(This article was based upon an editorial on June 2, 2020 in the Sun Sentinel Jewish Journal)
With 220,000 Americans dead, President Trump attacks the CDC, Dr. Fauci, the Democrats, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden while he rushes to reopen the country without enough protections. Trump has made a calculation that these deaths were acceptable in his quest to get the economy back on track so that he could get re-elected in November. Why? What is at the heart of this cold-hearted calculus used by Trump and his Republican followers in Congress and a variety of Republican governors?
There has been, in much of the history of the United States, an undercurrent of mindless paranoia expressed by the ‘No Nothing Party”, the Populist Party; the anti-masonry, anti-Catholic, antisemitic, political groups in the 19th century and anti-immigrant politics of the 1920’s and 30’s to Joe McCarthy’s attacks and HUAC’s anti-communist purges of the 1950’s to Barry Goldwater’s and the John Birch Society’s paranoid railing against big government.
Donald Trump came to power in 2016 on a wave of paranoia, xenophobia, conspiracy theories, Russian disinformation. Jeb Bush, then a Republican candidate, said during the campaign, “When I ran for office I said, [Donald Trump] is a chaos candidate and would be a chaos president.”
While Trump supporters saw the chaos president as exactly the person to overturn the establishment controlling the US, the unintended consequence of their decision was to put the worst possible person in the center of power when a real crisis hit. Pandemics by their very nature can only be controlled by order. Chaos feeds the pandemic. Order slows and ultimately defeats the pandemic.
Donald Trump has been successful at bluffing, bullying, and blustering his way to power. He is the consummate propagandist. The only role of propaganda, as shown by the Nazis, is incitement. Trump’s use of Twitter to call for revolution against closed states despite his own policies for reinstating the economy is an example of how he, as a propagandist, cannot help himself.
His narcissism and perception of himself as a victim have also made it impossible for Trump to act as a true leader. A perfect model for leadership is in the difference between Franklin Roosevelt’s and the US approach to dealing with the great depression and Germany and Hitler’s approach.
In the 1930’s Roosevelt and the US blamed the banking industry and government for the great depression and proceeded in fixing US institutions and banks and set in place public policies to help Americans. While Germany looked for a scapegoat and blamed the Jews, and others for its failures. The US blaming itself is a process called mortification and led to our fixing ourselves and redeeming ourselves by good works. Germany and Hitler’s blaming others is a process called scapegoating, which meant that the only way for Germany to redeem itself was to eradicate those who allegedly caused the problems, leading directly to the deaths of 6 million Jews.
Trump has chosen to scapegoat over mortification. It seems that it is impossible for Trump to ever admit guilt for anything. Mortification is not in his DNA. He, therefore, narcissistically, sees himself as the victim of the virus, the Democrats, liberals, “Never Trump” Republicans, the media, and embraces any purveyor of any paranoid conspiracy theory which supports his perception of his victimage and is only able to respond to events by scapegoating. Blaming others is Trump’s version of redemption.
Trump’s behavior is part of a long paranoid tradition in US politics. The US has been lucky in the past because these outbreaks of paranoia happened in times of relatively small crisis. The chaos and disruption caused by these periodic outbursts of political craziness when coupled with a truly unprecedented traumatic event like a pandemic or a war cause a leadership failure the consequences of which have the potential for a catastrophe of major proportions. COVID-19 and Trump’s poor leadership can be directly connected to the deaths of more than 220,000 Americans and an unprecedented disruption of our economy. If Trump had chosen, the path of mortification, like FDR, he would have been a hero for all times. Instead, he chose the path of self-serving scapegoating and will go down in history as, at best, an incompetent president or at the worst, a truly evil president, responsible for the deaths of more than 220,000 Americans.