The ways in which these tendencies poisoned our response to one of the most monumental domestic crises of modern times, when understood in the terms offered by the president’s niece, help explain and expose how we ended up in the current catastrophe.
With coronavirus cases hitting a record high of more than 70,000 new cases on Thursday, Mary Trump bluntly diagnosed the president’s role in the worsening crisis, insisting that he is simply “incapable of succeeding” at taming the virus, She said this:
It would have required taking responsibility, which in his mind would have meant admitting a mistake, which in his mind would be admitting weakness, which in my family was essentially punished with the death penalty.
Mary Trump also endeavored to explain all the president’s lies. She recounted that her uncle once randomly lied about her, which prompted Maddow to note that he seemed to “take pleasure in you being helpless” about it.
“It really is a power play,” the president’s niece declared, adding: “Most of the time people don’t correct him, which completely plays into his hands. Because then he can do it with impunity.”
Countless journalists and armchair psychologists have ventured similar diagnoses. But when someone with such unique qualifications — a clinical psychologist who had a front-row view of the forces that shaped the president — offers such a startling diagnosis of the most powerful head case on the planet, we should probably take notice.
What’s notable is that the known facts very much comport with these readings. In turn, those known facts become more intelligible when we’re armed with this understanding.
We still haven’t explained what’s happening
In retrospect, it’s clear that again and again, those tendencies have infected the response with a kind of toxicity that we still struggle to explain in plain language — but that clearly pulled us toward the current catastrophe.
In January, when Trump’s advisers alerted him to the pandemic, he raged that public warnings would rattle the markets (and his reelection hopes). Trump’s faith in his ability to warp reality with impunity irresistibly tugged him toward another way: He denied the existence of the threat for many weeks, letting it rampage out of control.
Mary Trump helps us understand why: Faith in these powers of deception were built up over years of doing so with little consequence, and the wielding of them became an exercise of power in and of itself, a kind of default setting he can always count on.
It’s also clear in retrospect that when Trump declared in March that “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the epic failure to mobilize testing, it was a seminal moment, a declaration that he would not do this at any point henceforth, no matter what.
Mary Trump helps us understand why: Taking responsibility — undergoing a major course correction — would have constituted an admission of failure.
The nightmare continues
We’re still trapped in this very dynamic. Even as the coronavirus surges in many states — in part due to hasty reopenings demanded by Trump himself — the president continues to urge a rapid reopening of businesses and schools. Once again, we see Trump’s unshakable faith in his ability to dictate how real-world conditions are received by voters — through sheer force of lying.
In her new book, Trump’s niece reportedly explains all this in depth, narrating a tortured process by which Trump learned to earn the approval of his father. This “destroyed” the future president and fried his “ability to develop and experience the entire spectrum of human emotion.”
Whatever the truth of that, we’re seeing Trump’s lack of basic humanity (to put it in layperson’s terms) in far starker relief than ever before as the misery and devastation mount. The refusal to admit to error or change course — and the unabated lying as a means of enabling it — are surely tangled up in that.
The lies are failing
And yet, a new Post/ABC News poll finds that only 38 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the coronavirus, while 60 percent disapprove, a dramatic slide over the past few months. Meanwhile, 63 percent say it’s more important to take steps to control the spread of the virus even if it hurts the economy, and 64 percent no longer trust what Trump is telling them about it.
Yet Trump appears utterly undiminished in his faith in his ability to steamroll the former sentiment with the force of his lies, even though barely anybody believes him anymore.
In short, the nation is tiring of being trapped in this echoing fun house of Trump pathologies. But if Mary Trump’s diagnosis is right, we’re stuck in it with no exit in sight — or at least (hopefully) not until January.