FINTAN O’TOOLE. Donald Trump has destroyed the country he promised to make great again (Irish Times 25.4.2020)

Usually, when this kind of outlandish idiocy is displaying itself, there is the comforting thought that, if things were really serious, it would all stop. People would sober up. Instead, a large part of the US has hit the bottle even harder.

US President Donald Trump has claimed he was being sarcastic and testing the media when he raised the idea that injecting disinfectant or irradiating the body with ultraviolet light might kill coronavirus.

Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.

However bad things are for most other rich democracies, it is hard not to feel sorry for Americans. Most of them did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Yet they are locked down with a malignant narcissist who, instead of protecting his people from Covid-19, has amplified its lethality. The country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful.

Will American prestige ever recover from this shameful episode? The US went into the coronavirus crisis with immense advantages: precious weeks of warning about what was coming, the world’s best concentration of medical and scientific expertise, effectively limitless financial resources, a military complex with stunning logistical capacity and most of the world’s leading technology corporations. Yet it managed to make itself the global epicentre of the pandemic.

As the American writer George Packer puts it in the current edition of the Atlantic, “The United States reacted … like Pakistan or Belarus – like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.”

It is one thing to be powerless in the face of a natural disaster, quite another to watch vast power being squandered in real time – wilfully, malevolently, vindictively. It is one thing for governments to fail (as, in one degree or another, most governments did), quite another to watch a ruler and his supporters actively spread a deadly virus. Trump, his party and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News became vectors of the pestilence.

The grotesque spectacle of the president openly inciting people (some of them armed) to take to the streets to oppose the restrictions that save lives is the manifestation of a political death wish. What are supposed to be daily briefings on the crisis, demonstrative of national unity in the face of a shared challenge, have been used by Trump merely to sow confusion and division. They provide a recurring horror show in which all the neuroses that haunt the American subconscious dance naked on live TV.

If the plague is a test, its ruling political nexus ensured that the US would fail it at a terrible cost in human lives. In the process, the idea of the US as the world’s leading nation – an idea that has shaped the past century – has all but evaporated.

Other than the Trump impersonator Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who is now looking to the US as the exemplar of anything other than what not to do? How many people in Düsseldorf or Dublin are wishing they lived in Detroit or Dallas?

It is hard to remember now but, even in 2017, when Trump took office, the conventional wisdom in the US was that the Republican Party and the broader framework of US political institutions would prevent him from doing too much damage. This was always a delusion, but the pandemic has exposed it in the most savage ways.

What used to be called mainstream conservatism has not absorbed Trump – he has absorbed it. Almost the entire right-wing half of American politics has surrendered abjectly to him. It has sacrificed on the altar of wanton stupidity the most basic ideas of responsibility, care and even safety.

Thus, even at the very end of March, 15 Republican governors had failed to order people to stay at home or to close non-essential businesses. In Alabama, for example, it was not until April 3rd that governor Kay Ivey finally issued a stay-at-home order.

In Florida, the state with the highest concentration of elderly people with underlying conditions, governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump mini-me, kept the beach resorts open to students travelling from all over the US for spring break parties. Even on April 1st, when he issued restrictions, DeSantis exempted religious services and “recreational activities”.

There is, as the demonstrations in US cities show, plenty of political mileage in denying the reality of the pandemic.

Georgia governor Brian Kemp, when he finally issued a stay-at-home order on April 1st, explained: “We didn’t know that [the virus can be spread by people without symptoms] until the last 24 hours.”

This is not mere ignorance – it is deliberate and homicidal stupidity. There is, as the demonstrations this week in US cities have shown, plenty of political mileage in denying the reality of the pandemic. It is fuelled by Fox News and far-right internet sites, and it reaps for these politicians millions of dollars in donations, mostly (in an ugly irony) from older people who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

It draws on a concoction of conspiracy theories, hatred of science, paranoia about the “deep state” and religious providentialism (God will protect the good folks) that is now very deeply infused in the mindset of the American right.

Trump embodies and enacts this mindset, but he did not invent it. The US response to the coronavirus crisis has been paralysed by a contradiction that the Republicans have inserted into the heart of US democracy. On the one hand, they want to control all the levers of governmental power. On the other they have created a popular base by playing on the notion that government is innately evil and must not be trusted.

The contradiction was made manifest in two of Trump’s statements on the pandemic: on the one hand that he has “total authority”, and on the other that “I don’t take responsibility at all”. Caught between authoritarian and anarchic impulses, he is incapable of coherence.

But this is not just Donald Trump. The crisis has shown definitively that Trump’s presidency is not an aberration. It has grown on soil long prepared to receive it. The monstrous blossoming of misrule has structure and purpose and strategy behind it.

There are very powerful interests who demand “freedom” in order to do as they like with the environment, society and the economy. They have infused a very large part of American culture with the belief that “freedom” is literally more important than life. My freedom to own assault weapons trumps your right not to get shot at school. Now, my freedom to go to the barber (“I Need a Haircut” read one banner this week in St Paul, Minnesota) trumps your need to avoid infection.

