And that carelessness is no accident. It’s the theme of his campaign, his government and his party. Trump is the purest embodiment of an insidious rot in the Republican Party — a belief in the primacy of individual interests even at the expense of the common good. Trump is the human apotheosis of a guiding principle that says every policy decision is a zero-sum transaction where any benefit to someone who is not you is an automatic loss for you. Trump’s presidency boils down to the notion that caring about others or helping others with no expectation of material personal gain is a weakness.
In the presidential campaign that will end in a few days, Joe Biden is an avatar of everything Trump is not in terms of his orientation toward others. His public experience of grief — having lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident, and later his son Beau — have made him particularly sensitive to how Americans are dealing with loss in the middle of a pandemic that has killed at least 228,000 people here. He does not withhold affection, or awkwardly pantomime it as Trump does.
For this, Trump’s followers have heaped disdain on Biden, most notably for having the temerity to care about his surviving son, Hunter, in public. The New York Post published texts apparently sent between the Bidens while Hunter was in rehab, one of which read: “Good morning my beautiful son. I miss you and love you. Dad.” Around the same time, a photo surfaced where the men are embracing each other and Biden is kissing his son on the cheek, prompting the right-wing commentator John Cardillo to ask, “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?” Biden’s warmth and emotional generosity, even toward his own children, is viewed as weakness. Trump adviser Mercedes Schlapp complained during a televised Biden town hall event that she felt like she was watching an episode of “Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood,” and she meant it as an insult. Being a good neighbor is antithetical to everything Republicans stand for these days.
This is true in the smallest ways and the largest alike. Being a good neighbor implies a responsibility to others and a duty to look out for them. It implies that it’s immoral to consciously enable harm to the most vulnerable and to perpetuate injustices upon people who are disenfranchised. These values should be nonpartisan; they’re theoretically built into the social contract. But they do not translate into policy or rhetoric on the right. Look at the utter disdain the right has for small gestures of open solidarity. Conservatives today are enraged by things like people who work in entertainment while simultaneously expressing political opinions (exceptions made for Ted Nugent, James Woods, Scott Baio and, well, the former reality TV star in the Oval Office) or expressing support for Black Lives Matter, which they dismiss as “virtue signaling” because they cannot fathom public solidarity as anything but performative unless it expresses support for people who are exactly like them. (Saying that “blue lives matter,” on the other hand, doesn’t count as virtue signaling because it echoes a White conservative view toward law enforcement that denies the existence of systemic racism, which implies they might have some moral obligations to Black people.) Even simple expressions of politeness, like asking someone their preferred pronouns — which takes as much effort as holding a door open for somebody walking behind you — are met with incredulous insistence that no one could possibly be doing it out of basic respect for another person.
This is projection, and it’s particularly disingenuous when it comes from people who often wrap their contempt for people who aren’t White, straight, natural-born citizens in a public Christianity, posting Bible verses to Twitter and implying that a virtuous America is one that is willing to separate immigrant children from their parents, strip women of their own bodily autonomy, punish gay people for being gay and only able to help the poor if they pass some litmus test that shows them to be deserving. This is a perversion of virtue, but it’s a perfect manifestation of a society where any notion of common good and shared responsibility has been eroded by an emphasis on individualism that utterly denies the role that luck plays in anyone’s ability to thrive and succeed and blames people who suffer from systemic injustices for the harms done to them.
It also leads to Marie Antoinette levels of tone-deafness by elites who cannot relate to, and secretly despise, the plight of working people in America. “Find something new,” warbled senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump, who got her jobs in business and government from her father, as millions of Americans lost their own as the pandemic decimated the economy. Research shows that money tends to erode empathy interpersonally, which partially explains but does not mitigate the behavior of the Trump family — and also explains the priorities of the Republican Party, which has gone to great lengths to protect the interests of the 1 percent, giving them generous tax cuts and backstopping the covid-19 losses of large companies while refusing to bail out their actual working-class constituents. And what’s the excuse for such stinginess? Too much federal unemployment aid might lead people to stay home instead of going back to work. If you needed any more evidence that the GOP has no empathy for working people, see their apparent assumption that the working class is inherently lazy and will not be productive citizens unless starvation is the alternative. It’s okay if some of you die, as long as not a single one of you gets something you might not deserve.
This Republican notion of deservingness itself is a failure of empathy. It demands that the poor work 10 times harder than, say, Jared Kushner, to achieve a baseline quality of life, imposing work requirements for benefits on people who want to work and can’t. It says that children can be used to punish their parents, whether it’s denying them services because of unpaid school lunch debt or taking them away from their parents to discourage immigration. It says that money is the best indicator of success, hard work and character, despite the fact that according to a 2017 study, 60 percent of private wealth in this country is inherited (as it was by the Trumps and Kushner), and some portion of the rest is generated through lucrative financialization schemes that add no meaningful value to society but often harm large swaths of the population, as in the 2008 credit crisis. It convinces people on the receiving end of luck — whether it’s the circumstances they were born into, the people they knew, random timing, the color of their skin or their gender, or even the intelligence they have innately — that they deserve these benefits of all of these things, and that conversely, the people with different outcomes deserve what they get instead.
And elites in this regime have no reservations about saying openly that as long as they’re taken care of, their constituents don’t matter. CNN’s Alisyn Camerota asked Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley this week whether he was concerned about Vice President Pence’s upcoming rally in Wisconsin, which could prove to be a superspreader event. “Hospitals in Wisconsin are near capacity. Does that give you any pause, or the vice president any pause, about going there and holding a big rally?” she said.
“No, it doesn’t,” said Gidley, apparently thinking of whether Pence might be contagious — since several of his aides recently tested positive for the coronavirus — but not worrying about any rally attendees who could easily infect each other. “The vice president has the best doctors in the world around him, they’ve obviously contact-traced and have come to the conclusion that it’s fine for him to be out on the campaign trail."