But though Trump will be remembered for all these things, he will be judged for one thing above all: When the pandemic came and hundreds of thousands of Americans died, he didn’t give a damn.
How do we know this? It is not easy to read a man’s heart. But it is easier to detect that organ’s absence. Trump is not only refusing to provide leadership during a rapidly mounting health crisis; he is also sabotaging the ability of the incoming Biden administration to cooperate with leaders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies. By disrupting the presidential transition during an unfolding covid-19 disaster, Trump is engaging in American history’s most deadly sulk.
Even before his reelection loss, Trump had trouble expressing empathy for victims of the pandemic and their families. Even after his own bout with covid-19, he did not seem capable of feeling or imagining the suffering of others. This may reflect some psychological incapacity. But it also indicates a certain view of pandemic politics. From the start, Trump did not believe the disease itself was a true enemy. Rather, he viewed the public perception of widespread disease as the real threat — the threat to his political future. So the fewer Americans who believed in the disease’s spread, the better. And the less attention that victims of the disease received, the better.
This helps explain Trump’s own explanation, given to The Post’s Bob Woodward at the start of the pandemic. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” A panic, after all, might spook the stock market, or make him appear responsible.
This is a distorted way to view both illness and politics. Interpreted as an attack on him, covid-19 should be minimized. In reality, the disease was (and is) an attack on the American public, which can be fought only by elevating attention to the disease and warning against indifference. It was Trump’s monomania that dictated the path of denial and inaction. At one point early in the unfolding crisis, a senior official urged Trump to take leadership and “own the problem.” But that is exactly what the president wanted most to avoid. As the danger became undeniable, the president doggedly denied it. “It’s going to disappear,” said Trump. The goal was not to calm the public but to anesthetize it.
In this cramped and selfish view of the world, every covid-19 victim who is highlighted by the media is perceived by the president as an attack on himself. And the public expression of sympathy on his own part would be self-sabotage, an admission of failure. So when Trump recovered from the disease, he did not say, as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie did in a similar situation, “I should have worn a mask.” Instead, Trump pronounced himself “immune,” held dangerous, largely mask-less political rallies and used his own rapid recovery to play down the seriousness of the disease.
Recovery from covid did not change Trump’s perspective, and neither has electoral loss. The president is apparently too busy moping, golfing, fuming and lying to assume leadership during a spiraling health challenge. He has roused only enough interest to take personal credit for a prospective vaccine. Once again, Trump does not seem to regard covid-19 as a threat to the country requiring responsible action. He sees the pandemic as an attack on his person, to be downplayed or denied. This is egotism, turned cruel and deadly.
The country will not be delivered by appealing to Trump’s better angels, who fled in disgust long ago. It might help if elected Republicans stopped ignoring and enabling Trump’s lethal tantrum. But the hours until noon, Jan. 20, still move too slowly.