For the past four years, psychologists and psychiatrists have attempted to fit Trump’s behavior into a diagnosis. They note his textbook disconnection from reality and from the consequences of his decisions as they affect other people. Many have settled on various personality disorders: Narcissistic, antisocial, and borderline have been the most common. Even to the dispassionate scientific mind—the clinicians usually indisposed to weigh in on political matters, attempting to be as objective as possible—Trump can seem to fit the criteria as if the disorders’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual entries had been written to describe him.
But none of the diagnoses stuck. The clinical labels that initially felt so transgressive to apply to a sitting president have lost their gravitas through overuse. Petitions bearing hundreds of signatures from mental-health professionals deeming Trump cognitively unfit for office and a danger to the global population led to no practical end. The extreme abnormality of his behavior faded into simply Trump being Trump. He developed immunity to condemnation by way of lowered expectations.
A numbness to Trump’s behavior has emerged again and again, in response to issues like his undisclosed tax returns and the numerous sexual-assault charges against him. Many Americans have become so weary as to tolerate Trump’s denialism as normal regarding public-health emergencies like climate change and gun violence. Now it is happening with an actively spreading and deadly infectious disease. Our neurological capacity to be shocked depends on novelty. As that fades, anything can lose its feeling of absurdity or danger. This is partly for our own health; the stress of living in a state of constant incredulity would kill us young. But this adaptive, self-protective numbness also has the effect of training us to accept the unacceptable—the ridiculous counter-reality that Trump is attempting to construct.
Read: America is trapped in a pandemic spiral
In any given moment, Trump’s behavior may seem confounding, vexing, self-defeating, unconscionable, unpredictable. But he is behaving exactly as he taught us to expect. In fact, what we know about Trump’s psychology might be understood through the lens of the coronavirus itself. He has met a foe that he cannot bluff into submission or wear down with insults. A virus is a physical force, like gravity or fire. It has no intention. It is not alive, and it cannot think. It can only react to its immediate environment. It can thrive only when it can invade functioning, living cells nearby. The virus forces entry and makes thousands of copies of itself and, having no further use for the cell, destroys it and abandons the remains.
All of the flaws in Trump’s character and psychology have come to light through this virus. He reacts to immediate circumstances. He hijacks, pillages, and moves on. He has done this to America’s public-health institutions, which are wobbling and could topple under the continued weight of his negligence. He presides over a country where people are dying all around him, and he appears to see this only as a messaging issue.
If Trump were to win a second term, he has made clear how this pandemic would play out. He is to have no moment of revelation. Americans would continue to die by the thousands. The president would devote his time and energy not to lowering that number, but to denying its existence. He has said the virus would disappear, and he would cling to that narrative regardless of the body count. If we joined him in this ignorance, the pathology would be ours.