When I first read “Vector-In-Chief,” Fintan O’Toole’s piece in last month’s New York Review of Books, I just filed it away for future reference, another in a long line of works that attempts to plumb the bottomless depths of what may casually be labeled Donald Trump’s “thought processes.” In the constantly shifting saga of the Covid-19 pandemic, what is written one week is often supplanted in the next by some new horror or outrage, and in this case the protests over George Floyd’s brutal murder took over, for a while at least, until recently when the sheer, unrelenting omnipresence of the pandemic rose once again to dominate the media narrative.
So I re-read it this week, in the wake of Trump’s self-immolation in Tulsa, because something in the noxious spew he’d spouted there reminded me of a brief segment of O’Toole’s piece, specifically Trump’s remark that he’d asked that Covid-19 testing be slowed down so as to give the appearance of fewer cases. Like most people I thought this statement was so beyond the pale that it had to be a joke, and in fact that was how his staff tried to spin it the day afterwards. But much in line with Masha Gessen’s admonition to “Believe the Autocrat—He means what he says,” it now appears that Trump was deadly serious on this point, as he has in fact confirmed multiple times since.
“I don’t kid,” he stated. And that’s absolutely true. Sociopaths like Trump don’t “kid” because they don’t possess or understand any “sense of humor.” Humor, particularly of the self-effacing variety requires a certain degree of humility—a willingness to relinquish control, however temporarily. Trump, who rarely smiles except in certain, learned circumstances and then only as if on cue, has never exhibited any signs that he comprehends humor, its purpose or uses.
Which brought me back to O’Toole’s essay, that on re-reading strikes one as absolutely and uncannily spot-on in every aspect. But the segment that stood out for me was this:
Trump has long characterized those who do not appreciate his genius as “haters and losers”: “Haters and losers say I wear a wig (I don’t), say I went bankrupt (I didn’t), say I’m worth $3.9 billion (much more). They know the truth!” runs a typical tweet from April 2014. In The Art of the Deal, Trump claims that “there are people—I categorize them as life’s losers—who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others.” But in Trumpworld, as in the right-wing ideology he embodies, life’s losers are not just hateful. They are a different species. Winners are one kind of human; losers a lesser breed. Trump—like so many of the superrich—believes that this division is inherited: “What my father really gave me,” he tweeted in June 2013, “is a good (great) brain, motivation and the benefit of his experience–unlike the haters and losers (lazy!).
Trump’s aversion to germs is well-known. O’Toole quotes directly from Trump’s books in which he expresses his revulsion to shaking hands, and notes his odd defense against allegations that he involved himself with Russian prostitutes who performed “golden showers” for him, (purportedly recorded by Russian intelligence agents) in which Trump flatly explained he could not have performed such sex acts due to his germophopia. He is caught scolding his acting Chief-of-Staff Mike Mulvaney for coughing in the background of one of Trump’s television interviews :“If you’re going to cough, please leave the room. You just can’t, you just can’t cough.”
But Trump’s peculiar aversion to germs has a deeper significance, because, according to O’Toole, it directly influences the way he perceives his world, a perception which, as described above, narrowly circumscribes all of his political enemies as “haters and losers.”
In How to Get Rich, Trump links his own germaphobia to the idea that some people are born losers. Winners are people who think positively—and positivity repels germs. “To me, germs are just another kind of negativity.” He then goes on to tell the story of an unnamed acquaintance who is driven home from the hospital in an ambulance after being treated for injuries sustained in a crash. The ambulance crashes and he has to be taken back to the hospital: “Maybe he’s just a really unlucky guy. Or maybe he’s a loser. I know that sounds harsh, but let’s face it—some people are losers.” The train of thought here is typically meandering, but the logic is clear enough. Losers are inevitably doomed by their own negativity, of which germs are a physical form. Infection happens to some people because they are natural losers.
So in the context of the pandemic, Trump is unable to separate the random chance of Covid-19 infection (and the deaths that stem from it) from his sense that it’s really only the “losers” who could possibly fall victim to the ravages of this virus.
Another example cited by O'Toole:
In 2013 Trump suggested that there was an upside to the Great Recession caused by the banking crisis: “One good aspect of the Obama depression is that it will separate the winners from the losers. If you can make it now, you deserve it!” Apply this to Covid-19 and you get an instinctive belief that it too will separate the wheat from the human chaff. Great public crises are not collective experiences that bring citizens together. On the contrary, they reveal the true divisions in the world: between those who “deserve” to survive and thrive and those who do not. Faced with the threat of the coronavirus, this becomes an ideology of human sacrifice: Let the losers perish.
Taken in this light, we can see a depressing pattern in Trump’s remarkably glaring inability to empathize with a single one of the 120,000 people officially recorded as dying from Covid-19 as of this date. We see his his complete lack of concern for the victims and his dismissive attitude suggesting that the only thing those death counts represent is a threat to his own political fortunes. In short, we are not merely dealing simply with a sociopathic lack of empathy here , but a twisted perception that essentially attributes “loser” status to those who have died from the virus. In the back of Trump’s mind, anyone who dies from Covid-19 does so because he or she are simply losers. And he, with his daily regimen of personal testing, isn't going to end up as one of them.
The correlative aspect of this, as O'Toole emphasizes, is the need for Trump to prove himself as "superior" to the virus, a sad pathology that trickles down into the behavior of those Republican governors who in the face of massive infection spikes in their states have continued to hew the party line as delivered by Trump. The mass psychosis of denial that we are witnessing in Republican-governed states is a direct consequence of Trump's "macho" attitude towards "winning" or "beating" the pandemic.
As O’Toole points out, this goes a long way towards his continual, pathological playing down of the threat, his infamous press conferences in which he surrounded himself with scientists but demanded center stage, all to demonstrate to his voting base that he, one of life's "winners," was firmly in control and that the worst pandemic to strike this country in over a century was nothing to take particularly seriously, unless you happened to be one of the losers who die from it.
It explains why he continues to hold rallies before (dwindling) unmasked crowds, in which he claims against all facts to the contrary that his administration has "perfectly" handled the pandemic, that reports to the contrary are "fake news," and that yes, maybe it would be a good idea to conduct fewer tests. For Trump this is not the willing embrace of insanity that it appears to everyone else, it's simply an affirmation of what he already believes, and what he needs his followers to believe. In Trump's mind, for Americans to succumb to the virus is to admit that they are losers, contemptible, unworthy, and, ultimately, unfit to live.