The president who can only live in the moment

The pandemic is revealing the limits of Trump's perception of time

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

President Trump's pandemic briefings have produced quite a compendium of presidential statements and predictions that were not true. The most common branding of this collection is "lies," which is reasonable given the president's record of dishonesty in matters great and small. But without absolving him of willful deceit about COVID-19, I think there's a better explanation for many of these remarks: Trump lives in an eternal now.

I first considered this possibility a year ago in an examination of six theories on Trump's most pointless lies, the piddling falsehoods with no apparent value or rationale. The final option on my list was that Trump does not relate to time as most of us do. He does not — likely cannot — think about the past and future in coherent connection to the present. His time horizon is a perpetual dusk.

"Like my 92-year-old mom," argued a USA Today piece I quoted by research psychologist Robert Epstein, "Trump lives in a very small window of time, and no, I don't mean he lives 'in the moment' in that healthy, New-Age-y sort of way. I mean he has trouble looking backwards or forwards in time."

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Trump's direction is "largely determined moment-to-moment according to who's got his attention and whether he views that person as friend or foe," Epstein continued. "Not only do his views shift, he also has no trouble denying, entirely without guile, in my view, what he said yesterday. All that's shiny and real to him is what friends or foes are saying inside those small time windows. Everything else is fuzzy."

The changeability produced by Trump's narrow perception of time is identifiable even when things are going well, because past and future are not so fuzzy to the rest of us. Trump may quickly move on from positions he no longer finds expedient or so thoroughly reject past comments that he denies ever saying them. But because ours is a digital age and the internet is forever, there's always a tweet or video Trump's critics can use to prove he did say what he now insists he didn't. To their great frustration, this strategy is often powerless against the enthusiasm of the president's most ardent supporters, who seem more interested in the ambiance and symbolism of the Trump presidency than any specifics of policy or fact.

The novel coronavirus has gobbled up national attention and given Trump, as he has boasted, a wider television audience than he usually receives. And Trump has operated amid the pandemic exactly as he always does, saying whatever feels right to him in the moment and assuming everyone will move on from it in short order, just as he will.

So he says things like, "you know, a lot of people think that [COVID-19] goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April" (February 10). Or, "when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done" (February 26). Or, "Anybody that needs a test, gets a test" (March 6). Or that the total death toll could be 55,000 (April 10), or 65,000 (April 17), or 60,000 to 70,000 (April 27), or "65 or 70 or 60" (April 29), or something under 100,000 (May 1).

Or he will express bewilderment that an administration staffer could test negative for COVID-19 one day and positive the next (May 8). Or he will claim that he "felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic" (March 17). Or he will muse, conversely, that such a pandemic "was something nobody thought could happen" (March 26). Or he will simultaneously say a vaccine will be available "in the pretty near future," and this will benefit us greatly, and that COVID-19 will just "go away at some point," regardless of a vaccine (May 15).

The differences between Trump's normal galloping through his eternal now and his present ride are several. One is that he's using a lot of specific numbers, especially dates and death toll projections. These are easy to remember and falsify: The pandemic did not end "in April." Infections did not go from 15 to zero. Many people who wanted a test could not get one. We are past 70,000 deaths and with current trends will pass 100,000 before the end of this month. (Is it surprising some of the president's own supporters find him untrustworthy on this subject?)

Also different is how the pandemic is of universal effect and interest. Many Americans, including many Trump supporters, are not daily — hourly — affected by health care or immigration or foreign affairs, however much they care about those issues. COVID-19 and attendant policies have reshaped the entire rhythm of our lives. We can't help but fixate, so when Trump says something nonsensical or unfounded, we notice where we ordinarily might not. We remember it after he's dropped that line or flat contradicted it. We might even conclude that Trump's small time window is at least partly to blame for weeks of federally-recommended (though state-implemented) lockdown buying us time for ... what, exactly? In my state of Minnesota we ramped up testing and hospital capacity during the stay-at-home order that ended this week. The Trump administration produced a page of nonbinding guidelines the president himself has contradicted.

Our relationship to time itself is different in this moment, too. There's a sense that time has stopped, and we are eager to restart it, incessantly reviewing what we hope to regain from the past and make of the future. Trump can move from now to now to now, but those of us with more linear, integral relationships to time won't follow. When we're all straining toward a post-pandemic future, Trump's eternal now is more ludicrous than ever.

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