Social media has been split on how to respond to Trump’s illness. Some people want him to die; others pray he will make a full recovery so he can go on to be regularly assaulted in prison by ex-colleagues. There is, however, one thing we all agree on: The collision of a deadly pandemic with a reality-show host on steroids has shattered all that’s left of our definition of reality.
For lo, He fell sick and seemed dead and buried. But on the third day, He cast off his bedsheets and rose again. And, lo, the door of the temple hospital was rent in twain, and He ascended into Heaven. Then He descended onto the White House Lawn and saluted for what seemed like 40 days and 40 nights. And verily, the prophets in white did come forth and say, “He hath conquered Death, though there are some residual breathing difficulties that still need monitoring!”
In reality, Donald Trump is still probably contagious and currently breathing on Republicans to death — but the vision of him defeating the virus has already been cut and pasted into a narrative rendered official. Even the White House website has footage of Trump declaring it a miracle, so who are we to question the veracity of these events?
On day one, doctors came out to tell us not all the facts we needed to know but only those facts that suited a narrative of recovery. This is in the tradition of dictators and authoritarians who fall ill — a host of doctors are drafted by a frenzied politburo, but only those who can be trusted to assure the people the Supreme Leader will get better.
On day two, Trump choreographed the motorcade to nowhere, driving around the hospital and back so he could wave to his supporters. On one level, it was a Cadillac version of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. On another, it was a drive-by superspreading in which many of Trump’s unmasked supporters shouted they would die for him. Because they were so close and crowded, some of them probably will. If day one was The Death of Stalin, day two was more Chernobyl, where a poor lone driver was asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for the fatherland.
Finally, day three saw the emergence of the new Donald, more Donald-y than ever before and with a steely determination to live and breathe heavily in a world in which all that’s happened doesn’t matter. A Donald now in some astral plane, gliding effortlessly in a zone of perception where what he thinks and what is real are the same.
It’s as if, during those crucial three days when the president was hidden away from us in the hospital, he was wrestling with not only the virus but reality itself. His wager was that if he acted like he’d been cured, he would be. Or that, if still contagious, his contagion would only spread in a world he no longer inhabits, a pussy world where idiots and lowlife losers scramble for cover and double over in pain. He, however, would have transformed into a god-thing that no longer need worry about germs and protocol and infection and where the sheer power of the will razed old reality to the ground. The suitable cultural reference here would be Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen, who, like Trump, is a huge and peculiarly colored guy who thinks he’s unbeatable and is an incorrigible dick-swinger.
Like Doctor Manhattan, Trump claims to see all time at once. He justified his loop outside the hospital by saying that if he hadn’t done it, the media “would have [said] ‘Rude!’ ” So an absurd event was organized in response to a reaction set in the future and for which there was no way of proving whether it would have happened or not.
This is what he does. He posits an awful future and then terrifies us into accepting his prophecies as real to justify the actions he needs to take to avoid that future. Hence the armed militias getting ready to “supervise” voters and call out all the ballot-stuffing that hasn’t happened; the supporters called on to vote twice to cancel out the corrupt voters who voted once; the rounding up of destructive anarchists before they have a chance to commit anarchy; the mayhem that will happen from November 4 onward and that can only be stopped by halting time, and the election, on November 3.
Trump, his supporters, and his GOP enablers have long been constructing this two-world system of reality in which they get to dictate who inhabits the one that’s valid (theirs) and who is to be cast out into the one that sucks (everyone else’s). Only people in the valid world can vote or take office. Those in the other may vote, but their vote is not to be counted. In the valid one, empty chairs on the Supreme Court can be filled; in the one that sucks, they cannot. In the former, you believe in Trump and are a patriot. In the latter, you disagree and are considered a traitor.
All of Trump’s behavior has been devoted to building this kingdom on Earth. And we’ve all become familiar with how his alternative facts stack together to protect it. It started with the claim that his inauguration crowd was the biggest ever, an assertion that was annoyingly undermined by a threefold enemy — public testimony, photography, and arithmetic. The next three years were then devoted to chipping away at the credibility of those forces — demeaning anything anyone said under oath, denying anything caught on-camera, offering different numbers from those cited — so that a near majority of people have now come to accept everything he says. Some do it because they’ve always believed him, many yield out of sheer exhaustion.
Trump’s viral version of the truth has infected reality for so many of us it can seem there’s no point trying to resist. Trump has won, irrespective of the election result. If it’s declared for Biden, then the vote counters, the commentators, the media are all hoaxes. If the result is defended in court, the lawyers are fake. If it’s upheld, the judges are impostors. Won’t it then be easier to believe that the election never happened?
Look at him now, outside on the White House lawn, praising the miracle elixir that saved him. Life will be sweeter, he’s saying, if you believe in me. And so he beckons us to come join him, and when we do, we’ll have crossed over into the Promised Land where nothing will trouble us, where we no longer have enemies to deal with, where Trump after Trump can look after us.
*This article appears in the October 12, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!