The last week has felt like a self-produced medical reality TV show — perhaps we could call it “The Madness of King Donald” — except that it has been more reality-based than any given season of “The Apprentice.” Or has it?
Trump’s actions are inevitably a mystifying brand of lunacy to outside observers because one can never tell where the seeming delusion ends and the con begins. The inability to discern which it is at any given point is at the heart of the question that’s dogged our politics and political observers since his escalator descent five interminable years ago: Does he believe what comes out of his own mouth?
The answer, as is clear by now, is not binary. His whole career has been a toxic mix of Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking and a relationship with objective truth that long ago transcended infidelity and reached full estrangement. And it makes a kind of perverse sense, I guess, that if you believe strongly enough in your own ability to shape events through sheer will and personal outlook, the facts become less real.
There’s good evidence to suggest both that Trump is a heartless grifter, coldly willing to do anything and sacrifice anyone to achieve his personal ends, and that he’s also genuinely and dangerously unaware of the actual danger he poses to himself and others.
This was demonstrated yet again as the "first patient" aggressively resumed his campaign to downplay the deadly virus burning through the country and his own body and get himself — as president, as reality show star — renewed for a second term/season.
To that point, everything he has done recently seems in service to what he sees as a path to holding onto power by conveying an image of dominance over and dismissing the seriousness of his own Covid-19 infection and his ability to infect others, who can then infect still other people.
That would explain his seeming decision to leave Walter Reed Military Hospital despite still being on medications normally administered in a hospital setting in order to stage what he undoubtedly saw as a dramatic White House return, doffing his mask and standing imperiously on the Truman balcony. You can hear it in the Dear Leader-style video his team quickly produced, complete with a score that sounds ripped off from a Jerry Bruckheimer film; see it affirmed in his Twitter feed where he quoted an adulatory New York Post column about how a Trump returned to the campaign trail would be “an invincible hero, who not only survived every dirty trick the Democrats threw at him, but the Chinese virus as well.”
In another video filmed Monday night, Trump framed his recklessness about his illness as virtue: “As your leader I had to do that. I knew there was danger to it, but I had to do it. I stood out front, I led,” he said, as if the exigencies of leadership required him to defy public health advice and embrace the politicization of simple mitigation tactics like wearing masks; as if the demands of the highest office placed upon him the burden of not only endangering himself but also those around him.
He had, of course, already endangered his senior staff, top Republicans, White House staff, Secret Service agents and many others at the celebration of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination 10 days ago that turned into a super-spreader event, at debate preparations thereafter, at the first presidential debate in Cleveland last Tuesday, at a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, and a fundraiser in Minneapolis on Wednesday and at a fundraiser at his golf club in New Jersey on Thursday before announcing his diagnosis — and then during his Sunday evening joyride outside of Walter Reed and, of course, during his return to the White House.
White House aides — apparently only just realizing that he will treat them with the same cavalier attitude as the marks he invites to attend his largely maskless rallies while demanding they sign forms waiving their right to sue if they contract the virus there — are reportedly outraged. But we also shouldn’t forget the people who didn’t sign up to work specifically for this coronavirus carnival barker but have to nonetheless show up to work: the Secret Service, the Marines and residence staff, who are now de facto props in Trump’s personal “Triumph of the Will.”
Even more disturbingly, Trump has emerged from the moment contemplating his own inevitable mortality more determined than ever to downplay the pandemic’s severity. “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” he tweeted Monday in what will go down as historically bad medical advice. “Don’t let it dominate your life.” That’s a hell of a message to the 210,000-and-counting Americans whose lives Covid-19 ended: Trump didn’t let the disease dominate him, and neither should you have. Oh well; “it is what it is.”
“Don’t be afraid of it,” Trump added in his video Monday night. “You’re going to beat it! We have the best medical equipment, we have the best medicines” — even though the vast majority of Americans don’t have access to those things, let alone an entire team of dedicated physicians and access to an experimental treatment. How many of the 210,000 who have died so far would still be alive if they got the presidential treatment? And how many more people will die because they take the president at his word and find out that their results may differ?
The same video also touted the idea that vaccines are “coming momentarily” on the day that his administration blocked proposed FDA guidelines meant to ensure the rushed vaccines’ safety and efficacy. Trump, however, doesn’t need a safe or effective vaccine — just a pre-election vaccine.
It’s telling that while Trump has repeatedly mentioned how much he has learned from his experience, the lessons he seems to draw are identical to his prior beliefs: That he is smarter than any so-called experts; that the rules and safety guidelines those eggheads produce are for suckers and losers; and, most of all, that Covid-19 really isn’t that bad because, as he said in March too and then Tuesday, it’s basically just like the flu.
Of course, he told Bob Woodward in February that “this is deadly stuff” and, before being helicoptered to the hospital last weekend, he reportedly worried aloud to aides about “going out like Stan Chera,” a New York real estate friend who succumbed to Covid-19 in April.
Meanwhile Trump, abetted by his aides’ mendacity and doctor’s inept spin, have left us all in the dark about how serious his case actually is — but one can infer from the mix of treatments he’s undergone (not to mention the mere fact of his sojourn at Walter Reed) that it was and is serious. (It was certainly more serious than anything requiring a trip to the pharmacy for Tamiflu and a couple days in bed.)
So does he really believe his own propaganda — and to the point at which he’s willing to stake his life on that belief? Surely his own doctors have explained to him the seriousness of his infection and his condition.
Well, appearances are supremely important to Trump after all: his toxic masculinity encompasses an overwhelming, lifelong need to show supposed “strength” (which is never intellect) and to dominate — even over things unaware of such optics, like viruses. And at this point, Trump himself may not be able to parse out Covid-19 facts from his Covid-19 spin from his Covid-19 wishes — and that is a deeply scary truth for all of us for whom Covid-19 is a reality-based risk rather than a mere public relations problem or political prop.