Usually, when this kind of outlandish idiocy is displaying itself, there is the comforting thought that, if things were really serious, it would all stop. People would sober up. Instead, a large part of the US has hit the bottle even harder.

And the president, his party and their media allies keep supplying the drinks. There has been no moment of truth, no shock of realisation that the antics have to end. No one of any substance on the US right has stepped in to say: get a grip, people are dying here.
If he is re-elected, toxicity will have become the lifeblood of American politics
That is the mark of how deep the trouble is for the US – it is not just that Trump has treated the crisis merely as a way to feed tribal hatreds but that this behaviour has become normalised. When the freak show is live on TV every evening, and the star is boasting about his ratings, it is not really a freak show any more. For a very large and solid bloc of Americans, it is reality.

And this will get worse before it gets better. Trump has at least eight more months in power. In his inaugural address in 2017, he evoked “American carnage” and promised to make it stop. But now that the real carnage has arrived, he is revelling in it. He is in his element.

As things get worse, he will pump more hatred and falsehood, more death-wish defiance of reason and decency, into the groundwater. If a new administration succeeds him in 2021, it will have to clean up the toxic dump he leaves behind. If he is re-elected, toxicity will have become the lifeblood of American politics.
Either way, it will be a long time before the rest of the world can imagine America being great again.

Fintan O’Toole is an Irish columnist, literary editor, and drama critic for The Irish Times, for which he has written since 1988.

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Fintan O'Toole is an Irish columnist, literary editor, and drama critic for The Irish Times, for which he has written since 1988.

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16 Responses to FINTAN O’TOOLE. Donald Trump has destroyed the country he promised to make great again (Irish Times 25.4.2020)

  1. Mark Whitby says:

    I believe that Trump cannot help his total inability to make a good decision. His whole outlook on politics is based on extremism. He cannot come to terms with middle ground… for the good of the majority, and he totally ignores the vulnerable who this virus targets.

  2. Ken Keogh says:

    I have a wide spectrum of contact and have not heard of one Australian who considers TRUMP to be a sane and fit person to hold office . He has decimated the dignity and status of the office of president of the united states. The republican party (every individual who put Trump in power) must be held responsible for the damage done to USA as a whole. As a result I have lost all respect for Americans…..AMERICA WILL NEVER BE GREAT….you can fix the american economy , you can possibly eventually fix the corona virus pandemic BUT YOU CANNOT FIX STUPID.

  3. jim shouin says:

    This important perspective from Fintan O’Toole has had huge traction on LinkedIn – and as in this thread – also attracted the seriously bonkers who think it is all about Democrats vs Republican/Tea Party. Two sides of the one coin – a bit ALP/LNP as here in Australia. No – it’s more fundamental than that…

    This is just the site (Pearls&Irritations) for anything written by Fintan O’Toole whom I have been following now for some time.

  4. Jane Goldbach says:

    So very well said! Unfortunately, the ones who should read it, and pay attention to what it says, won’t.

  5. Bonny Becker says:

    Well written article. It is good to see an outside perspective. Sadly it is true. Our only hope is to see him gone as soon as possible. All the Republican politicians who are afraid to stand up to him have no business in government. They are not serving their country.

  6. S. Cullen says:

    Fake new is real. The way the left and Democrats report things is totally irresponsible. Trump only said what they may be testing as possibilities for the CID19.
    Sure, he may be a rough speaking, and say things that make one cringe, but I would rather have that than a smooth-talking Obama that did nothing. The Iran deal, approved by him alone as an executive order, not a treaty so it did not have to go to Congress. Over the past 3 years, lets look at what Dems spent millions tax-payer dollars on: 1st Impeachment attempt-Failed, Brett Kavanaugh -Failed, Russian Collusion – Failed, 2nd impeachment (whistleblower) – Failed. Who are the fools? DEMS stand for: Illegal Immigrants getting more than US citizens, Sanctuary Cities, Government Control (Socialism) – did well in China, N. Korea, Cuba, Venezuela; solve every issue with word ‘Racist’ . Shameful 4 years wasted on hatred. In spite of that, our economy is better than ever, more jobs created because of deregulation, border control of illegal drugs, sex traffickers, etc. , bringing corporations back to America, etc. I pray that Trump wins 2020 so we can continue our prosperous ways. What more could have been accomplished if the Dems had accepted Trump as the elected President rather than trying to remove him – sad for us Americans – and our tax-payer money.

  7. Elizabeth E Arnett says:

    This article totally sums up what I’ve been feeling since the end of 2015. I remember watching trump campaign and saying to myself one day…”Something is wrong with this guy”
    I then read 6 books on Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and understood even more. I also became familiar with the term Malignant Narcissist, due to the sadistic notes present in his behavior.
    No, I am not a doctor…but I did grow up with a Malignant Narcissist for an older sister.

