Members Only | March 9, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
No One Is Immune to Fascism, Not Even Trump
Amid coronavirus panic, Wall Street is starting to get it.
The president shook hands today with supporters in Orlando, according to the AP. This wouldn’t be newsworthy in normal times. We don’t live in normal times, though. We live in time in which a new coronavirus is spreading across the world, shutting down cities in China and Italy, panicking global markets and vaporizing wealth.
We live in a time, moreover, in which the president looks dimly on administration officials acting professionally, behaving morally, and conducting themselves lawfully. Donald Trump has purged senior-level offices of people who knew what they were doing and replaced them with ignoble apes who know little except loyalty to Trump.
Trump, like China, would rather kill the messenger.
Even so, why would the president shake hands with people? The Post and others have reported he was advised not to. (Skin-to-skin contact is how viruses and other critters jump from person to person.) I guess you could say he’s just ignoring their advice. But that presupposes that he understands what health experts are telling him about the new coronavirus. It presupposes that he believes he needs to understand. He doesn’t.
I know this sounds speculative. (OK, I concede; it is.) I don’t have sources at hand other than my own experience to draw on. But other people who are living in, or who have endured before finally escaping, authoritarian climates know what I am talking about. Estranged adult children, wronged women, and people of color living in a white supremacist society—these Americans see Trump in a clear light. They always have. And they wonder how it’s possible for everyone else not to see what they are seeing.
Here is what they see: the president doesn’t need to understand the new coronavirus, because understanding it isn’t going to influence him one way or another from doing whatever he wants to do (for instance, shaking hands with faithful supporters). He’s going to do whatever he wants to do, because there is no authority higher than, or independent from, his ego and self-interest. While other people concern themselves with, say, obeying the law, he does no such thing. He can’t break the law. He is the law.
The president doesn’t need to pay heed to advisers telling him for God’s sake don’t touch anyone! because paying heed to the advice of those who know what they are talking about would be an act of deference impossible for someone who does not recognize the legitimacy of things (viruses) and people (experts) who are not him. Even if this president got sick from the new coronavirus, he’d deny his diseased reality. Being sick is impossible for Donald Trump. Being sick would mean the president isn’t perfect.
Some expressed shock last week when the president said he’d rather not help sick people quarantined on a cruise ship. He said he’d rather not let them off the boat, because once they were allowed off, they’d be included in the official number of sick people. “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship. … I’d rather have them stay on [the ship], personally.”
Some were shocked, because, you know, it was a terrible thing to say about people in need of help. But shock also presupposes that this president is violating some kind of unwritten rule of partisanship in which normal political conflict is set aside during times of crisis. This president, however, is no mere partisan. Neither are his Republican confederates. He is an authoritarian, a fascist, a white supremacist—many names meaning the same thing to people who are enduring it or who have escaped it.
In authoritarian countries, reality is less problematic than individuals talking about it as if reality itself had greater authority over people’s choices than the authoritarian regimes running those counties. In China, the ruling Communist Party suppressed knowledge of the coronavirus outbreak, because word getting out would make the party look bad. In the US, the president suppressed administration efforts to address and contain the new virus, because word getting out would make him look bad.
As I said, people who live in authoritarian climates, or who have escaped them, have always seen Trump in a clear light. The same can’t be said of the political class, the press corps and Wall Street. They kept seeing Trump as just another partisan. They kept thinking he’d stop being divisive when the moment called for unity. Or worse, they kept thinking they could control him—a least be immune to his misbehavior.
They were wrong. They are wrong.
That says more about them than it does Trump.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.