On July 4, 1775, just his second day serving as commander-in-chief of the American revolutionary forces, George Washington issued strict orders to prevent the spread of infection among his soldiers: “No person is to be allowed to go to Fresh-water pond a fishing or any other occasion as there may be a danger of introducing the small pox into the army.” As he wrote later that month to the president of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, he was exercising “the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous Enemy.” On March 8, 2020, well over two months after the first case of Covid-19 had been confirmed in the United States, Dan Scavino, assistant to the president and director of social media at the White House, tweeted a mocked-up picture of his boss Donald Trump playing a violin. The caption read, “My next piece is called Nothing Can Stop What’s Coming.” Trump himself retweeted the image with the comment “Who knows what this means, but it sounds good to me!”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Donald Trump is no George Washington, but his descent from commander-in-chief to vector-in-chief is nonetheless dizzying. Trump’s narcissism, mendacity, bullying, and malignant incompetence were obvious before the coronavirus crisis, and they have been magnified rather than moderated in his surreal response to a catastrophe whose full gravity he failed to accept until March 31, when it had become horribly undeniable. The volatility of his behavior during the crucial weeks of February and March, when coherent action could have limited the subsequent loss of life—the veering between flippancy and rage, breezy denial and dark fear-mongering—may not seem to demand further explanation.
Even after he belatedly accepted the seriousness of the threat, the grotesque spectacle of his turning vital public information briefings into campaign rallies—with journalists serving as necessary objects of contempt and facts being indiscriminately jumbled with wild hunches and bitter invective—was, to his fans, a signal that nothing had really changed. Since the president had not altered his conduct, why should they? Since Trump simply carried on being Trump, his disastrous performance seems to require no further elucidation. It is his nature. Yet there is a mystery at its heart. For if there is one thing that Trump has presented as his unique selling point, it is “utmost Vigilance,” his endless insistence that, as he puts it, “our way of life is under threat.”
If the United States is to be run by a man who has perfected the paranoid style, the least its citizens might expect is a little of that paranoia when it is actually needed. But even on March 26, when the US had surpassed China and Italy to become the most afflicted country in the world, Trump continued to talk down the threat from the virus:
Many people have it. I just spoke to two people. They had it. They never went to a doctor. They never went to anything. They didn’t even report it…. The people that actually die, that percentage is much lower than I actually thought…. The mortality rate, in my opinion…it’s way, way down.
This whistling past the graveyard is all the more remarkable because, after all, Trump could reasonably claim to be a pioneer of coronavirus-era social etiquette. In keeping with his authoritarian posture, he might have said—for once with some credibility—“I alone knew what was coming. Now all my people must do as I have been doing for years.” His addiction to hand sanitizer is notorious. In his 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback, Trump called handshaking “one of the curses of American society” and declared himself “a clean hands freak.” In How to Get Rich (2004), he wrote, “As you may have heard, I don’t like germs. I’m still waging a personal crusade to replace the mandatory and unsanitary handshake with the Japanese custom of bowing.”
In his first press conference as president-elect in January 2017, Trump addressed salacious allegations that he had been filmed in Moscow with prostitutes performing “golden showers” by insisting that this could not have happened because “I’m also very much a germaphobe, by the way.” He stopped a filmed interview with George Stephanopoulos for ABC News in June 2019 when his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney coughed off camera: “Let’s do that over. He’s coughing in the middle of my answer. I don’t like that, you know.” He angrily admonished Mulvaney: “If you’re going to cough, please leave the room. You just can’t, you just can’t cough.” It is almost as if Trump invented the Covid-19 protocols: wash your hands often, don’t shake hands, and keep your distance from anyone with a cough.
This phobia has been a staple of commentary on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus disaster. But what demands explanation is the inverse relationship between these personal terrors and his frequent insouciance about the real public threat in the first months of the crisis. This is a president who gleefully parodied expert medical advice just to get a shot in at a would-be political rival, Mike Bloomberg: “Mini Mike, don’t lick your dirty fingers. Both unsanitary and dangerous to others and yourself!”
