The moments after your first child is born are humbling and overwhelming, the emotional equivalent of staring directly into the sun. You realize that you are suddenly responsible for a human life that you helped create, a sliver of two souls smuggled into another body, a person you will love and protect desperately for the rest of your life.
Shortly after Donald and Ivana Trump’s son was born, however, the future president had an unusual concern for a parent: What if this kid grows up and embarasses me?
“What should we name him?” Donald asked, according to Ivana’s memoir, Raising Trump. When Ivana suggested Donald Jr., the real-estate heir responded, “What if he is a loser?”
That anecdote helps explain one of the more memorable exchanges in Tuesday night’s presidential debate, as well as Trump’s approach to governance. The president’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden, sought to criticize Trump’s remarks about U.S. service members being “losers,” as first reported by The Atlantic. In doing so, Biden brought up his late son, Beau, who died of a brain tumor after earning a Bronze Star in the Army National Guard.
“My son was in Iraq and spent a year there,” Biden said to Trump, raising his voice. “He got the Bronze Star. He got a medal. He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And the people left behind there were heroes.”
In an attempt to neutralize the attack, Trump changed the subject—to Biden’s other son, Hunter. “Hunter got thrown out of the military; he was thrown out, dishonorably discharged for cocaine use,” he spat out.
To a person who feared sharing his name with his son at the moment of his birth, because the child might turn out to be a “loser,” that attack must have seemed devastating. But normal parents don’t stop loving their children because they do bad things. They love them anyway. That’s what being a parent is.
Biden responded by reaffirming his love for his surviving son. “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” Biden responded. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
Biden is a mediocre politician. His two prior presidential runs were failures. He has a tendency toward exaggeration to the point of dishonesty, whether overstating his role in the mid-century civil-rights movement or the struggle against South African apartheid. Before becoming vice president to Barack Obama, Biden backed some of the worst policy decisions of the past 30 years—including the 2005 bankruptcy bill, the 1994 crime bill, and the invasion of Iraq.
But when Biden speaks of loss and pain—of Beau, or of the car accident that killed his wife and daughter—he becomes deeply compelling; as Fintan O’Toole wrote, Biden’s grief is “real and rooted and fundamentally decent.” After eight months of funerals, for hundreds of thousands of American families, the kind of grief that Biden speaks of, the kind that accompanies the loss of a loved one, is no longer distant. The president stood in front of that grieving nation, and taunted a father while he was speaking of his lost son. Before the eyes of a nation struggling with an opioid epidemic, he mocked a dad for having a kid with a drug problem.
More than any other moment of the debate, Trump’s response to Biden’s invocation of his dead son—attempting to make him ashamed of his surviving one—threw the dispositions of the two men into sharp relief. I wondered how Hunter must have felt to see his father speak of his pride in his brother, only for his own name to be brandished as a weapon to inflict shame on his father. And I thought about Biden’s response, which was to reaffirm his pride in Hunter, the troubled son living in the indelible shadow of a departed war hero. In the midst of being attacked by a president trying to wield his own family against him, Biden’s instinct was to reassure Hunter that he is also loved, that nothing could make his father see him as a loser.
Biden acted like a father, doing what almost any parent would have done. And yet because Trump is the kind of man who wonders at the moment of his child’s birth whether the child will someday mortify him, he did not anticipate that response. He did not expect that, instead of embarrassing Biden, he would merely advertise the callousness that has made him unable to govern the country with any sense of duty or responsibility, the narcissism that makes him see those concepts as foolish and naive.
All things in Trump’s world revolve around him, and are a reflection of him. The president evaluates everything—even his own children, even at the time they enter this world—by how they might make him look, and he is incapable of imagining that anyone else would do differently. When he was a reality-show celebrity, this trait was minimally damaging to society; now that he is a president, it has proved catastrophic.
Because Trump is a con artist whose inflated reputation as a businessman is built on an enormous inheritance and tax fraud, he is less concerned with fixing problems than with convincing others they do not exist. The economy remains in a crippling recession, but rather than urge his party to do what is necessary to recover, Trump seethes in private about the pandemic destroying the “greatest economy.” The more than 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus are distressing to Trump not because of the sheer scale of preventable death, but because they make him look bad, which is why he baselessly questions the coronavirus death count, and insists that his response is somehow better if you don’t count “the blue states,” as though the people who live in them are not also his constituents. When Trump briefly wore a mask publicly in July, his advisers flocked to social media to offer outsize praise of his appearance, understanding that simply modeling responsible leadership that could save American lives—particularly those of his own supporters—was not enough of a motivation for the president. He whines to confidants not about the injustices that Black Lives Matter activists are protesting, but that “some stupid cop in Minneapolis kneels on someone’s neck and now everyone is protesting.”
As The Washington Post reported in July, when speaking with advisers, the president talks about himself as a “blameless victim—of a deadly pandemic, of a stalled economy, of deep-seated racial unrest, all of which happened to him rather than the country.”
This perilous narcissism also explains Trump’s worst moments in the debate. Trump cannot bring himself to condemn his white-supremacist supporters not only because of his ideological sympathies, but because he sees such condemnations as apologies for his own conduct, which he cannot countenance. Trump refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, because he fears the narcissistic injury of an election loss. So he not only baselessly undermines confidence in the process to save face should he lose, but urges his supporters to flock to the polls to intimidate other voters, and openly hopes that the conservative-dominated Supreme Court will reverse the electorate’s decision if given the opportunity.
There is nothing that the president treasures more than his own ego—not defeating the pandemic, not lifting the country out of the recession that followed, and not American democracy. If all of those things must be sacrificed to shield the president’s pride, then that is a price he is willing to make Americans pay.