Last month, appearing at a rally in Minnesota, President Trump praised the superior genetic stock of his supporters in the state. “You have good genes, you know that, right?” Trump observed. “You have good genes. A lot of it’s about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.”
The comment received some attention as fresh evidence of a decades-long streak of racism, which it certainly is. (There is obviously a reason the lineage of the heavily Nordic state drew his attention.) But Trump’s observations on genetics are not only an expression of racism. It is also one of his deepest obsessions and the explanation for the bizarre passivity that has characterized his response to the coronavirus pandemic from the outset and that has led him to his likely political, if not corporeal, demise.
The classic American millionaire myth, from Carnegie to Warren Buffett, has an origin story, employing at least elements of truth, built on hard work. The hero rose at dawn and sweated and strove on his rise to greatness. And yet, despite having spent decades carefully polishing his place in the lineage of aspirational wealth, Trump has few well-known stories of pounding the pavement or poring over real-estate listings. “It’s instincts, not marketing studies,” he wrote in The Art of the Deal, the original manifesto of his personality cult.
Instinct is something you are born with or not. In 1988, Oprah Winfrey asked Trump if “all of the people reading Art of the Deal hoping to find some answer that will satisfy their own desire for success” could take away inspiration and lessons. The American prosperity gospel has a hackneyed response to this question: Yes, with relentless effort and perhaps some luck, anybody can get rich in America. Even though he was peddling a book marketed to advance precisely such a fantasy, Trump could not bring himself to supply the familiar answer. “You have to be born lucky in the sense that you have to have the right genes,” he explained. “You have to have a certain gene.”
Trump brings up his belief in genes over and over. “I have a certain gene,” he told CNN in 2010. “I’m a gene believer. Hey, when you connect two racehorses, you usually end up with a fast horse. And I really was — you know, I had a — a good gene pool from the standpoint of that.” Addressing a rally in Mississippi in 2016, he instructed the crowd, “I have Ivy League education, smart guy, good genes. I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a believer in.” (In the annals of Mississippi politics, Trump’s highlighting his Ivy League pedigree was probably more novel than his emphasis on genetic purity.)
The president’s idea of a fixed genetic elite — and its necessary underclass counterpart — would seem to undercut any moral basis for his own privilege. (The best moral case for letting rich people keep their money is that they worked hard to earn it. So if Trump’s wealth is entirely the product of winning the genetic lottery, why not tax it away and redistribute the proceeds to his less fortunate inferiors?) It also stands in stark contrast to the American credo of progress.
What Hath God Wrought?, Daniel Walker Howe’s history of early-19th-century America, emphasizes a belief among the Founders, and especially the progressive Yankee faction, in improvement. This concept “constituted both an individual and a collective responsibility, involving both the cultivation of personal faculties and the development of national resources.” Just as people could and must develop their own talents through study and disciplined labor, they could enhance the potential of the country by building schoolhouses, canals, lighthouses, and universities.
It was a creed embraced by such disparate figures as John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. Their political rivals were southern planters who distrusted centralized government, which might threaten their immutable place atop the hierarchy. The planters defined success not as hard work but as liberation from hard work, the burden of which would fall on the people they had enslaved.
Trump has not necessarily absorbed antebellum southern thought. But he has internalized the idea of success as genetically coded and impervious to effort. The Trump success formula is 100 percent inspiration, zero percent perspiration. He has repeatedly cited his MIT-professor uncle as his own scientific credential. Trump said at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that he impressed his hosts with his innate grasp of public health: “I really get it … Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability,” he said, as if he were literally born understanding the workings of a virus that did not exist until 2019. NBC reported that Trump waved off the need to rigorously prepare for his debate on the grounds that debating “isn’t something you have to practice.” His biographer Michael D’Antonio once explained that Trump disdains exercise and gorges on burgers and junk food because “he really believes in genetic gifts. He wants to assume that he can do something that others can’t do simply because of who he is.”
That is not an ideal mentality for the person you’d want to be in charge of … well, anything. But especially not a pandemic that requires careful study and flexibility of mind to follow a quickly mutating scientific understanding and the perseverance to encourage and adhere to disciplined hygienic rituals. Everything to him is about who you are, not what you do. Trump did not need to learn about the pandemic because he is smart. He did not need to protect himself from it because he is strong.
Trump not only lacks the patience for a laborious public-health regimen; the entire concept of it runs against his genetic fatalism. The very possibility a disease could fell blond Übermensch Donald Trump almost surely never occurred to him. The president is neither a rationalist nor a religious believer. The closest proxy in his mind to a divine force is genes: invisible, all-powerful, mapping out our destinies. Were he capable of introspection, he might look upon his stricken body and dying presidency and question his false god.
*This article appears in the October 12, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!