In a period when trust in government became vital, Trump would not let go of his obsession with the malevolent “deep state”—as far into the crisis as March 9, he tweeted, “There are still some very bad, sick people in our government – people who do not love our Country (In fact, they hate our Country!).” On the same day he retweeted a claim by the pro-Trump author Charlie Kirk that “Democrats and the mainstream media are trying to incite panic over the Coronavirus.” As late as March 25 he was insisting that “The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success. The real people want to get back to work ASAP.”
With this stream of disparaging commentary, Trump himself became a vector of the coronavirus. His followers got the message that the whole thing might well be a media and Democratic conspiracy, and therefore that they did not need to take the threat seriously. A Quinnipiac poll on March 9 showed the effect: while 68 percent of Democrats said they were concerned that they or someone they knew would be infected, only 35 percent of Republicans felt likewise. Belief in the seriousness of the threat is a prerequisite for self-protection (not to mention for reducing the spread of the virus)—Trump’s undermining of that belief is literally lethal to his own supporters.
We must bear in mind that Trump’s “real people,” the ones who make up his electoral base, are disproportionately prone to the chronic illnesses (the “underlying conditions”) that make Covid-19 more likely to prove fatal. A 2018 Massachusetts General Hospital study of more than three thousand counties in the US reported that
poor public health was significantly associated with the additional Republican presidential votes cast in 2016 over those from 2012. A substantial association was seen between poor health and a switch in political parties in the last [presidential] election.
For every marker of the prevalence of poor health (such as diabetes, obesity, days of illness, and mortality rates), there was a marked shift toward voting for Trump. Trump has acted in relation to Covid-19 like the God who tells the Jews to mark their homes with a sign so that the plague he is inflicting on Egypt will pass by their doors—with the malign twist that he has instead marked out his own chosen people for special harm.
Trump’s most remarkable (though little remarked) intervention was a retweet on March 22 of a March 18 column in the right-wing Washington Times by the Fox News contributor and former judge Andrew Napolitano. The article was a fundamental attack on the public safety measures being put in place to slow the spread of the virus. Napolitano describes state-level “decrees closing most retail establishments, particularly all restaurants, bars and theaters” as “totalitarian impulses” that “impaired the fundamental rights of tens of millions of persons”:
These nanny-state rules are unconstitutional, unlawful and unworthy of respect or compliance.
Why is this happening? Throughout history, free people have been willing to accept the devil’s bargain of trading liberty for safety when they are fearful. We supinely accept the shallow and hollow offers of government that somehow less liberty equals more safety….
Today, the fear of contagion gives government cover for its assaults on freedom and poses a question the government does not want to answer: If liberty can be taken away in times of crisis, then is it really liberty; or is it just a license, via a temporary government permission slip, subject to the whims of politicians in power?
By effectively endorsing these claims and inviting his fans to share them, Trump showed support for the belief not just that the restrictions on social gatherings could be defied, or even that they should be defied, but that they must be defied. If they are totalitarian and unconstitutional, there is a patriotic duty to flout them. “Live free or die” becomes “live free and dice with death.”
This signal from Trump is an important part of the answer to the question of why his personal germaphobia has not resulted in a coherent public policy for containing Covid-19. For to understand Trump’s incoherence, we have to take into account two contradictory impulses within the right-wing mindset: paranoia and risk. The right appeals to the fear of invasion, of subversion, of contamination. But it also valorizes risk. The contemporary Republican Party, through Trumpism, has managed to ride both of these horses at the same time.
The paranoia is for the little people: their “way of life” is under threat (from Muslims, Mexicans, liberals, socialists, political correctness, feminism, anti-gun movements, and so on) and Trump alone can save them. The great border wall symbolizes this promise of safety. The embrace of risk, on the other hand, is for the actual beneficiaries of casino capitalism, for whom safety (which is to say public regulation) is a bad thing. Trump has managed to hold these two notions of security and danger together. His problem with the virus is that it makes that double act impossible: the risk impulse is deadly for his voters, but the conservative intellectual establishment cannot give it up.
