Ross Douthat has a piece examining how much of the blame for America’s Covid-19 failure should be attributed to Trump. In my view Douthat (and other pundits who are trying to be even-handed) have missed the point. I see two related flaws in Douthat’s evaluation:
1. He implicitly mixes together discussion of the “Great Man” perspective of history with a specific evaluation of Trump. It’s not that Douthat fails to understand the distinction, but many readers will not.
2. He fails to pay enough attention to the transgressive nature of Trump’s behavior.
I frequently argue that presidents are typically responsible for only about 3% of national outcomes, although it varies somewhat from cases to case. Thus I’m skeptical of great man theories of history, while acknowledging some exceptions (such as Hitler.)
It’s true that much of America’s Covid-19 failure was due to non-Trumpian factors, including mistakes in the bureaucracy and at lower levels of government. So Douthat is correct. But if we buy into the theory that presidents have only a limited impact, then we must also evaluate them on the same basis. What has Trump done with his ability to impact 3% of America’s outcomes?
And this leads to the second point, the unprecedentedly transgressive nature of Trump. It’s not a question of Trump getting this or that policy wrong; he intentionally and openly says and does evil things, and then dares anyone to object. That’s perfectly normal for many leaders throughout world history, but it’s also something that America has never seen at the national level.
Trump didn’t just do a poor job reducing Covid-19. He openly and aggressively discouraged attempts to control it, as if he wanted more people to die. There are three plausible ways to reduce the pandemic; masks, tests and social distancing—and Trump fought against all three. Yes, the experts initially misjudged the mask situation, but even after they came around and encouraged mask wearing, Trump continued to mock those who wore masks. This led many of his supporters to oppose mask wearing, as Trump has a cult-like following.
Second, he openly discouraged testing, indicating that he did so because it would make the problem look worse (and by implication hurt him politically.) And third, he often discouraged social distancing.
This is actually part of a broader pattern. On literally dozens of occasions Trump says and does things that are simply unacceptable. Or at least used to be viewed as unacceptable before Trump. For instance, he mocks American soldiers who gave their lives defending the US in WWII. He mocked John McCain for being captured and tortured by the Vietnamese. Those things just aren’t done in America politics. At least not prior to 2016.
But the rules don’t apply to Trump, and he knows it. Trump once indicated that he could shoot someone in the middle of Times Square and his supporters would stick with him.
Trump encouraged the Chinese to put a million Muslims into concentration camps. You just don’t do stuff like that!!
He supported torture.
He praised US war criminals, and used them in his campaign.
He said we should have stolen Iraq’s oil.
He praised the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.
He praises vigilante killers that act in his name.
He tries to extort money from other countries.
He praises foreign leaders who are authoritarian thugs, while trashing our democratic allies.
He defends Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.
He violates the law with impunity.
He demands that law enforcement officials be personally loyal to him.
He insinuated that Joe Scarborough may have murdered a young woman.
He corruptly uses the presidency to enlarge his personal fortune.
He tells non-whites to go back to their country.
There are many similar examples of transgressive behavior, more and more each day. At this point, many of his supporters will say none of this matters, and maybe it doesn’t. After all, his administration has sanctions on Russia even though Trump himself would obviously prefer we did not. But this is where I go back to my 3% rule. The fact that Trump is not all that influential, or that life in a big country like America goes on pretty much the same regardless who is president, is not a defense of Trump, any more than it would be a defense of my plumber. Yes, the stock market may be booming (as it was under Obama), but I’m going to judge my plumber on whether my sink leaks, not the stock market. I’ll judge Trump on Trump’s “value added”.
It’s increasingly popular to call Trump a fascist, and there’s some truth in that description. But actual historical fascists had a policy agenda, whereas Trump’s only agenda seems to be Trump. He’s too lazy and uninformed to care about the agendas of Steve Miller, Steve Bannon, Peter Navarro or Mike Pompeo. To me, he’s more like one of those decadent Roman emperors, more Caligula than Mussolini.
I don’t know whether the specific stories of Caligula sending his horse to the Senate or Nero fiddling while Rome burned are apocryphal, but it doesn’t really matter. The stories reflect the way that many ancient emperors exercised power. They relished saying and doing obviously evil things to show their dominance.
These transgressive actions by Roman emperors had the effect of annoying their opponents (“own the libs”), but also humiliating their allies, who had to swallow their pride and defend the indefensible. One may feel a bit sorry for Democratic congressmen who don’t get their polices enacted during the Trump era, but our hearts should really go out to the GOP congressmen who feel they must kiss Trump’s feet. It’s like a Roman orgy where the emperor demands that the people around him abase themselves with disgusting sexual practices, all for the emperor’s amusement. “Eat this and smile while doing so.” With the exception of Mitt Romney, life under Trump must be absolute hell for GOP officials. Many of them privately hope that Biden wins.
Don’t fall for sophisticated pundits who tell you to look past Trump’s “personality” and focus on “the issues”. There’s really only one issue in this campaign—should America re-elect Caligula.
I predict that in November a majority of American voters will say “no”, disgusted by Trump’s behavior, but also predict that Trump will win anyway.
Some of my commenters seem to have trouble with reading comprehension. Watch people put stuff in the comment section such as data on how much testing the US is doing. Sigh . . .