interesting times

America Is Trapped in Trump’s Blind Spot

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s a thought experiment, I know, but bear with me: Imagine a situation where a president has been elected on a platform of nationalism laced with xenophobia and is supported by a base of cultish authoritarianism. He’s helped accelerate a profound shift in which the American right has the solid backing of more ordinary people than ever, and the opposition party remains captured by an elite that refuses to shift toward the center on cultural issues. Imagine that with a national election looming, this president is told about a dangerous and infectious virus that has most likely emerged from the wet markets of China, probably from people eating pangolins or bats. And all his populist instincts kick in. This is the big one — the event that will finally legitimize and entrench his agenda of tighter borders, domestic manufacturing, and hawkishness on China.

So he announces a travel ban to and from China for Chinese citizens, to protect Americans, invoking a new menace from the Far East. It’s a reminder to the country that national borders matter, and that Trump isn’t afraid to enforce them, even when they might inconvenience global businessmen. And right on cue, his future opponent in the November election, on the day the ban is announced, declares: “This is no time for [the president]’s record of hysteria and xenophobia — hysterical xenophobia — and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science.” The president fights back, insisting that it’s his duty to protect Americans from foreign threats, that the infectiousness and gravity of the new virus are real and not a function of hysteria, and that the opposition party is, as usual, being politically correct when lives are at stake. But never mind. He alone can fix it!

This was the position Donald Trump was in at the very end of January. In retrospect, it was a commanding one, given what was to come. His most fervent supporters saw the political opportunity — and also the genuine viral threat. Tucker Carlson, to his great credit, focused on it on his nightly show; Steve Bannon saw instantly what the salience of this virus was. He told T.A. Frank, “I think the people who understood the Party of Davos cynicism, and about Chinese factories and all that, were early to understand that this was going to be a massive issue.” Bannon too devoted his podcast to the viral peril, beginning in late January. Another early Trumpie, Mike Cernovich, also told Frank: “If you were an early Trump adopter, then this China coronavirus is a vindication of everything you’ve said. Like, hey, supply chains are a problem. Let’s bring back massive manufacturing. Everything we’ve been screaming about, warning about, for five years is right there.”

The ban was, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, based on “the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials here at HHS.” It was obviously not perfect, since it exempted U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who could transmit the virus as easily as any Chinese citizen, and since there were already a handful of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. And it was not a panacea: The most it did was slow the speed with which the virus was headed into the American heartland. But it was something — and more than other Western countries had managed to achieve. We had gained some precious time to prepare for the epidemic.

And then what? Nada. Actually, worse than nada. Trump immediately reversed himself on the threat, stomped all over his political advantage, and pooh-poohed any kind of news that might rattle the markets. You know the series of staggeringly inept, false, and delusional dismissals by now. February 10: “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” February 26: “Within a couple of days, it’s going to be down to close to zero.” February 29: “Everything is really under control.” March 10: “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” And then, of course, for maximal looniness, returning to his initial position, on March 17: “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” And then, less than a week later, he started again with the mangled metaphor that the cure could be worse than the problem.

It would be a fool’s errand to try to discern what political judgment or tactical decision led Trump to reverse himself three times (and counting). It was just how he felt on those days when he vented. The inconsistencies were resolved simply by denying them, or smearing reporters who brought them up. With Trump’s clinical narcissism, there is no rational road map to his decision-making. There is merely the impulsiveness of his feelings, what he sees at any moment on Fox News, or what some billionaire blowhard might tell him on the phone. My best bet is that Trump’s initial China travel ban was due to his love of all travel bans. They’re a way of exerting total power over others, and that’s the kind of action he feels most psychically at peace with. And it was the kind of governance Trump can actually accomplish: It required nothing but an executive order and a tweet. No work. No follow-through. Just power.

The rest is explained entirely by Trump’s reliably rock-solid instinct to preserve himself and his own perceived interests over any kind of rational assessment of the public good, or any measure of internal consistency or coherence.

So he suddenly panicked that an epidemic could hurt the stock market and slow the economy in an election year. It could obliterate his key reelection platform: that he brought the U.S. economy to near full employment. It could be his Katrina. So he reverted to his core psychological mechanism: He simply denied reality. His goal was to do what he always does: frame a narrative that looks good for him but which isn’t, you know, true, but that he could almost persuade a majority of his cult followers to swallow. He pulled all the levers — the Hannity and Limbaugh disinformation machine — but in the end, even they couldn’t hide the mounting numbers of the sick and the dead. He tried to sell the market on his inverted reality — and this time, the attempt to create reality didn’t quite work, as the market cratered. Epidemics are like that. They are reality at its edgiest. This one finally called the con man’s bluff.