When he endorsed Napolitano’s tirade against the totalitarianism of closing restaurants, Trump was connecting (however thoughtlessly) to a central concept of postwar conservativism, the idea that freedom involves risk and that danger must therefore be accepted. Friedrich Hayek concluded his enormously influential hymn to laissez-faire capitalism, The Road to Serfdom (originally published in the United Kingdom in 1944 when the restrictions on freedom necessitated by World War II were still in place), with an insistence on this principle, encapsulated in a (much distorted and decontextualized) quote from Benjamin Franklin:
Some security is essential if freedom is to be preserved, because most men are willing to bear the risk which freedom inevitably involves only so long as that risk is not too great. But while this is a truth of which we must never lose sight, nothing is more fatal than the present fashion among intellectual leaders of extolling security at the expense of freedom. It is essential that we should re-learn frankly to face the fact that freedom can be had only at a price and that as individuals we must be prepared to make severe material sacrifices to preserve our liberty. If we want to retain this, we must regain the conviction on which the rule of liberty in the Anglo-Saxon countries has been based and which Benjamin Franklin expressed in a phrase applicable to us in our lives as individuals no less than as nations: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Viewed through this lens, the willingness of most people to trade the freedom to do whatever they want for “a little temporary safety” during the Covid-19 tempest is contemptible. It is, indeed, practically treasonous. Freedom—understood primarily as the freedom of the market economy—comes at the “price” of “severe material sacrifices.” For Trump’s Republican allies, this does not of course mean self-sacrifice. It means the sacrificing of others: the old, the poor, the chronically ill. And here a crucial word in Trump’s lexicon must be whispered: losers.
Trump has long characterized those who do not appreciate his genius as “haters and losers”: “Haters and losers say I wear a wig (I don’t), say I went bankrupt (I didn’t), say I’m worth $3.9 billion (much more). They know the truth!” runs a typical tweet from April 2014. In The Art of the Deal, Trump claims that “there are people—I categorize them as life’s losers—who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others.” But in Trumpworld, as in the right-wing ideology he embodies, life’s losers are not just hateful. They are a different species. Winners are one kind of human; losers a lesser breed. Trump—like so many of the superrich—believes that this division is inherited: “What my father really gave me,” he tweeted in June 2013, “is a good (great) brain, motivation and the benefit of his experience–unlike the haters and losers (lazy!).”
In How to Get Rich, Trump links his own germaphobia to the idea that some people are born losers. Winners are people who think positively—and positivity repels germs. “To me, germs are just another kind of negativity.” He then goes on to tell the story of an unnamed acquaintance who is driven home from the hospital in an ambulance after being treated for injuries sustained in a crash. The ambulance crashes and he has to be taken back to the hospital: “Maybe he’s just a really unlucky guy. Or maybe he’s a loser. I know that sounds harsh, but let’s face it—some people are losers.” The train of thought here is typically meandering, but the logic is clear enough. Losers are inevitably doomed by their own negativity, of which germs are a physical form. Infection happens to some people because they are natural losers.
In 2013 Trump suggested that there was an upside to the Great Recession caused by the banking crisis: “One good aspect of the Obama depression is that it will separate the winners from the losers. If you can make it now, you deserve it!” Apply this to Covid-19 and you get an instinctive belief that it too will separate the wheat from the human chaff. Great public crises are not collective experiences that bring citizens together. On the contrary, they reveal the true divisions in the world: between those who “deserve” to survive and thrive and those who do not. Faced with the threat of the coronavirus, this becomes an ideology of human sacrifice: Let the losers perish.
Trump’s business career, involving repeated bankruptcies in which the losers (his creditors) are mere roadkill on his own path to riches, exemplifies this view of risk as something borne, in the end, by those who are too dumb or too “negative” to avoid it. But his sexual career has also been fueled by a belief that people like him can take risks because they are special enough to avoid the consequences. It is well to remember that the Trump who is paranoid about germs has a kind of body double: a Trump who is less squeamish about the exchange of bodily fluids.
