Like his mentor, Roy Cohn, Donald Trump is finally being defeated by a plague. The tricks Trump learned from Cohn that have brought him this far — deny, deflect, delay, defame — don’t work anymore. Trump’s favorite tactics — bullying, bribery, non-disclosure agreements, and getting protection from lawyers (Michael Cohen, Bill Barr), politicians (Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy), and media (FOX News) — don’t work anymore. These worked, imperfectly but effectively, through the Mueller investigation and the impeachment, but COVID-19 cannot be spun, minimized, both sides-ed, or pretended out of existence.
Trump is still trying, though, because he does not know any other way to deal with challenges. As I wrote less than a month after he took office:
The sole and only thing Donald Trump knows how to do is what economists call “externalizing.” That means making others pay for your choices or behavior. He uses this technique in business and in responding to criticism…Insult is not argument. But Trump never explains why his view is different; he just disparages critics and accuses the other side of bad motives,…Trump’s response to any criticism or complaint is the same as the Wizard of Oz’s: “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Or, in the words of Shaggy, that famous exemplar of avoiding personal responsibility regardless of the facts, “It wasn’t me.”
Donald Trump does not have ideas. He does not have a doctrine. He has no theories, policies, no understanding of history, and no concept of the future. All he has are impulses, grudges, panics, meltdowns, and — his greatest strength and his greatest weakness — an almost-feral ability to focus on whatever will get him what he wants in this exact moment. Not a minute from now, not a minute ago. The past and future have no meaning. Neither do expertise or experience. What he said or did or will say or do or tweet never matter to him a minute later; he does not remember or care. He lives in the consequenceless world of the everlasting now, where any worry or slight can be tweeted at and then forgotten. Unfortunately, the rest of us plan to be around for the future.
As Donald Trump’s predecessor in the White House, Abraham Lincoln, is credited with saying, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” The American people can get lost in the mind-numbing details of whistleblowers and Ukranians, but when our families are at risk all that we get from the President is denial, disinformation, and Shaggy-style “I’m not responsible at all,” while orchestrating a massive bailout to corporations. No one needs to understand “quid pro quo” or remember the difference between Nazar Kholodnytsky and Igor Fruman to see that Trump has no idea what he is doing and no capacity to learn from experts.
While he should be using executive powers to convert manufacturing facilities to make essential medical equipment like ventilators and to make testing, treatment and vital support available, he edits his talking points to try to get “Chinese virus” to catch on as the new terminology. While racism and xenophobia have been effective tools for Trump in the past, as Regina George might put it, “Stop trying to make Chinese virus happen. It’s not going to happen.”
What is going to happen is that many people will get sick. Too many will die. Businesses will fail. Profiteers and purveyors of useless nostrums will make money. And Trump, if he remains in office until Election Day, will be defeated. I’d say odds are better than even that he will not because his other preferred tactic is quitting.
We will get through this, but some things are changed forever. Some of those changes are good. We are learning that “viral” does not only apply to trendy social media. We are spending more time with our families. Like all crises, this one has prompted acts of immeasurable grace, courage, and compassion that inspire us all, from the doctors, nurses, and aides who are risking their own lives to help others to the employers and landlords who are doing their best to keep people from losing their income and their homes. We are examining our priorities, individually and as a country. We are recognizing that what affects the most vulnerable of us affects us all, and I hope that means we will make a commitment to universal health care. Understanding that one person who does not have sick leave or insurance can infect dozens, even hundreds of others will help us prepare for COVID-21 or 22 or 30. And we will never again elect a President who thinks that calling something Chinese will make us think he is not responsible for how we respond to it.