A century after the poppy began symbolizing Memorial Day, it’s a good time to consider how we should memorialize the casualties of the pandemic. (In mere months, more Americans have died than in Vietnam and Korea combined.) The surgical mask might be a proper emblem, or perhaps the double helix of DNA. Both would honor the dead and the medical workers who saved the sick. Both would likely enrage President Donald Trump.
As the most somber national holiday weekend began, the president showed us how he feels about our current suffering. Saturday brought a blast of angry Twitter posts followed by a round of golf. At day’s end he posted about a vile and baseless conspiracy theory that slanders one of his perceived “enemies” and torments the parents of a young woman who died of natural causes. In addition to another round of golf on Sunday, he offered this enthusiastic falsehood: “Cases, numbers and deaths are going down all over the country!” In fact, cases are still rising in many states and locales.
Trump’s heedless holiday demonstrated that as his drive for re-election begins in earnest, he will not alter the formula that got him to the Oval Office in the first place. This method depends on the reliable power of divisiveness, anger, and activist rage. Although disastrous when tapped in response to a crisis like the current pandemic, Trump is using them as he did in 2016: to energize his base.
Much research has shown that many people find their sense of well-being and self-esteem rises when they feel anger or hatred of others. What the Wall Street Journal recently described as “the pleasure of hating” can bring people together to act against a common enemy whether that enemy is real or imagined. In his life before politics, Trump conjured up pop culture enemies like Rosie O’Donnell so he could engage in public fights against someone he hated. In his political incarnation, where the consequences are real and serious, he has used the same process but infused it with conspiracy theories about “Deep State” opponents
Trump either knows, or intuits, the power of this game. The more anger people feel, the less they are inclined toward moderation and compromise. The enraged are also likely to feel more motivated to vote against the object of their hate. Add Trump’s ability to demonstrate feelings of hatred and revulsion — take a peek at his rallies — and it’s as if he is broadcasting an official sanction for everyone to shed the restraints of decency and give free rein to their impulsive hatreds.
Is the president’s rage sincere? His affection for theatrics and performance argue that it’s all game. We all know that the president loves to use showbiz devices to capture attention. The question of whether he would or would not wear a medical mask to visit a Ford factory created a classic cliffhanger attraction. His frequent press conference meltdowns perform the same service, keeping us all tuning in. These and other factors suggest it’s all an act.
On the other hand, as we watch the president stagger through the Covid-19 emergency, golfing as The New York Times prepared to publish a roster of the dead, we should consider that the cruelty, the arrogance, the rage and deviance are not an act. When I see him now on television, I recognize the same pattern I saw when I interviewed him half a dozen times years ago. He is only truly animated, truly himself, when expressing disdain for others or love for himself. Hatred and conceit are his comfort zones, and he returns to them whenever he’s under pressure.
Trump’s sincere belief that anyone whose views differ from his must be an enemy explains why he recently attacked the science that showed the drug he touted and said he took — hydroxychloroquine — is ineffective and harmful. He characterized one study as an “enemy statement” and another as a “political hit job.”In this way he converted facts based on studies of a terrifying problem into an attack on him from people who hate him personally.
No president capable of caring for the country, and who possessed a full range of human emotions, would so consistently and automatically revert to the kind of crude and self-serving behavior Trump shows if it were an act. Likewise, a president who urges people to fill places of worship, as Trump urged on Friday when he called for them to defy public health cautions against such gatherings, is not acting in a rational, thoughtful way. He is, instead, reverting to his genuine type.
At his most genuine, our president is the man who throughout his life used enormous family wealth and the power that came with it to get away with breaking all sorts of rules (for proof, see his business bankruptcies, sex scandals, Trump University and Trump Foundation scams, among others). Now, as president, he will break all the rules for responding to a national emergency and, even as the bodies pile up, encourage his loyalists to do the same. Instead of rallying the country to the shared sacrifice and effort that would save lives and honor our grief, he would have us risk our lives and those of our fellow Americans, to prove our supposed enemies — the scientists and doctors and responsible public officials — are wrong.
The latest of Trump’s efforts to deviate and divide will prove why those who aren’t super rich or super powerful are safer following norms. Along one path waits more suffering and death for those who cannot protect themselves with wealth and power. The other leads to life-saving safety and the reward of overcoming something awful together. The president, true to himself, has made his choice, which he believes will result in his re-election. It seems he thinks it’s worth it, no matter the price the rest of us may pay.