-Trump Republican leaders at least a little bit of slack. They did have some non-cruel story to tell about why they were being cruel. They were cynical, to be sure, but they bothered to say that it would be good if the people whom they were harming were able to live better lives. That is not much, but it is a tiny kernel of morality hiding inside the sociopathy.
But what can one say about Donald Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic? It is sociopathy without even the veneer of an excuse for depraved disregard for human life.
At this point, we often forget that it did not have to be this way. The pandemic was, in fact, a political gift to Trump. As I noted in yesterday’s column, Trump has always badly trailed not only Joe Biden but every other major candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. He had been caught trying to use foreign influence to rig the 2020 election, and although Senate Republicans failed in their constitutional duties, Trump continued to implode as a President and as a candidate for reelection.
The pandemic, however, presented Trump with an opportunity to get everyone to forget about all that had gone before. If he had done no more than succeed in keeping the U.S. in the middle of the pack when it came to comparisons with other countries, and if he had shown a willingness to work with everyone—Republicans, Democrats, and other countries—to address this horrible crisis, he would have been richly rewarded with plaudits across the board.
Yes, Democrats would still have run hard against Trump, and they would have tried to remind people about all of the reasons that Trump’s approval rating was permanently stuck at about forty percent. The racism, the corruption, the casual cruelty, the undermining of the rule of law, and all the rest. There would still have been plenty to dislike about Trump.
But if Trump had simply tried to respond constructively to the pandemic, it is almost certain that large segments of the public would have forgiven him his many past transgressions. I am not saying that they should have been willing to do so, but the rally-round-the-flag effect is real. This is as close as we have ever come to being attacked by space aliens, and a President who said, “Whatever else we may think about each other, we have to pull together now,” would have been able to erase a lot of very bad items from his presidential record.
Notice that I am not even trying to suggest that Trump could have tried to do something good simply because it would have been the right thing to do. This is Donald Trump we are talking about, after all. But purely as a matter of his own ego, aggrandizement, and political ambition, he could have used this crisis to do well for himself by doing good for others.
But doing good for others is not something that Trump understands. As I noted shortly after Trump’s election in 2016, Trump does not view anything as a victory unless everyone else loses. He cannot conceive of win-win. And in his narcissistic insecurity, he perceives every new challenge as someone trying to defeat him.
The coronavirus, then, became in Trump’s mind something that other people were going to blame him for, something that would hurt his beautiful stock market run, something that would make him look bad before the election.
He thus set about making the pandemic a political issue. Nothing required him to mock the wearing of masks. He could have made a lot of money by getting his supporters to buy Trump-branded masks (probably made in China, but oh well). He even could have convinced them that real men wear masks, that being socially distanced was a matter of everyone exercising their own freedom and preventing irresponsible people from taking away Real American’s freedom to be free of COVID-19. “Liberty is all about being able to be out in public without getting sick, so don’t let the libs tell us that we shouldn’t all wear masks. Don’t let them make you sick!”
Again, this is not even mildly difficult to imagine. But instead, Trump decided (abetted by his son-in-law) that there was political advantage in refusing to do anything at the federal level and then blaming governors when their states experienced outbreaks of disease.
As a Washington Post article last week put it: “White House could have traced and contained its coronavirus outbreak. It chose not to.” An organization in which everyone does Trump’s bidding had the opportunity to contain a deadly disease but chose not to do so.
Throughout, Trump continued to act as if there were somehow a tradeoff between the economy and fighting the pandemic, pushing reopening—and putting Democrats like the governor of Michigan in danger for their lives—by telling his supporters to resist public health measures.
Trump’s supporters said sociopathic things about how old people should be willing to die so that their children and grandchildren could go to restaurants and bars, and Trump encouraged the insanity.
Then, Trump was given yet another chance to hit that proverbial reset button. Through his own arrogance and hubris, he was stricken with COVID-19. Because I am not a fan of Trump, my political concern was that he would suddenly be able to use people’s natural sympathetic reaction to his advantage, emerging as a guy who “now gets it.”
But Trump is mystified by the very idea of sympathy, so he ignored even that last political lifeline (and last shred of humanity) by treating his experience with the disease as a reason not to take it seriously. Toxic masculinity was never so literally toxic. Other people are still coming down with the disease? As far as Trump is concerned, they should be strong like him and simply get over it.
And through it all, he decided that he wanted to hear cheering crowds again, so he told his most loyal supporters (many of whom are those same elderly people who were supposed to sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy) to come out and attend his rallies. Just from those events alone, an estimated 700 of Trump’s own supporters have now died. Even as I write this column on the day before the election, he is frantically running around the country, putting more of his believers in mortal danger.
In the end, even all of this did not dislodge Trump’s support among the roughly forty percent of people who simply will not abandon him. To his infamous claim that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his supporters would let him get away with it, we can now add that even if he shoots directly at his own supporters, they will stand by their man—that is, the ones who can still stand.
That we do not know what will happen in the 2020 election—even in light of all of this—is shocking on many levels. The sociopathic manner in which Trump responded to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, however, is in its own category of unbelievability. I hope that people will vote in favor of saving lives, but more importantly, I hope that everyone will remember that Trump chose to make things like this. And as always happens with Trump, other people have paid the price.