The Luxury of Irresponsibility

President Donald Trump.
President Donald Trump. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Thursday, President Trump wondered aloud if blasting people’s insides with ultraviolet light and injecting their lungs with disinfectant might be a more effective way to slow the coronavirus than the measures currently in use. It was one of the more irresponsible things he’s said in a presidency defined by its irresponsibility. He was able to say this, without fear of how guileless Americans might act on his suggestion, because he recognizes that responsibility is only required of people who can’t afford to evade it, and he is not one of those people.

Here’s the quote:

So supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful, light — and I think you said that hasn’t been checked but you’re going to test it — and then I said suppose you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way. And I think you said you’re going to test that, too. Sounds interesting.

Then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. Is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside? Or almost a cleaning, ’cause you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it’d be interesting to check that. So you’re going to have to use medical doctors but it sounds interesting to me, so we’ll see but the whole concept of the light. The way it kills it in one minute, that’s pretty powerful.

Flooding one’s body with disinfectant and UV rays is an effective coronavirus remedy in much the same way that getting cancer and dying is — which, incidentally, is among the risks of doing what Trump suggested. Interpreted generously, the president was not saying that people should do this at home, but enough medical experts, elected officials, and manufacturers of household cleaning products seem to have heard about the Arizona man who died after self-administering a chemical touted by Trump as a cure to dissuade Americans from it anyway. Trump’s pandemic response team, meanwhile, was left to the unenviable task of pretending, or intending, to take his musings seriously and assent to follow-up research, knowing full well that they have better things to do. A familiar chorus of Trump stalwarts in conservative media set about recasting his suggestion as, alternately, essentially benign or willfully misinterpreted by liberals too blinded by their hatred of the president to recognize his epidemiological brilliance.

One of the more striking features of the American response to the coronavirus pandemic has been the inverse relationship between who’s expected to practice the most individual responsibility and who’s doing the most damage by exhibiting none. We each have a role to play in stemming COVID’s spread; personal decisions such as washing one’s hands, practicing social distancing, and using personal protective equipment, whenever possible, are three simple things that all but the most deprived Americans and “essential” workers can do to help. Yet more often, it’s the people least equipped to protect themselves who are most readily left to their own devices — poor people, prisoners — and when misfortune befalls them, either tacitly or explicitly blamed for its occurrence. This is how centuries of structural deprivation can besiege black and Latino Americans, including outsize exposure to toxins and pollutants and sparse access to healthy food and medical care, and still, once these same communities start to see COVID’s highest death rates and costliest economic fallout, the sober response given by the federal government points to their purported irresponsibility, namely alcohol, tobacco, and drug use: “We need you to understand — especially in communities of color, we need you to step up and help stop the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable,” said U.S. surgeon general Jerome Adams, who is black, at a press conference earlier this month.

The incongruity of Adams’s remarks has a few possible explanations. On the one hand, he did acknowledge that the “burden of social ills” fuels these disparities, though he wasn’t explicit about what he meant. On the other, Adams’s calls for black and brown people to “step up” implies that they were doing less than was standard to begin with, on top of being the only directed statement on the matter to come out of an administration whose conduct and rhetoric don’t just routinely blame nonwhite people for the struggles they face, but for white people’s problems as well. In Trump’s view, black people wallow in urban hellscapes kept in squalor by a mix of their own innate filth and the machinations of corrupt black leaders; Latino immigrants, shaped by the “shithole countries” in which they were spawned, represent a scourge of job theft, sexual predation, disease, and drug-related crime. Both are major contributors to the disaster that Trump has claimed the United States was without him leading it, the reason why it was no longer the great country it had been. Even if Adams has a more nuanced view of the matter, the administration whose orders he follows has had little of substance to contribute to fixing the issues of racial and class inequality that the pandemic has brought to the fore.

The reality, as practiced, looks more like old hat: a stated desire for more personal responsibility, invoked as an excuse to avoid fixing structural problems. This is a longstanding feature of American political life, and has always been racialized; black joblessness rates, use of public assistance, crime in black communities, the black-white education gap — all have been attributed, at one point or another, by conservatives and liberals and black and white Americans alike, to pathologies that are either genetically inborn or otherwise culturally unique to black people. Pointing to these supposed pathologies has been enough to turn swathes of Americans against investment in improving black lives. “Black-on-black crime” is the canard invoked most commonly to justify unchecked police brutality and staggering incarcerations rates; research has demonstrated that white opposition to welfare policies in recent years is driven in large part by their feeling that economic mobility is a racial zero-sum game, whereby improved prospects for nonwhites mean worse ones for them.

But responsibility evaporates at the top. “I do not take responsibility at all,” Trump said in March, at a press conference where he was asked about the United States’ lack of coronavirus testing capacity. This statement, dazzling in its clarity, could describe his own attitude toward governing, where nothing is his fault and he feels personally responsible for nobody’s well-being but his own, as well as that of his party, whose zeal for funneling billions of dollars into corporate coffers and the pockets of the rich define its tax policy and pandemic bailouts alike. The GOP, more than any other political entity, has been the most strident proponent of the need for more personal responsibility in the U.S. But when confronted by a president whose literal job is to be responsible and take responsibility, but who couldn’t be less interested in either, they have dutifully advanced his policy agenda, defended his lackluster pandemic response, and dismissed concerns about his unhinged and often dangerous behavior, which now includes rambling glowingly about the public health merits of injecting a human being with disinfectant, as partisan bias. (Trump has since said his remarks were a “prank” to goad the media.)

Trump will not stop, will not become responsible or take responsibility, because he has no incentive to, and Trump only responds to incentives, specifically those that enrich and empower him. Conversely, in recent decades, countless joules of political energy have been expended bemoaning supposed irresponsibility in communities wracked by institutional neglect. Conservatives, some liberals, and Republicans in particular have staked their moral cachet on demanding an answer to when, at long last, America’s losers and layabouts will finally take responsibility for the circumstances they’re responsible for. The coronavirus pandemic is a timely reminder of what they’ve been more consistently willing to settle for: one of their own, standing astride the suffering of millions, and proudly exclaiming, “Not I.”

The Luxury of Irresponsibility