In May 1998 he discussed with the radio host Howard Stern the threat of sexually transmitted diseases to promiscuous heterosexual men. Trump implied that he did not use condoms, but gloried in the consequent risks: “They say that more people were killed by women in this act than killed in Vietnam, OK?” As he saw it, he showed reckless valor in bed, winning, he said, “the Congressional Medal of Honor, in actuality.”*
In this exchange, both Trump and Stern managed to avoid any mention of the real threat, the last great viral epidemic to sweep through the US—HIV/AIDS. Neither seemed even to imagine the possibility that they themselves might be carriers of disease who could infect the women they slept with. (In this misogynistic discourse, men are “killed by women,” not vice versa.) But what makes this dialogue worth revisiting in the light of Covid-19 is Trump’s valorization of biological risk. Superior men flaunt it. They award themselves imaginary medals for doing so. Why? Because they enjoy the invulnerability bestowed by nature and heredity on life’s winners. Condoms, like social distancing and restaurant closures, are restrictions on freedom that might keep others (women, gay men) alive—but to obey such restrictions would be to accept that one is on the same level as these losers. The embrace of risk is as much the badge of heterosexual alpha maleness as it is of American free market capitalism. (Trump’s imitator Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro told his people, “We’re going to tackle the virus but tackle it like fucking men.”)
Covid-19 presented Trump with a choice he would prefer not to make. Which Trump is he to be—the germaphobe or the bareback rider, the fastidious hand-washer or the all-male, all-American embodiment of freedom? Should he animate the paranoia that is his usual stock-in-trade and seize on this moment of genuine danger? Or should he appeal to the swaggering, risk-loving self-image of rugged male individualism so central to conservative ideology? Should he use his authority and influence to protect his own vulnerable voters by imposing speedy and drastic controls on movement and social life? Or should he appeal to the lumpen libertarianism of Fox News and the Republican donor base and tell those voters to live free and die? The profound confusion in Trump’s response resulted from his attempt to do both at the same time, simultaneously evoking fear and nonchalance.
Speaking from one side of his mouth, Trump has amplified alarmism. He fed conspiracy theories that the epidemic may in fact be much worse than it is. His language is classically paranoid: “The world is at war with a hidden enemy,” he tweeted on March 17. The pandemic is not merely analogous to war; this war is not a fair fight with a visible opponent. The enemy is secret, covert, clandestine. There are things about this virus—especially its origins in China—that “they” (the Chinese) are not telling us. On January 24 Trump thanked Chinese president Xi Jinping for his “transparency” on the virus. Yet two months later (ironically at a point when China probably was being more transparent) he decided that it suited his purposes better to raise fears of hidden horrors.
On March 22 Trump endorsed through his Twitter feed a suggestion by Fox News contributor Andy McCarthy: “Chinese communist regime still claims only a couple of hundred people died in Tiananmen Square massacre. Why would anyone take COVID19 figures it puts out at face value?” On March 21 Trump tweeted a series of messages and links defending the Republican senator Tom Cotton’s contention that the virus may have been created deliberately in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Four days earlier, an authoritative study by the Scripps Research Institute had ruled out the possibility that the virus could have been manufactured in a lab or engineered by humans: “We can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes.”
The theory Trump was promoting was known to be entirely false. Yet even though he is a typical authoritarian, he cannot dispense with the essence of political paranoia: “the authorities” are holding back dark truths about what is happening. He just shifts the conspiratorial focus away from himself and toward the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing’s deep state becomes a mirror image of Washington’s. The Wuhan Institute of Virology joins the grassy knoll and Area 51 as a portal into the dark universe of secret machinations.
But running parallel with this fear-mongering is the contradictory message from the other side of Trump’s mouth: move on, nothing to see here. While virtually every other world leader was at pains to present in press conferences and public addresses a visual image of social distancing, with aides carefully spread apart, Trump persisted in addressing the media with up to a dozen minions crowded around him. The message was clear—I don’t take this stuff seriously. On January 22 he dismissed worries about the spread of the virus from China: “We have it totally under control.” On March 9, when there were already 3,809 deaths recorded globally from the virus, Trump tweeted:
So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!
The obvious implication was that even if Covid-19 were as deadly in the US as the flu—which is to say, even if it caused up to 70,000 deaths—that would not be a reason to shut down the economy or stop life from going on as normal. But in any case, that was not going to happen. As Trump variously suggested, the coronavirus crisis would be effectively off the agenda by Easter (a date, April 12, chosen, he said, because “I just thought it was a beautiful time”), when he promised to reopen businesses, or by the summer, when the warm weather would kill off the virus, or it would just vanish one fine day. On February 27, at a White House meeting, he said, “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
Waiting for a miracle is no longer a tolerable strategy, even for the Republicans. If the president cannot define in any coherent way what the problem is, the rest of the government inevitably struggles to solve it. Two months of warning about what was coming were largely wasted. The federal government failed to provide adequate testing for medical personnel, personal protection equipment, ventilators, and emergency facilities. Social distancing measures were undermined by Trump’s refusal to give them his unqualified support.
