The Trump administration’s catastrophic response to the coronavirus, like many of the administration’s crimes and blunders, combined a broader Republican ideological failure with Donald Trump’s idiosyncratic pathologies. The broader ideological failure is the right’s paranoid rejection of science and empiricism, which has been building up for decades. The unique Trumpian contribution — one that almost no other Republican president would share — is an almost sociopathic indifference to the well-being of Americans who didn’t vote for him.
That latter element is the subtext of a remarkable passage in the Washington Post. “In the past couple of weeks, senior advisers began presenting Trump with maps and data showing spikes in coronavirus cases among ‘our people’ in Republican states, a senior administration official” says, “They also shared projections predicting that virus surges could soon hit politically important states in the Midwest — including Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.”
The Post casually notes that “new approach” — that is, framing the electoral map implications of a mass casualty event — “seemed to resonate.”
We should be cautious about reading too much into a single, anonymously sourced anecdote. But Trump’s inability to separate his campaign strategy from his duty as president has been sitting in plain sight throughout his tenure. He broadcasts his favoritism for constituencies that supported him in the election, promising to protect farmers, miners, veterans, and frequently emphasizes his love and appreciation for states that voted for him.
Trump’s mishandling of Hurricane Maria has proven to be a revealing antecedent to the current crisis. The administration’s lethargic response to a catastrophic disaster in Puerto Rico — which lacks representation either in Congress or the Electoral College — was reflected in a barely concealed campaign of abuse. Trump publicly lambasted Puerto Rico for getting too much money, a stark contrast to the glee he expressed while gloating about the cost of his hurricane rescue efforts for Texas. (“I paid billions and billions of dollars to the state,” he told a rally in Dallas, “And they said, “Sir, thank you for being so generous on the hurricane.” They made a fortune. You made a fortune on the hurricane.”) A Politico investigation found “the Trump administration — and the president himself — responded far more aggressively to Texas than to Puerto Rico,” proving out the president’s boast.
In private, Trump reportedly asked if he could sell Puerto Rico to another country. An eerie foreshadowing of the present moment can be heard in Trump’s denial of the official death count in Puerto Rico two years ago:
After I left, it was 16 people that died. The 16 people was then lifted a couple of months later to 64 and that was the official number. And then all of a sudden, I read a report, many, many months later — a long time later — that they did a report that 3,000 people died. And I was like, “Wait a minute, you went from 16 people to 64. We did a great job, and then you went from 64 to 3,000. How did that happen?” And they couldn’t explain it. If you read that report, it’s not explainable.
This same rejection of data has defined his response to the coronavirus pandemic. But the underlying motivation contains political cynicism mixed in with the paranoia. Because Trump places no value on the lives of Puerto Ricans, he is especially inclined to disbelieve any evidence of their suffering.
Trump has seen the coronavirus all along as a projection of the political campaign. In private remarks to donors in March, he depicted lockdowns as a plot to hurt his poll numbers. (“They’re trying to scare everybody from meetings, cancel the meetings, close the schools — you know, destroy the country. And that’s ok, as long as we can win the election.”) As always, Trump’s dark accusations of the motives of his opponents are simply a projection of his own mentality.
In its early months, the coronavirus swept through coastal cities, especially New York and its surrounding areas, and seemed to spare the reddest areas on Trump’s beloved territory map. His denial that the pandemic would eventually spread was borne largely of ignorance and willful self-delusion. But it was also something even worse: an act of willful neglect, political malice — not just a mistake, but also a crime.