Wall Street donors, corporate CEOs, “Never Trump” Republicans, “Lincoln Project” consultants, “National Security Professionals for Biden”: many have expressed revulsion for Donald Trump, the man and the president. It’s certainly understandable. Just this week, Trump minimized his own illness, an act of self-aggrandizement will almost certainly result in more deaths.
But how many elites are repelled, at least in part, because Trump is publicly acting out impulses they hide in themselves?
"We don't need a 'moonshot' for what ails us. We need an earth shot—a range of investments grounded in science, environmental health, and social justice."
They Did It Their Way
America’s oligarchs usually see themselves as victors in the game of life, a game played on a level playing field. They don’t see the advantages—of race, of birth, of inheritance, or neurotic acquisitiveness—that led to their success. They hide their own misdeeds behind closed doors, while using the media as a canvas for flattering public self-portraits.
Donald Trump is their picture of Dorian Gray.
Sure, some of them express horror at his behavior. They may even feel that horror on a visceral level. But the things Trump expresses—the vanity, the competitiveness, the sense that his success (such as it is) is his accomplishment alone—are core beliefs for most of the people who run this country. Most politicians succeed through competition and self-promotion, and the business world’s biggest successes are self-selected for sociopathy.
The greed, the bullying, the sexual predation: they hush theirs up, while Trump parades his in public. He is the Id of the American ruling class, the uninhibited creature summoned up from the darkest recesses – of their psyches, their campaign contributions, and their SEC filings.
Wrestling the Monster
When it comes to Covid-19, Trump acted with reckless disregard for his own well-being. Worse, he endangered others. When he became ill, he used the people’s resources extravagantly, from helicopter rides to experimental drugs of limited availability that are typically reserved for more severe cases. Then, after having imbibed all the resources one body can absorb, he said the disease was “nothing to be afraid of.”
As Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse observed, “President Trump’s Monday message to his citizens in conjunction with his own diagnosis, which was, essentially: Avoiding the virus is for suckers.”
It’s easy to respond to Trump with equivalent snark—to say, for example, “I like presidents who don’t get Covid.” But to do that is to downplay the deeply corrosive nature of the president’s behavior.
Predictably, Trump’s acolytes echoed their idol. They attributed his return to the White House to some personal strengths or virtues, and not to the lavish public resources expended on his behalf. Hesse lists several of them, from Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s “COVID stood NO chance against @realDonaldTrump!” to Rep. Matt Gaetz’ “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump.”
They talk as if Covid-19 were a movie monster that can be defeated through hand-to-hand combat and sheer force of will. But the coronavirus is an organism whose spread and lethality occurs within a matrix of forces, from collective behavior (wear your damn mask!) to individual health and socio-economic status. It’s the product of communal failures that range from economic inequality and racism to the absence of public health insurance.
Trump’s comments are an insult to the memory of 210,000 dead, none of whom bear the culpability for their own deaths that Trump does. His words, and those of his minions, hide the fact that this pandemic is a communal failure. It will take a community effort—local, national, and global—to fully cure it.
The Other Disease
Trump still has Covid-19, as of this writing. But he has another disease, too, one that’s even more corrosive to the public health: the disease of toxic individualism. Most of his party has it, as do many Democrats. The business class is a hot zone for it. It’s hard to name a corporation, bank, or CEO that hasn’t acted selfishly in this crisis.
Predictably, billionaires got much richer. How did they do it? Some snapshots:
Big Tech reportedly used the pandemic to double down on monopolization.
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Nursing homes backed by private equity had higher rates of Covid-19 infections and deaths.
Vulture capitalists made a fortune off the pandemic by short-selling commercial real estate.
Wells Fargo reportedly gamed PPP loans.
Jeff Bezos, who scored especially big on the pandemic, exploited his workers and (through his corporation) targeted union organizers.
So did Boeing, which was saved from its own mismanagement—and from the deaths of over 600 passengers from a botched tech rollout—by the government. Uber, Lyft, AirBnB—they cut every corner they could.
But our culture continues to uplift corporate CEOs, without acknowledging the true formula behind their successes. And by formula, I mean something that looks like this:
(public resources + employee labor + own sociopathic drives/their greed + investor shares)
They use the wealth thus accumulated to corrupt our political process. The Republicans of today are largely inseparable from big-corporate culture. And when the Democratic Party tells members of Congress to spend four hours a day raising money, it’s telling them to spend 28 hours a week steeped in this worldview—a soul-killing task if ever there was one.
And with every hour spent on a donor call, the disease of toxic individualism spreads.
Houston, We Have a Problem
Would the genial Joe Biden be a better steward of this system than Donald Trump? I believe so. But he and the Democrats are still constrained in their thinking by corporatized individualism. Take the “cancer moonshot,” headed by Vice President Biden at the close of the Obama era. It was a touching effort, when seen in the context of Beau Biden’s tragic death. But the name and framing evokes the Apollo missions of an earlier era—missions that were presented as the stories of individual heroes, most with military backgrounds, who conquered the skies (with the help of massive public spending on new technologies from defense contractors).
We’ll need to spend more on cancer drugs, of course, and they should belong to the public that funded their development. But we already know how to cure many cancers. We can cure some with better nutrition. We can cure others by cleaning up the air and water, especially in our poorer communities. We know how to cure them – but our elites don’t want to do what must be done.
We don’t need a “moonshot” for what ails us. We need an earth shot—a range of investments grounded in science, environmental health, and social justice.
The same is true of Covid-19. Yes, we need a vaccine, and better drug treatments. But we also need to make medical care—the same care Trump received, or close to it—available to everyone, as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal have proposed. We need to eliminate racism and ageism in the delivery of care. We need to distance, and to wear masks. If we did those things, we would save more lives today.
It will take longer—a lot longer—to cure our toxic individualism. We can start by naming it and diagnosing it: in Trump, in our culture, in our politics, in ourselves. This national soul-sickness may have begun with our elites, but it’s up to us to cure it—in ourselves, and in each other. The mechanics of that cure will take many forms, but it begins with words almost too trite to mention, words like—dare I say it?—“love.”
That may have sounded like fuzzy-headed hippie sentiment last year. Who knows? Maybe it was, then. Now, our lives depend on it.