Trump on steroids
When he returned to the White House from the hospital Monday night, we saw President Trump on steroids — literally, as he was prescribed the medication for his COVID-19 symptoms, but also figuratively, as he fully embraced the coronavirus skepticism with which he has flirted all year despite seeming to struggle to take a full breath.
The literal may be feeding the figurative here. Feelings of euphoria and mania are common steroid side effects, and Trump says he is "FEELING GREAT." But mostly, I suspect, this is simply Trump becoming more himself. His coronavirus diagnosis may be remembered as a tipping point (his eldest son reportedly believes he is "acting crazy"), but the president's behavior of recent days is at most unleashed by his condition and treatment, not created by it.
At the close of his most famous sermon, "The Weight of Glory," author and theologian C.S. Lewis urged his hearers to view the apparently ordinary people they encounter as "possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship." But there is another thing they — we — could become, he added: "a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare." Every day we are all going ourselves and helping each other go to "one or other of these destinations," Lewis said, and all our dealings should aim at becoming "splendors" and not "horrors."
Our smallest choices become habits, and habits become character, until finally we neither can nor want to choose to be different than we are, for good or ill, splendor or horror. Trump is 74, nearing the end of his life even if his bout with COVID-19 is over, and his character is long since determined. It is a horror.
He makes no attempt to conceal that he is a selfish, self-aggrandizing, and self-absorbed salesman of himself. He acts for his own profit and grandeur. He will do whatever he can to get whatever he wants with little to no concern for its effects on others. He is the embodiment of what ancient Christian monks called "vainglory" — disordered, obsessive desire for the roaring approval of the crowd — as well as all the vices that flow from it — hypocrisy and pretense, boasting, obstinacy, discord and contention, fixation on novelty, and refusal to accept any authority higher than himself.
Becoming president did not change this character, as some hoped it would. Neither will re-election, if it happens, nor will this experience with COVID-19. Trump won't be chastened. He won't find in his illness an occasion for self-reflection or repentance. He'll find — and indeed he and his surrogates have already found — just one more means of self-advancement. Catching the virus proves Trump's leadership and virility, their narrative nonsensically insists. He's strong, masculine, godlike. Masks are for women and cowards, not an "invincible hero." What? No, of course he's not coughing. Maybe he's immune!
Whether Americans are buying what Trump is selling remains to be seen. A 2016-style upset is not impossible, but Democratic nominee Joe Biden remains far ahead in polling averages and has widened his lead in multiple recent surveys. With any other pair of candidates, we'd anticipate an easy Biden win. Trump's Tuesday news that he won't sign another pandemic relief bill until after the election won't turn those numbers around. If anything, paired with his exultation in getting VIP coronavirus care most ordinary Americans won't receive, the announcement has an unattractive elitist ring.
Even Trump's illness itself may work against him. While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro both saw multi-week upticks in their approval ratings after they were hospitalized with COVID-19, it seems unlikely Trump will share in that advantage. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after news of his infection was released found two thirds of likely voters (including half of Republicans) said Trump's infection was his own fault for not taking the pandemic seriously.
And they're right: The fact that Trump is sick is connected to who he has chosen to be, the vicious and corrupt destination toward which he has very publicly moved for decades. Many of those with the virus caught it by chance or because of others' irresponsibility, but in the president's case, perhaps his character made infection inevitable.