What Did You Expect?

Trump should never have been allowed anywhere near any public office.

Illustration of Donald Trump
The Atlantic

Updated at 5:48 p.m. ET on October 2, 2020.

There is a great deal you have every right to expect at this moment of crisis, and no reason at all to believe that Donald Trump or his White House will provide it.

You cannot expect this White House to tell the truth about Trump’s health. His doctors have lied about the president’s weight and height. They have never offered an adequate explanation of his sudden, unscheduled visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center a year ago. Even the fact that a close aide to the president had tested positive for the coronavirus was kept from the public until Bloomberg broke the news.

You cannot expect the White House to produce any orderly plan for the execution of Trump’s public duties, even to the very limited extent that Trump executed public duties in the first place. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was diagnosed with COVID-19 on April 6 of this year. Johnson formally deputed Foreign Minister Dominic Raab to preside over the government during his own incapacity. But the pattern in the Trump administration has been that the president will not and cannot do the job himself, and that he vengefully strikes down anyone who tries to do the job for him.

Trump fired his most successful chief of staff, John Kelly, for trying to force him to work. Kelly’s successor, Mick Mulvaney, survived by enabling Trump “to act as he chooses—a recognition that trying to control Trump is a futile approach,” as Politico’s Nancy Cook put it. Likewise, Vice President Mike Pence had better be awfully circumspect about filling the role that the Constitution and its Twenty-Fifth Amendment assign him. Trump will be watching. So long as Trump is conscious, he will not allow it; should he lose consciousness, he will retaliate when and if he recovers.

You cannot expect the White House to exhibit any regard for the health of others. The president knowingly exposed his wife, his adult children, his staff, his donors, and his supporters in the Cleveland debate hall. He refused and forbade the most basic safety precautions in the close quarters of the West Wing and on Air Force One, except for testing, which was intended to protect him personally. On Tuesday, Trump was on the debate stage mocking former Vice President Joe Biden for wearing face masks; as the positive tests came in, he did not bother to inform Biden or his team that Trump had exposed him to the coronavirus. Until we know the date of Trump’s last negative COVID-19 test, we can only guess at the number of people he exposed. By sticking to an aggressive travel schedule with in-person gatherings while eschewing even minimal safeguards, Trump has carried the risk of disease across the country.

You cannot expect Trump to gain any wisdom, empathy, or compassion for others. Throughout the pandemic, Trump has disdained the hardships suffered by sick and dying Americans, by their families and neighbors, by those who have lost jobs and homes. When NBC’s Peter Alexander asked Trump on March 20 what the president would say to Americans feeling fear because of the disease, he upbraided Alexander: “I’d say you are a terrible reporter.” When Republican Senator Mitt Romney self-isolated because he had been exposed to COVID-19 by the negligent selfishness of Senator Rand Paul, Trump sarcastically said to reporters, “Oh, that’s too bad.” It’s a consistent pattern for Trump; on October 2, 2016, four years ago to the day of Trump’s COVID-positive acknowledgment, Trump cruelly pantomimed onstage Hillary Clinton’s campaign-season bout of pneumonia.

What you can expect is a lot of victimhood and self-pity. Trump and those around him have always demanded for themselves the decencies that they refuse others. They will get them, too. Trump’s opponents will express concern and good wishes—and if they do not, Trump’s allies will complain that those opponents are allowing politics to overwhelm human feeling.  It was only three days ago that Trump on a debate stage dismissed Biden’s dead son, Beau, and falsely claimed that Biden’s surviving son, Hunter, had been dishonorably discharged from the military.* The next day, Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., appeared on Glenn Beck’s show to describe Hunter as a “crackhead.” Now, though, we will hear a lot about how people are not being respectful enough to a president in his time of illness.

Trump has all his life posed a moral puzzle: What is due in the way of kindness and sympathy to people who have no kindness and sympathy for anyone else? Should we repay horrifying cruelty in equal measure? Then we reduce ourselves to their level. But if we return indecency with the decency due any other person in need, don’t we encourage appalling behavior? Don’t we prove to them that they belong to some unique bracket of humanity, entitled to kick others when they are writhing on the floor, and then to claim mercy when their own crimes and cruelties cast them upon the floor themselves?

Americans are dead who might have been alive if Trump had met the challenge of COVID-19 with care and responsibility—or if somebody else, literally almost anybody else, had been president instead. Millions are out of work, in danger of losing their homes, living in fear. Tens of millions of young people have suffered disruption to their education, which will follow them through life. The pandemic was not Trump’s fault, but at every turn, he made things worse than they had to be—because at every turn, he cared only for himself, never for the country. And now he will care only for himself again.

Trump should never have been allowed anywhere near any public office. Wish him well, but recognize that his deformed spirit will never be well—and that nothing can be well for the country under his leadership.

* This article previously misstated that Trump claimed Hunter Biden had been dishonorably discharged from the Army. In fact, Trump's false claim at the debate did not specify a branch of the military.