WASHINGTON — After his COVID-19 diagnosis, President Donald Trump enjoyed about 10 minutes of appropriate, bipartisan sympathy before his subterfuge, selfishness and strangeness kicked in to sweep it all aside. The details of his illness were quickly placed under the protection of a bodyguard of incompetent, conflicting liars. Trump’s actual bodyguards — the Secret Service — were subjected to heightened risk in the course of a mobile publicity stunt. And instead of accepting well-wishes like a normal convalescent, Trump wove a narrative of personal heroism. He “had no choice” but to subject himself to the risk of infection. “This is the most powerful country in the world,” he explained. “I can’t be locked up in a room upstairs, totally safe.”
There was, of course, an unmentioned alternative: conducting presidential business while practicing basic pandemic precautions, instead of dismissing and mocking them. But admitting this would involve the kind of critical self-reflection that Trump avoids like the plague. Actually, more than the plague.
In spite of all this, let’s stick with sympathy for a moment. Enjoying someone else’s sickness is a sickness itself. While some behaviors invite illness, no human being deserves to be ill. Such judgmentalism could be turned easily against most of us in an hour of need.
This is a difficult time for the president — a time combining the plagues of Egypt and the trials of Job. In less than two weeks, Trump has seen his embarrassing tax records leaked and plastered on every front page. His performance in the first presidential debate was almost universally panned. He was infected by a virus that he fervently hoped to wish away. And these problems have intersected and culminated on the eve of the election that will determine whether Trump is a force of history or a one-term footnote.
Does Trump deserve his tribulations? That is more a theological than a political question. What we can say is that these challenges did not arrive randomly. They were created or deepened by failures of presidential character. And noting this is necessary for an informed electorate.
The tax records were damaging to Trump because they revealed that his whole public identity is based on a carefully cultivated deception. He is not the successful, no-nonsense billionaire he played on NBC. He is, instead, a highly indebted, failing businessman who uses the presidency to steer business and attention toward properties in need of a cash infusion. When Trump ran for president, he concealed his financial records in order to maintain his myth. When the myth became president, he proved to be one of the worst managers in presidential history. Trump’s successful deception — a failure of character — has been damaging to the country.
The presidential debate hurt Trump because it revealed his volatility and ruthlessness. Every viewer saw the reality: Trump unfiltered is Trump unhinged. He obviously found it difficult to modulate his aggression, which seems more like compulsion. When Trump decorates our public life with vengeance and cruelty, it is not the reflection of a strategy; it appears to be the result of powerful, uncontrolled impulses. Trump’s advocates may regard this as a sign of strength, but strong people are not servants to their urges. This weakness of presidential character is destroying the possibility of reasoned discourse at the highest levels of our politics.
The pandemic is damaging to Trump because it has revealed his irresponsibility. He has been reckless with his own life and the lives of others. His approach to some public health matters has been determined not by deference to experts but by toxic masculinity, including a belief that masks are for sissies. His medical advice on Monday — “Don’t be afraid of Covid” — will almost certainly leave some of his fellow citizens sick or dead. Trump embraced the early reopening of states with populist zeal but without any root in the science of pandemics. And the current burden of disease is generating shocking casualties among the vulnerable and elderly that the president seems to find acceptable, or at least unavoidable. Now it has come to him.
We should hope that the president and first lady recover swiftly and completely. We should also hope that the experience of this disease awakens the president’s sleeping empathy and stirs some executive leadership in the place of denial.
There is a Shakespearean quality to Trump’s travails. It is not primarily external, unpredictable events that have left him so exposed. It is his own character flaws — his deceptiveness, his ruthlessness, his irresponsibility — that are determining his political fate. Trump has spent a lifetime successfully fleeing accountability. At some point, you can’t outrun yourself.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.
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