Of course, there was another way available from the get-go. He could have immediately adopted a wartime presidential posture and announced an emergency response to the threat from China. From January on, he could have deployed the government’s ultimate power to get American manufacturers to produce ventilators, masks, and tests on demand, gotten the military to set up field hospitals, and announced — and even obeyed — a partisan cease-fire because of the severity of the crisis. And he could have added another layer to this by giving a speech on the danger of over-relying on China to produce basic goods, especially those essential for Americans’ health. Then a stark and clear and unwavering stance on social distancing, to buy time. If he needed a photo op, he could have donned a hazmat suit and visited patients, like his crush, Vladimir Putin, just did.

Yes, I know this is Captain Hindsight speaking. But a man like Steve Bannon understood what this crisis could do for a populist political movement. Trump didn’t. Because, as is now apparent, he was only interested in the movement in as much as it helped him gain fame and power — or jibed with his prejudices.

Trump’s failure to grasp the politics of coronavirus is, I’d argue, a microcosm of his entire administration. As with COVID-19, Trump had so many potential advantages at the beginning, after his surprise victory. Imagine if he’d started his presidency with a massive infrastructure spending bill, followed by an immigration compromise that would have funded his wall, beefed up enforcement, but also gave security to the Dreamers. Imagine if his tax bill had been geared to help working families, rather than the superrich, or that he promised to change Obamacare by expanding it. He would have had a chance to be a transformative president.

But to do that, he would have had to have been someone other than himself. He would have to have developed a long-term political strategy, thought structurally about the country first, and seen his base as a building block to reach out to others in building a durable coalition. But as so many of us pointed out, he was and is simply incapable of this. He’s a prisoner of his own psyche, there is nothing he can do to tame it, and he will allow no one to overrule it.

So he will improvise and reverse himself again before this is over; he will turn vital government information into performative propaganda; he will undermine his own appointees; he will use the epidemic to punish enemies and reward friends; and he will be focused at all times on himself. As tens of thousands of Americans will literally gasp for air, their lungs sustained only by ventilators, he will grasp at petty slights. As social distancing becomes ever more vital, this man will want Easter churches packed with congregants. And as he lies and distorts and emotes, the casualties will mount.

Given the crisis, we have only one option. We need to listen to the experts, rely on governors, trust in Drs. Fauci and Birx, and do our bit. But we also have a more urgent patriotic task: to ignore this president until we can eventually rid ourselves of him. This is too grave a crisis to give him the respect he doesn’t deserve.

Put on a Mask

A couple of plague peeves. I understand why the authorities initially decided it was not necessary for most of us to wear face masks, and even counterproductive, because of the scarcity of them for those who need them most: health-care workers. I also understand that most face masks are not 100 percent guaranteed to work, especially if they are not fitted snugly and properly against your skin (and, yes, beards make this difficult). The more advanced N95 masks also need sterilizing after each use to remain really effective. And there are still very few around. Just as salient: The priority should be getting masks to those with actual infections or symptoms — because masks are more effective in preventing your own infected droplets from getting into the air or surfaces, rather than in protecting the uninfected from the virus.

But still. The idea that masks are useless in protecting you from viral droplets in the air seems to me to be the kind of expert opinion that gives experts a bad name. Let’s say a mask cuts the odds of getting infected by 20 percent. Why isn’t that worth something? Here’s some data from microbiologist Adrien Burch:

“When a person coughs, the droplets are typically somewhere between 8,000–100,000 nanometers in diameter. Most of these droplets, especially the large ones, will quickly settle and end up on surfaces. The smaller droplets stay in the air longer — but are still large enough that a properly-fitted N95 mask could filter them out, since N95 masks are 99.5% effective against particles sized 750 nanometers or bigger.”

There are plenty of solid studies behind the usefulness of masks in protecting against viruses. And there’s no need to be super uptight about what kind of mask you wear: Cambridge scientists found that a virus a fifth of the size of the novel coronavirus was stopped by a variety of mask materials. A surgical mask could keep out 89 percent of the viral particles, but a T-shirt mask could keep out 70 percent as well. So why is there even a debate?

