Trump’s Illness and Ours
Last Friday Donald Trump appeared on television to announce that he had contracted the coronavirus and was going to hospital. ‘I want to thank everybody for the tremendous support,’ Trump said. ‘I think I’m doing very well, but we’re going to make sure that things work out.’ To my recollection, this is the only time during his four-year presidency that he has spoken to the entire nation, as opposed to his ‘base’. It is also the only time that he has tried to unite the nation instead of dividing it.
For those who believe that an awareness of one’s mortality is morally uplifting, the days since have proved disappointing. Trump and his team of doctors soon reverted to form. The date on which he first tested positive kept hazy, raising the question of whether Trump knowingly exposed donors and supporters to the virus. Reports from Sean Conley, the president’s personal physician, obviously orchestrated by Trump, painted a rosy picture of his prognosis, while revealing that he had received supplemental oxygen on two occasions, and was being treated with a variety of drugs: the antiviral remdesivir, an experimental ‘antibody cocktail’ made by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and the steroid dexamethasone. Most doctors commented that these treatments, especially the steroid, suggested a very severe case of Covid-19, but no one outside the inner circle knows the truth.
On Sunday, Trump had the Secret Service take him for a spin around Walter Reed hospital, endangering his aides if not himself. Meanwhile, Conley was forced to make an awkward apology for his lack of clarity: ‘I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction and in doing so it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn't necessarily true.’ He was ‘trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, his course of illness has had’.
The episode dramatically reveals what may be the key to Trump’s character. He is a gambler, a risk-taker of a sort familiar to a frontier society. When the virus hit, he pooh-poohed it, promising a quick turnaround. Above all, he refused to wear a mask, even shouting at White House employees who wore them: ‘Get that damned thing off!’ Behind in the polls, he tried to recast the presidential election as a choice between a daring, energetic, manly leader who did not let a few viruses scare him, and a doddering, older, cringing Joe Biden, who held few if any rallies, hid out in his basement and invariably wore a mask. ‘I don’t wear masks like him,’ Trump said during last Tuesday’s debate, gesturing at Biden. ‘Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking two hundred feet away from it, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve seen.’ Since testing positive, Trump has doubled down on his bravado. ‘Don’t be afraid of Covid,’ he tweeted as he left hospital yesterday evening.
Trump’s followers admire this sort of behaviour, wishing only that they could be more like him. They idealise Trump’s daring and masculinity, as they see it, just as once before – in childhood – they idealised themselves. Given the narcissistic infusion that Trump provides to his supporters, his faults count for little. As long as he possesses his supporters’ typical qualities in what Freud called a ‘clearly marked and pure form’ that gives the impression ‘of greater force and of more freedom of libido’, they follow him gladly.
What of Trump’s opponents, the Democrats, liberals and progressives? Coverage in the New York Times, on CNN, MSNBC and other venerable liberal outlets boils down to shaming Trump. ‘We told you so,’ they have repeatedly (and understandably) said. ‘This was inevitable, and even deserved.’ Shaming is a major and necessary form of social control in any public health emergency. We shame people who cough without covering their mouths or who do not wear masks or do not wear condoms – and we should. But there is more going on because shaming in particular, and the moralisation of politics in general, has characterised the huge shift toward identity politics and progressive neoliberalism in recent years, and has played a major role in provoking the Trumpian backlash.
Above all, Democratic Party moralism and Trumpian macho risk-taking are internally related to one another. Gambling, with all its macho undertones, has a special if covert appeal to the evangelical or Puritan mind. It allows individuals to throw off the slow, painful and laborious burden of subordinating their wishes to the superego with one manic play of the dice. Running around without a mask in the face of a pandemic could serve as a huge relief from the endless self-examination of the hypertrophied Protestant conscience. Finally, it’s out of our hands; everything will be decided by ‘fate’.
This unspoken connection between a guilt-ridden, identity-driven mass culture and a risk-taking, macho opposition to it can tell us a lot about American politics. During the New Deal era, a fractious citizenry was held together by the understanding that capitalist greed was a common enemy. To be sure, Blacks and women were not full equals in the New Deal coalition, but they were more prominent than is sometimes realised today. In any event, the decline and marginalisation of the socialist left since the 1970s opened the path for the widespread moralisation and psychologisation that marks our politics today.
A series of catastrophic events – including 9/11, the economic crisis of 2008 and the deeply disappointing character of the Obama presidency – led to the disastrous Trump presidency. The latest catastrophe, the Covid-19 pandemic, has revealed the deep untruth underlying Adam Smith’s claim that ‘individuals, without desiring or knowing it, and while pursuing each his own interest, are working for the direct realisation of the general interest.’ The truth is that individuals pursuing their own interests produce group identities that have no sense of the general interest, but are rather marked by feelings of oppression, resentment or both. Only social trust and collective action, involving not only democratic co-ordination but genuine leadership, have a chance of returning us to a sense of the collective interest. In the US, a great anti-Trump coalition has formed but to what end after 3 November remains unclear.