So what was going on? Were our leaders just stupid? Well, maybe. But there’s a deeper explanation of the profoundly self-destructive behavior of Trump and his allies: They were all members of America’s cult of selfishness.
You see, the modern U.S. right is committed to the proposition that greed is good, that we’re all better off when individuals engage in the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest. In their vision, unrestricted profit maximization by businesses and unregulated consumer choice is the recipe for a good society.
Support for this proposition is, if anything, more emotional than intellectual. I’ve long been struck by the intensity of right-wing anger against relatively trivial regulations, like bans on phosphates in detergent and efficiency standards for light bulbs. It’s the principle of the thing: Many on the right are enraged at any suggestion that their actions should take other people’s welfare into account.
This rage is sometimes portrayed as love of freedom. But people who insist on the right to pollute are notably unbothered by, say, federal agents tear-gassing peaceful protesters. What they call “freedom” is actually absence of responsibility.
Rational policy in a pandemic, however, is all about taking responsibility. The main reason you shouldn’t go to a bar and should wear a mask isn’t self-protection, although that’s part of it; the point is that congregating in noisy, crowded spaces or exhaling droplets into shared air puts others at risk. And that’s the kind of thing America’s right just hates, hates to hear.
Indeed, it sometimes seems as if right-wingers actually make a point of behaving irresponsibly. Remember how Senator Rand Paul, who was worried that he might have Covid-19 (he did), wandered around the Senate and even used the gym while waiting for his test results?
Anger at any suggestion of social responsibility also helps explain the looming fiscal catastrophe. It’s striking how emotional many Republicans get in their opposition to the temporary rise in unemployment benefits; for example, Senator Lindsey Graham declared that these benefits would be extended “over our dead bodies.” Why such hatred?
It’s not because the benefits are making workers unwilling to take jobs. There’s no evidence that this is happening — it’s just something Republicans want to believe. And in any case, economic arguments can’t explain the rage.
Again, it’s the principle. Aiding the unemployed, even if their joblessness isn’t their own fault, is a tacit admission that lucky Americans should help their less-fortunate fellow citizens. And that’s an admission the right doesn’t want to make.
As much as people want to point all of the failures of our national response to COVID-19 onto Trump, it’s just inaccurate. Trump has of course been terrible. In fact, his COVID response has finally convinced me that he has surpassed James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson as the worst president in the nation’s history, a very high bar.
But if Trump had never been elected, it’s not as if there’s much reason to think that the nation would have responded that differently. All of the basic fundamentals would still be there except that there would be a Democrat in the White House. But even with the clear and massive difference that federal leadership would have made, you still have 35% of the country all in for fascism. Hillary would be portrayed on Fox and any Republican media site as the monster killing Americans, no matter how responsible her actions were. There would be no relief package because Republicans would be smelling electoral victory. Not wearing a mask would be even more of a political statement than it is now. And as many people have noted, the same people who demand their rights to carry a high-powered gun anywhere they go because of FREEDOM can’t even be bothered to wear a mask. This is why I’ve been resistant to the entire narrative of the national failure on COVID being about Trump. It’s a whole lot of the narrative, absolutely. But not all of it. The problems are just so much deeper in this broken nation.
The thing we have to understand in the end about Trump is that he is the platonic ideal of what Republican voters want. That’s why they spent the previous eight years searching around for someone truly crazy they could vote for instead of John McCain and Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. This is how you explain Sarah Palin and Herman Cain and Ben Carson’s presidential run blips. And also Donald Trump. Trump wasn’t really more crazy of a candidate as those others, it’s just that he won and then “won” the presidency. And here we are.
When Trump leaves….nothing fundamental changes. Sure, our lives will be somewhat better simply because of a different person (an actual semi-functional human being!) in charge of executive power. And hopefully that comes with Democratic control of the Senate, a realization by Patrick Leahy that it is not 1978 level of comity with the Republicans, and an aggressive legislative agenda that includes destroying the filibuster.
But even with the best case scenario, 35% of the nation hates caring about any other person but themselves so much that they will respond to massacres of first graders by pushing for more pro-gun regulations. They will cough in your face during a pandemic for a laugh. They will chuckle at immigrants dying in the desert. They will cheer for one of their own running over and murdering Black Lives Matter protestors.
This is simply the reality of what we face. Trump is the symptom of this malignancy, but he is not the tumor. Until we face what it is going to take to cut this out, we are going to be caught unawares when Republicans nominate and perhaps win with a fascist who is actually competent and intelligent in 2024.