A procession of former Trump administration officials, speaking both on and off the record, have depicted the president as fundamentally unfit for office. Yesterday, the latest addition to their ranks, former Mike Pence aide Olivia Troye, put an especially fine point on the indictment. President Trump displayed “flat-out disregard for human life.”
Even by the hyperinflated standards of the Trump era, disregard for human life is an extraordinarily serious charge. The most basic trait any president must have, below even simple competence and honesty, is a desire to safeguard the well-being of the public. Almost anybody would agree that a president who simply does not care if Americans die is morally disqualified from office. But there is plenty of available evidence to support it.
We should be precise about what exactly it means to say Trump has disregard for human life. Every president takes actions that put lives at risk (most obviously by using military force.) Many policies unavoidably involve trade-offs with that risk. Management of a pandemic is also going to involve decisions that, in one form or another, will entail some kind of trade-off.
To say Trump has disregard for human life is not to say he is willing to make cold decisions for the sake of a greater good, though. Troye is saying the president literally does not care about American deaths except insofar as it affects his own political standing. “The truth is, he doesn’t actually care about anyone else other than himself,” she says.
Earlier this week, Trump blithely declared that “If you take the blue states out, we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at. We’re really at a very low level.” One might try to defend this comment as merely a callous-sounding way of blaming Democratic governors for deaths in those states. But Trump was actually confirming what reporters have found before, that he didn’t actually want to help the blue states. Katherine Eban reported two months ago that Trump opposed a national testing plan because it would increase case numbers, hurting the stock market and making Trump look bad. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” explained a member of Jared Kushner’s team.
Indeed, shortly after blaming blue state governors for excessive coronavirus deaths, Trump added, “And, by the way, we’d recommend they open up their states.” He is blaming them for being too lax even though he has consistently attacked them for being too strict. The only consistent thread between all these statements is indifference to the well-being of their citizens except insofar as it impacts his election prospects.
A newer report by Eban says that, last spring, Kushner refused to accept federal responsibility for ironing out the chaotic process by which states were bidding against each other for protective equipment for hospital staff. Instead Kushner blamed New York Governor Andrew Cumomo, saying, “His people are going to suffer and that’s their problem.”
If that remark sounds too cartoonishly villainous to be real, it certainly lines up with several of Trump’s public comments. He admitted to Bob Woodward that he played down the coronavirus, and his public comments made clear that his motive was preventing a stock market tumble and political blowback.
Earlier this week, Trump was asked if he was concerned about coronavirus spreading at his indoor rally in Las Vegas, which featured a packed crowd mostly not wearing masks. “I’m on a stage and it’s very far away,” Trump replied. “And so I’m not at all concerned.” The safety of the crowd seemed not even to enter into his mind as a consideration.
There’s a term for a person who views other humans purely as instruments for his own advancement, and is unable to conceive of the idea of caring about them independent of his own self-interest: “sociopath.” The United States has had some terrible presidents before, but probably never a sociopathic one. When his own aides warn the public that he does not care if the people he is tasked with helping live or die, we should take their warnings with the utmost seriousness.