As the consequences of his disastrously mixed messaging become clear and the US becomes the global epicenter of the pandemic, Trump’s ability to send contradictory signals on these two very different channels, paranoia and risk, has evaporated. He has to choose between them. There is little doubt that he will opt for paranoia—but far too late for it to do any good, by encouraging “the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous Enemy.” He will commit to it when it can do only harm, by stoking the fires of division at a time when recovery from this trauma will demand unity of purpose.
Trump’s wild zigzagging has destroyed, for his followers, the possibility of a single, coherent, rational narrative of the pandemic: it is a dark conspiracy and nothing much to be worried about; it demands wartime restrictions on freedom and such restrictions are totalitarian and un-American; we all have to act but we don’t need to do anything; you should wear a mask but I won’t. He has generated for those who believe in him the cognitive double bind that abusive parents generate for their children when they convey contradictory and irreconcilable messages about how to win their parents’ approval.
And we know what happens during plagues when people cannot find a rational response. They adopt an irrational one. They find a scapegoat—historically in Europe usually the Jews, but if there are no Jews at hand, any outsider will do. The one thing Trump still knows is how to press on this nerve. He has had a lot of practice. It is hard to overstate the centrality of the imagery of invasive infection and infestation to his political career. When Trump turns on journalists for asking him basic questions about the pandemic, for example, we must recall that a chapter in his book The Art of the Comeback is called “The Press and Other Germs.”
Trump’s career on TV gave him a feel for test-marketing. He test-marketed his signature policy of banning flights from Muslim countries not by raising fear about terrorism, but with paranoia about plague. Before he announced his presidential run, his big political cause (alongside his racist campaign on Barack Obama’s alleged foreign birth) promoted the fear that US troops and aid workers would bring back the Ebola virus from Africa. As he tweeted in September 2014, “Why are we sending thousands of ill-trained soldiers into Ebola infested areas of Africa! Bring the plague back to US? Obama is so stupid.”
Trump’s solution was the formula he would return to on the campaign trail: a blanket ban on visas for citizens of and flights from certain countries. August 2, 2014: “The US must immediately stop all flights from EBOLA infected countries or the plague will start and spread inside our ‘borders.’ Act fast!” September 30, 2014: “The United States must immediately institute strong travel restrictions or Ebola will be all over the United States–a plague like no other!” November 10, 2014: “A single Ebola carrier infects 2 others at a minimum. STOP THE FLIGHTS! NO VISAS FROM EBOLA STRICKEN COUNTRIES!” Substitute “Muslim” for “Ebola stricken” and you have one half of Trump’s electoral appeal in 2016.
The other half is, of course, the wall. Again, we must recall that Trump’s justification for the wall was not just about keeping killers and rapists at bay. It was about immigrants as carriers of disease, a common trope in nativist propaganda. (In 2015, for example, the Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle spoke on air of immigrants as “a tumor or a disease.”) But the strategy is one that Trump successfully reanimated in preparation for his presidential campaign. August 5, 2014: “Our government now imports illegal immigrants and deadly diseases. Our leaders are inept.” July 6, 2015: “Tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.”
Trump uses the words “infect” and “infest” as synonyms, allowing him to extend this imagery of the dirty, disease-bearing Other to African-American communities within the US itself. In July 2019 he lashed out at the black Democrat Elijah Cummings, whose House district covered much of Baltimore: “Cumming [sic] District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.” The invasive disease-bearing migrant has an ally in the infested and filthy sump of infection that is, in Trump’s rhetoric, already present on the margins of clean white society.
Trump returns to what has worked for him before. As the cost of his terrible failures of public duty and common decency becomes ever more starkly evident, he will revert in his reelection campaign to an explanation of the disaster, not as a consequence of his own incompetence and contempt but as a punishment inflicted on the United States for its failure to build his wall, keep out foreigners, and crush the enemy within. Like a medieval quack making a profit in times of plague, he will offer a stricken people an ever higher dose of a toxic cure.
—April 15, 2020