    Anyway, this article really summarized everything for me….All the points in this article have been floating around in my head as fragments without cohesion.
    I am so grateful for this article and for Fintan O’Toole.

  8. Since we are getting things off our chest I have to say I’ve never quite recovered from the time Ireland first voted “no” in the Lisbon treaty and then were persuaded to vote “yes” by EU officials (behind closed doors).

    In the great history of Ireland, a country I dearly love I wonder what Irish people think of politicians selling Irish freedom to join an EU community that is surely doomed to fail. One further kick in the stomach was discovering that Ireland is #5 in owning US debt.

    When will Irish people wake up and collectively see that the most dangerous thing to every single Irish person (and every single human) are central banks and debt monetization? As these banks print money they are debasing (stealing) the purchasing power of every fiat currency unit. As you scream and laugh about Trump the central banks are robbing you all blind. Don’t get sidetracked by the Bread and circuses. Keep your eyes on the prize or you will all wake up very soon with trillions of nothing in your bank and hunger pangs in your stomach that haven’t been there since the 1800s.

    It would serve you well Fintan to hide your pity and start showing your anger.

    Further reading:
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/dec/13/eu-ireland-lisbon-treaty
    https://ticdata.treasury.gov/Publish/mfh.txt

  9. Lois Frieden says:

    American grandmother here…and of course, I have Irish ancestors.
    Just had to send a note and say Thank You for writing about our miscreant President. I am an old nurse who had his number long before he ran for office. Worst person in the country to elect.

    My nation has been on a rocky path for several decades. Not everyone can be a Barack Obama. And our representatives and senators have a lot to answer for also.

    Best thing I keep in mind is that Canada will probably take me in as I a lucky enough to have saved some money over the years. Seriously, I only live 2 hours from the Canadian border and if the election goes sour it looks like a good place for me.

    • Wendy MacNeill, RN BS says:

      Amazing! I am writing from Boston and agree with all you’ve written. My husband is currently living in Canada and our immigration application is on hold there due to the virus; in 2009 we were unable to have him come to the U.S. because 1 year out of five tax returns I didn’t make enough $ to sponsor him. I am of German descent, first generation American nurse who knew my great-grandmother and grandmother well from visits and heard their personal experiences during WWII. I likened Trump to Hitler and have been sick to my stomach and worried every day since then for my daughter, family and the country’s future. Now I am even worried for the safety of the world under his reckless “presidency”. I fear he will not go quietly even if he is voted out. Worse, we had some hope at first that the Republican electorate might reign him in, yet they behave, to me, not unlike the SS in their loyalty to him and their insatiable greed and thirst for unfettered power. I am not a “snowflake liberal” either. I’m an independent voter who reserves the right to vote for the most qualified candidate that most closely represents my values; I do not waste my vote on a third party candidate with no hope of winning. Since my marriage 11 years ago I’ve learned alot about Canada and feel like that country more closely resembles what was my own growing up (without healthcare for all, of course) in terms of values and the definition of patriotism, that we come from and enjoy prosperity by a diverse citizenship founded on inalienable rights defined by immigrants. The atrocities of kids in cages, overflowing prisons, starving children, violence, unfettered racism and xenophobia continues to shock me daily. Trump has blood on his hands, and so do the Republicans for not impeaching him when we had the chance (excepting former Mass governor and senator from Utah Mitt Romney). I have hope from this article that someone “on the outside”, indeed and hopefully others in the free world, realize that the people in power do not represent the majority of Americans who voted for Clinton and won the popular vote. Please continue to pray for us. These are more than frightening times and we will need our administration-spurned allies to forgive if not forget, help us repair as best we can if not continue to lead as we did when I was a kid.

  10. Andrew Glikson says:

    A president like this can only be elected once a “culture” (for lack of a better word) dominated by Holywood, Disneyland and Las Vegas has saturated people’s minds

  11. John CARMODY says:

    Over the history of humanity, there have been many powerful empires and every one has imploded. Anther way of reading Fintan O’Toole’s fine essay is that — after barely 100 years’ supremacy — the downfall of Imperial America has begun. ‘

    Trump talks of “making America great again”. I seriously wonder what time he is talking about? When the White Man was supreme and neither women nor indigenous people needed to be accorded any respect or importance? And when the physical and biological environment could be ignored? For Americans, there can be no going back to those imagined times.

    The unavoidable question is, therefore, has the “American Goetterdaemmerung” actually begun. The old adage from classical times comes to mind: “Those whom the Gods seek to destroy, they first make mad.”

  12. Mark Freeman says:

    Well written summary of the sad situation. Thanks

  13. Brian Dwyer says:

    A very well written article, let’s hope for America’s sake some intelligent, moral Republicans get to read it, it just might make them realise how morally deficient they have been in supporting. aiding and abetting Trump.
    I really do feel sorry for the majority of Americans who dud not vote for Trump

    • K Smith says:

      Mitt Romney is the only decent, honest republican. Forget the rest of the Congress and Trump’s “base.” They truly are deplorable as is Trump, a wicked man.

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