This is not an argument against regular and thorough handwashing, or against social distancing. It’s just an extra step to add to the precautions. And I can’t help but notice that the countries with the most successful attempts to flatten the curve are those in Asia, where some countries had a somewhat recent experience in taming an outbreak of a SARS coronavirus, and where mask-wearing has been near ubiquitous. In epidemics, even a small reduction in some infections can have an outsize effect on the entire population. I started wearing one — given to me by a friend — on March 3, when I had to get on a flight to London. Another friend also had a couple of N95s in their garage and sent them to me this week. I now wear them every time I venture into the lovely spring air. I’m not under any illusions that I’m totally safe — it’s just a reassurance that I’ve done what I can.

Am I being selfish? I hope not. I have chronic asthma and consider my somewhat neurotic attempts to avoid this virus a prudent way to spare any hospital a future ventilator I would almost certainly need to survive. And there’s another reason for wearing them outside as a matter of course: You show the world that you’re all-in on restraining the virus. And that helps encourage others to do the same. It’s a bit like those “I Voted” stickers you wear after doing your civic duty. It reinforces a social norm. Plagues, like wars, require some kind of solidarity over the long haul — and masks help visually express that. As for those who say that adjusting it from time to time makes you touch your face more, I’d simply say that’s not my experience. A mask actually stops me touching my face far more often than it encourages me to do so.

A second, related peeve: Can runners please keep their social distance? I live in a rather youthful neighborhood and the sidewalks are routinely packed with millennial joggers. They come at you like a runaway train at the best of times — I live near a CrossFit gym, where crowds of 20 or so regularly converge en masse round the block. These days, as they huff and puff and occasionally spit, they’re not just irritating, they’re menaces to public health. They do not keep six feet away. You’re lucky if they keep six inches away. They come up behind so fast you can’t dodge the viral bullets they may be spraying out their noses. They sure don’t wear masks. I understand the need to go running. It’s vital exercise for the cooped up. But stay the fuck away, okay?

Comforts Amid Catastrophe

My nature is catastrophist. It’s pretty rooted in my psyche, and I can’t do much except be aware of it and the distortions it can create. I tend to see a situation and project a linear increase in whatever it’s signaling. So, yes, I panicked after 9/11 and went overboard in responding. I famously lost it when Obama screwed up his first debate against Romney. I may have worried too much about Trump’s instinctual authoritarianism and contempt for liberal democracy, without noticing better his utter incompetence and minuscule attention span. But when catastrophe actually does hit, I tend to be pretty much okay. My Irish flair for drama gets blocked by my English pragmatism. I put one foot in front of the other. I keep relatively calm and carry on. Once I’ve done my Cassandra act, and everyone else has noticed, I’m happy to chill.

And then I look for silver linings. Dogs make everything better, and so it’s truly wonderful to see that adoptions and rescues have suddenly soared. Epidemics can carry with them layers of loneliness; this one has literally forced us physically apart, even our spouses and children can infect us. But dogs? Their company is a balm. Alone at home, they give me structure — two meals a day, at least two walks — and then warmth. My oldest dog, Eddy, seemed near death a couple of months ago, but she has somehow rallied and, crammed with pain meds, met the occasion; my youngest, Bowie, a small, three-legged beagle, greets me every morning the minute I unclasp the CPAP mask from my head, crawling from under the covers to give my bald pate a thorough, affectionate licking. They don’t drive you up the wall when you’re quarantined with them. And they know nothing of this hellscape. For them, it’s just another spring day, and the simplicity of their needs and enthusiasm gives you a perspective only the animal world can.

I also have to say how lovely it has been to have been spared the constant harping of the woke. For a blessed amount of time, they’ve become relatively silent. The virus has made our common humanity the central question, rather than our various identities. Viruses are not, it seems, social constructions, but biological realities, with qualities that are not a function of someone’s narrative, but of molecules. For a blessed period, the truth matters — not a narrative, not a construct, and not your truth or my truth, just biology and humanity in a dance repeated endlessly in human history between viruses and bodies.

And then there’s simply birdsong. As the roar of traffic evaporates, and the Earth heals a little from human assault, this is the sound you hear. Even in the center of a city, the chirping pierces through. I grew up surrounded by woodlands, awakened every morning in the spring and summer by the dawn chorus of rural England, and the sounds now floating in the urban landscape resonate deeply within me. This is their moment to shine and ours to withdraw. The world is theirs again. It always was.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: America Is Trapped in Trump’s Blind Spot