Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET on April 13, 2020.
There has never been an American president as spiritually impoverished as Donald Trump. And his spiritual poverty, like an overdrawn checking account that keeps imposing new penalties on a customer already in difficult straits, is draining the last reserves of decency among us at a time when we need it most.
I do not mean that Trump is the least religious among our presidents, though I have no doubt that he is; as the scholar Stephen Knott pointed out, Trump has shown “a complete lack of religious sensibility” unique among American presidents. (Just recently he wished Americans a “Happy Good Friday,” which suggests that he is unaware of the meaning of that day.) Nor do I mean that Trump is the least-moral president we’ve ever had, although again, I am certain that he is. John F. Kennedy was, in theory, a practicing Catholic, but he swam in a pool of barely concealed adultery in the White House. Richard Nixon was a Quaker, but one who attempted to subvert the Constitution. Andrew Johnson showed up pig-drunk to his inauguration. Trump’s manifest and immense moral failures—and the shameless pride he takes in them—make these men seem like amateurs by comparison.
And finally, I do not mean that Trump is the most unstable person ever to occupy the Oval Office, although he is almost certain to win that honor as well. As Peter Wehner has eloquently put it, Trump has an utterly disordered personality. Psychiatrists can’t help but diagnose Trump, even if it’s in defiance of the old Goldwater Rule against such practices. I know mental-health professionals who agree with George Conway and others that Trump is a malignant narcissist.
What I mean instead is that Trump is a spiritual black hole. He has no ability to transcend himself by so much as an emotional nanometer. Even narcissists, we are told by psychologists, have the occasional dark night of the soul. They can recognize how they are perceived by others, and they will at least pretend to seek forgiveness and show contrition as a way of gaining the affection they need. They are capable of infrequent moments of reflection, even if only to adjust strategies for survival.
Trump’s spiritual poverty is beyond all this. He represents the ultimate triumph of a materialist mindset. He has no ability to understand anything that is not an immediate tactile or visual experience, no sense of continuity with other human beings, and no imperatives more important than soothing the barrage of signals emanating from his constantly panicked and confused autonomic system.
Many commentators have likened Trump to a goldfish, a purely reactive animal; worse, as humorist Alexandra Petri has noted, the president likewise turns his supporters into an entire pond of goldfish who can only follow him by living in a “factless, futureless, contextless void.”*
In his daily coronavirus briefings, Trump lumbers to the podium and pulls us into his world: detached from reality, unable to feel any emotions but anger and paranoia. Each time we watch, Trump’s spiritual poverty increases our own, because for the duration of these performances, we are forced to live in the same agitated, immediate state that envelops him. (This also happens during Trump’s soul-destroying rallies, but at least those are directed toward his fans, not an entire nation in peril.)
Most leaders would at least have the sense not to relitigate every vendetta in their personal Burn Book at such moments. That’s what rallies and sycophantic interviews with Fox News are for, after all. Indeed, polls now suggest that even the president’s base might be tiring of this exhibitionism. But that is irrelevant to Trump. With cable news constantly covering the pandemic, he seems to be going through withdrawal. He needs an outlet for his political glossolalia, or his constantly replenishing reservoir of grievance and insecurity will burst its seams.
Even Trump’s staff—itself a collection of morally compromised enablers—cannot cajole him or train him to sound like a normal human being. Trump begins every one of these disastrous briefings by hypnotically reading high-minded phrases to which he shows no connection. These texts are exercises in futility, but they at least show some sense of what a typical person with friends and a family might want to sound like during a national crisis. Once he finishes stumbling through these robotic recitations, he’s back to his grievances.
Each of these presidential therapy sessions corrodes us until the moment when the president finally shambles away in a fog of muttered slogans and paranoid sentence fragments. In a time of crisis, we should be finding what is best in ourselves. Trump, instead, invites us to join a daily ritual, to hear lines from a scared and mean little boy’s heroic play-acting about how he bravely defeated the enemies and scapegoats who told him to do things that would hurt us. He insists that he has never been wrong and that he isn’t responsible for anything ever.
Daily, Trump’s opponents are enraged by yet another assault on the truth and basic human decency. His followers are delighted by yet more vulgar attacks on the media and the Democrats. And all of us, angry or pleased, become more like Trump, because just like the president, we end up thinking about only Trump, instead of our families, our fellow citizens, our health-care workers, or the future of our country. We are all forced to take sides every day, and those two sides are always “Trump” and “everyone else.”
Perhaps to call this daily abomination “therapy” is unfair, because therapy has a healing goal. As Jennifer Melfi, the psychotherapist for HBO’s fictional mob boss Tony Soprano, realized at the end of the series, when she finally threw him out of her office, counseling someone incapable of reflection or remorse is pointless; it makes the counselor into a worse person for enduring such long exposure to the patient.
Likewise, Trump’s spiritual poverty is making all of us into worse people. We are all living with him in the moment and neglecting the thing that makes us human beings instead of mindless fish swimming in circles. We must recover this in ourselves, and become more decent, more reflective, and more stoic—before Trump sends us into a hole from which we might never emerge.
* An earlier version of this essay misstated who the metaphorical goldfish was in Alexandra Petri's article. It is those who believe Trump is handling the crisis well, not Trump.