In any given moment, Trump’s behavior may seem confounding, vexing, self-defeating, unconscionable, unpredictable. But he is behaving exactly as he taught us to expect. In fact, what we know about Trump’s psychology might be understood through the lens of the coronavirus itself. He has met a foe that he cannot bluff into submission or wear down with insults. A virus is a physical force, like gravity or fire. It has no intention. It is not alive, and it cannot think. It can only react to its immediate environment. It can thrive only when it can invade functioning, living cells nearby. The virus forces entry and makes thousands of copies of itself and, having no further use for the cell, destroys it and abandons the remains.
All of the flaws in Trump’s character and psychology have come to light through this virus. He reacts to immediate circumstances. He hijacks, pillages, and moves on. He has done this to America’s public-health institutions, which are wobbling and could topple under the continued weight of his negligence. He presides over a country where people are dying all around him, and he appears to see this only as a messaging issue.
If Trump were to win a second term, he has made clear how this pandemic would play out. He is to have no moment of revelation. Americans would continue to die by the thousands. The president would devote his time and energy not to lowering that number, but to denying its existence. He has said the virus would disappear, and he would cling to that narrative regardless of the body count. If we joined him in this ignorance, the pathology would be ours.