Well, this will teach me to delay filing my diary.
On Tuesday night, I intended to write about the debate, but it was Too Much—too much hate, too much disappointment, too much a reminder of the abusive relationship in my past. When Chris Wallace began to plead with the President for decency—“Please, Mr. President, please”—his imploring tone set off a prickling sensation between my shoulder blades. The muscle memory of knowing it would get worse.
On Wednesday night, I intended to write about Trump’s Duluth rally, where his racist rant, taunting Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and full of incredulous disgust at the Minneapolis suburbs’ unwillingness to respond to his implied promise of racial purity, took place as a rally-goer physically assaulted a Cambodian refugee-turned-photojournalist.
But then news broke of Trump’s Department of Justice explicitly encouraging its officials to defend the deluded teenager who killed two protesters and injured a third in Kenosha on August 25.
But then news broke about a white supremacist group that has apparently recruited thousands of law enforcement officers and veterans to act as a “counterinsurgency force” against anti-racist protesters. Their leader (who has quoted Solzhenitsyn in support of his beliefs) said, with inadvertent irony: “Us old vets and younger ones are going to end up having to kill these young kids… And they’re going to die believing they were fighting Nazis.”
But then there was the news of presidential family lamprey Kimberly Guilfoyle’s indecorous departure from Fox News, where she put lie to the tragically common assumption that sexual harassment is a matter of straightforward sexual attraction. Her target was a female assistant, her method was the same kind of vulgar emotional sadism that her male colleagues at Fox News seemed to enjoy, and if you read the article you’ll never wonder again why harassment doesn’t require a demand for sex. Clearly Guilfoyle got off on exploiting and manipulating someone with less power than herself. Given the company she keeps lately, the only surprising thing about this behavior is that she endured any consequences for it.
And then we learned the President is sick.
This is not the most important news to break in the past twenty-four hours. The news that matters in most Americans’ lives concerns our “K-shaped” recovery, with surging food insecurity and students caught between the chaos of online learning and straitjacket of constant fear. Americans are concerned with the coronavirus, but only as the rolling pandemic washes steadily over their own corner of the country, as implacable as the tides (and the wildfires, and the hurricanes).
But the President is sick and that is important because he is, whether we like it or not (and, demonstrably, most of us do not) the avatar of the American Empire in all its red-faced gracelessness and dangerous pride. He is sick because he acted as empire always does: lawless, incurious, dismissive of anything but his own appetites, and singularly focused on perpetuating the grift that’s worked thus far. Again, the real surprise here is not the specific endgame. According to scientists, most of us are likely to catch some form of Covid eventually. What arrests the attention now is that Trump was personally ensnared at the moment the bill for his campaign of destruction came due.
How sick is he? Not very sick, the White House says, though we know that the White House had hoped to bury the news that senior aide Hope Hicks tested positive for the virus, and we also know that Trump “arrived too late” to the debate facility on Tuesday to be tested before the event. Chris Wallace, who at this point should really know better, said that debate organizers were left to rely on “an honor system when it came to the people that came into the hall from the two campaigns.”
Trump was airlifted to Walter Reed Hospital off the South Lawn, some time after recording a grainy video conveying the exceedingly loose assurance, “We’re going to make sure things work out.” It is difficult to square the hurried departure for Walter Reed as an act of “precaution” with Trump’s well-documented disdain for weakness and disease, which he seems to regard as personal failings; “good genes” lead to success, and “nobody wants to see” the scars of those who have survived violence or indeed, any physical defects at all.
So I assume he’s pretty sick. It gives me no pleasure to suppose that, as much as I’d thought it might, in part because I cannot quite bring myself to wish another human harm, and in part because I don’t believe removing Trump from our current political landscape would necessarily throw the election to Biden.
“Trumpism” has never really needed the man, not since the simpering masses of elected Republicans decided to throw in with him years ago. We’re fortunate that he has failed to encourage much vigilante justice in the streets, but with respect to vigilante politics, his success has been markedly greater. He’s shown a whole class of people what can be done if you cast every moral and ethical consideration aside in favor of a naked grasp for power.
Let’s leave aside the angels-on-a-pinhead debate over whether Pence would be “worse” because he believes in the “religious” justifications for cruelty, rather than enjoying cruelty for its own sake. Trump has reshaped the Republican brand around an ethic of nihilism that will allow anyone who comes immediately after him to continue to govern by malevolent whim and undisguised avarice, if he or she so desires. And the fact is, to judge by their voting in Congress and by the tenor and messaging of their press and their campaigns, there is no one in the conservative movement who would change a thing.