No, Trump isn't faking his nightmare

The worst that could happen to a president with "good genes."

Donald Trump seen gasping for air as he returns to White House amid  coronavirus battle

The president returned from the hospital Monday evening. He climbed the stairs to the White House’s southern portico. There, he stood for photographs with his mask off. Anyone paying attention could see he was struggling to breathe. Anyone could see on his face the slight pangs of panic that attend such struggle. Even so, some people continue to say Donald Trump is faking it. He isn’t sick with the covid, they say.

In a sense, such skepticism is healthy. This president has told scores of thousands of lies. He has betrayed his country, incited violence, extorted the republic into voting for him or else. He dissembled again after entering the White House last night (mask off, of course). In a campaign video, he exhorted viewers not to let the covid “dominate” you, as if normal people have access to the health care he does, as if the 215,000 Americans now dead and buried permitted the new coronavirus to dominate them. None of us has seen a president piss on so many graves. I don’t blame anyone for being suspicious.

None of us has seen a president piss on so many graves.

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It’s clear he’s sick, though. What’s more, he’s very sick. Doctors do not administer dexamethasone to someone who is not. The steroid makes patients feel like they have energy to spare while tamping down their immune systems, the AP reports. Trump is no doubt correct in saying he feels better than he has in 20 years. That didn’t prevent his chest from visibly heaving, though. And watch out when the drug wears off. It’s common knowledge covid patients feel better before they crash for the worse. The next week is going to be the most important week of this president’s mortal life.

Skeptics maintain he’s faking it to avoid facing Joe Biden a second time. Again, that’s understandable. While giving a rather so-so performance himself, Biden still managed to make the president appear smaller than he’s looked in four years. The debate was unlike most in fact. Its impact has been lasting. Trump didn’t just fail to win new voters, he lost old voters, and he lost them, because he seemed, when standing next to a former vice president speaking from his heart, petty and weak. Skeptics, however, forget something important. You don’t avoid looking weak by pretending to be weaker. Getting sick a month before Election Day is this president’s very worst nightmare.

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Recall a time before the president’s infection. On Sept. 18, he was campaigning in Minnesota, addressing a nearly all-white (mask-less) audience. There, he gave voice to what is his only serious worldview. “You have good genes, you know that, right?” he said. “You have good genes. A lot of it is about genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe? It’s the racehorse theory. You think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.”

Biographer Michael D’Antonio explained what that means, according to The Forward. “The family subscribes to a racehorse theory of human development,” he told PBS “Frontline.” “They believe that there are superior people and that if you put together the genes of a superior woman and a superior man, you get a superior offspring.”

In other words, eugenics. In other words, any ideology privileging an in-group for reasons totally made up, any rightwing movement rationalizing an out-group’s pain, suffering and murder. Praising white Minnesotan’s “good genes” was in keeping with despots the world over who wrongly believe they are infallible by dint of being who they are. Truth and morality are not afforded deference, because affording them deference would mean submitting to their authority, which is unthinkable. The mighty do not genuflect to authority not of their own making. The mighty are always right.

This is why getting sick is Trump’s worst nightmare. Even if he recovers, he cannot credibly maintain (among people who find it credible) his image of infallibility—the idea he’s invincible. Yes, allies are trying mightily to portray him as some kind of Rambo, some kind of grotesque super-white superhero who can crush the covid with his bare hands. (That venomous smurf Ben Shapiro is representative in this regard. This morning he tweeted: “Wait until Trump develops the anti-covid serum, using his own anti-bodies like Will Smith in ‘I Am Legend,’ and then wins 50 states.” Never mind that Smith’s character kills himself after realizing he’s the bane of the world.) But we are rapidly approaching a tipping point after which these efforts are going to backfire. Indeed, we may already be there. The president’s campaign is crunched for cash.

To be sure, some will always be skeptical. But the rest of us should remember the whole truth. The point of Trump’s project, in the eyes of his hardest supporters, is the power to instill fear in the eyes of their enemies (and taking pleasure in seeing that fear). If enemies do not fear this president, there’s no point to this president. You don’t instill fear when you’re struggling to breathe. You don’t instill fear when you’re dead.

—John Stoehr