This morning, President Trump wrote a pair of tweets belittling two of his antagonists, Mitt Romney and Michael Avenatti. The thread of “humor” running through both jokes was Trump’s mock-hope that neither would contract the coronavirus, teasing the notion that they might get sick and die, and prompting his followers to enjoy the morbid thought along with him, while maintaining plausible deniability. (“Romney’s in isolation? Gee, that’s too bad,” Trump sneered earlier this week.)
This level of indecency is hardly new for Trump. But that fact is itself revealing. Not only has the coronavirus failed to somehow elevate Trump to a higher plane of conduct, he is making clear that he regards it as nothing more than the latest extension of political conflict. Trump wants to win, and his enemies to lose. Succumbing to a deadly pandemic is just another form of losing.
Trump is the first American president to dispense even with the pretense of representing the entire nation on an equal basis. He openly shares his preference for the parts of the country that voted for him. (“I love rural America. All that red. Rural. I love rural America.”) And he routinely spits contempt for parts of the country that voted against him. Trump is the only president — perhaps the only world leader — who dismisses parts of his own country as disgusting hellholes.
When asked last summer about Vladimir Putin’s attack on “Western-style liberalism,” Trump misinterpreted the term to mean the West Coast, and launched a riff about how Putin had a point. (“He says what’s going on. I guess you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco, and a couple other cities which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people, I don’t know what they’re thinking, but he does see things that are happening in the United States that would probably preclude him from saying how wonderful it is.”)
Trump describes California as a Democratic vote sink, which supposedly allowed several million illegal votes in 2016. (Why Democrats focused their illegal vote-harvesting operation there, rather than in states that had some prospect of helping flip the Electoral College, he has never explained.) The president “has attended meetings, asked detailed questions at briefings, and pressed aides to find ways to use policies to go after” California, three sources told the New York Times. The fruits of this campaign have included targeting state pollution standards and citing an environmental violation against San Francisco for its homelessness problem.
Trump has taken even more hostile action against New York. Last month, he canceled an $8 billion federal health-care grant for the state, and punitively suspended the federal global-entry trusted-traveler program for its residents. Trump has explained that he despises the city and state, and that he despises them more because its officials are investigating his finances. “So sad to see that New York City and State are falling apart,” he tweeted, “All they want to do is investigate to make me hate them even more than I should.” More than I should is an especially vivid phrase, revealing that Trump would still hate New York even absent any investigation.
This vindictive pose is only possible because Trump has fully internalized the logic of the Electoral College, which, through its winner-take-all bloc system, renders Trump’s margin in deep-blue states irrelevant. Nearly 4.5 million Californians and almost 3 million New Yorkers voted for Trump in 2016, but that number could collapse to zero without hurting Trump’s electoral prospects. Treating half of America like hostile, conquered territory has surprisingly little political downside for Trump.
The effects of this attitude have been of minor practical consequence until the coronavirus. Now, as states desperately scramble for protective gear and life-saving equipment, Trump is signaling to governors that their level of federal cooperation will depend on them providing the level of flattery he expects. “If you’re good and respectful to [Trump], he will treat you the same — it’s that simple,” a senior White House official tells the Daily Beast. “The president has always said that he fights back when he needs to, and the situation with [Cuomo] is no different.” If that threat sound suspicious or hyperbolic, it hardly differs from what Trump said publicly the other day: “It’s a two-way street. [Governors] have to treat us well too.”
To be perfectly clear about it, Trump is not deliberately creating a shortage. Hospitals and state governments have too little equipment because the Trump administration delayed for far too long before finally mobilizing for a pandemic that would overload the medical system. Incompetence, not malevolence, is the explanation for the overall shortage. The concern is, given the zero-sum context, will the Trump administration treat states that the president views as hostile on the same terms as states he views as friendly?
There is already evidence that he has not. Last month, when the coronavirus first popped up, Trump reportedly promised Alabama Republicans he would not move coronavirus-infected cruise-ship passengers to a military facility in their state. Instead, he shipped them to, yes, California. He has yet to release disaster assistance to New York, California, or Washington.
At the moment, New York faces the most dire shortage of equipment, especially ventilators. The federal government has released some of the machines to New York, but not nearly enough to meet the need in a state whose residents will soon likely be dying for lack of medical equipment. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has begged Trump to front-load the federal government’s ventilator supply to his state, so the immediate emergency can be met, promising to share the machines with other states whose outbreaks may be a few weeks behind.
Is there any reason to believe that Trump has considered this request outside the context of his mental electoral map? Would he have truly done nothing more than he has for New York if the same emergency were now taking place in Florida, or Ohio? Even to state the accusation is to accuse the president of a crime so ghastly it is hard to fathom. Yet everything we have seen from Trump suggests the worst is indeed true.