The Trump Virus

“We are not enemies, but friends.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1861

On the eve of this great election, it suddenly becomes clear what the Trump presidency is all about. Looking back you could see it gestating for years — the narcissism, the self-promotion, the malleability of truth, the obsession with image above all else. It existed in its own universe, a sort of Petri dish of media and spectacle, until it crossed into the broader culture with the descent down the golden escalator in June 2015. Trump wasn’t just declaring his candidacy then. He was transmitting a political virus that has run rampant through the Republican Party and the broader culture. He is our political coronavirus.

I don’t say this lightly. I have friends, people I respect and care for, who support Trump. And I agree with many of their opinions about Trump — that he provided much-needed oxygen to the private sector by making the corporate tax rate more globally competitive; rationalized a Byzantine regulatory regime; reformed the criminal justice system; brokered paradigm-shifting rapprochements in the Middle East; and fast-tracked the development of a vaccine that may finally help end the pandemic, among other accomplishments.

But all of these gains have come at great cost.

Healthy cultures share several fundamental traits — they are inclusive, adaptable and resilient. They are built on the idea of the common good and they value principled compromise; they honor the genius of the “and” over the tyranny of the “or.” Trump has infected that culture and like all viruses, he has been stealthy and cunning about how he’s done it.

His appeals to the “forgotten man” have resonated across large sections of America who have been left behind by the rapid evolution of the knowledge economy, the loss of manufacturing and the hollowing out of the middle class. The people who Hillary Clinton dismissed as “deplorables” rallied around his vision to make America great again because they felt seen by him after years of being treated as road kill in the economic evolution.

Plus, he was exciting. You never knew what he would say next and Twitter emerged as the perfect platform for his messages — bite-sized, provocative and ephemeral. So in many ways he proved to be the perfect carrier, someone who pierced the veil of traditional politics and let in the viral particles of resentment, shock-jock culture, and the levers of social media.

Like a virus, Trump did not have a grand strategy. This is just what he did — grandstand, provoke, and titillate — and had been doing his entire career. But like any efficient virus, once it found a host it metastasized at an astonishing rate.

There were times when it seemed like the Trump phenomenon would be cut off at the knees and effectively quarantined. For me, it was his remark about John McCain in 2015. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Well, that’s the end of that, I thought. McCain was the very definition of a war hero, a man who withstood unspeakable tortures to defend his fellow prisoners, the military code of conduct and the sanctity of American ideals. And in politics, McCain was an avatar of our better angels. He was a principled fighter for conservative ideas but never failed to reach across the aisle to advance the common good.

Surely, Trump would be rejected for being so crass and disrespectful. He might say something like that over a late-night steak dinner at Peter Luger’s, but not to the American public!

And yet, Trump kept moving forward. There was momentary outrage and then it was on to the next provocation. The virus had found its host.

Since then, I think we’ve all been shocked at how quickly our political culture has devolved. The virus has left the body politic devouring itself in a toxic loop of blame, outrage, division, paranoid fantasies (QAnon), self-righteousness, and grandstanding — all of it fanned by the accelerant of social media platforms. The outcome — which I think is the objective of this particular political virus — is a wholesale collapse of trust and respect for institutions, cultural norms and each other.

We are all exhausted by this, of course. We’ve all had those moments where we mutter, “You can’t make this stuff up.” But I began saying it so often that I made it into a hashtag, #ycmtsu. A computer repair man who is legally blind cracks open Hunter Biden’s laptop and releases pictures of Hunter stoned in a bathtub along with memos about back door deals with Asian energy companies? #ycmtsu

But all viruses eventually run their course when they’ve exhausted their host. I think we are getting tiny glimpses of that now. The big social media platforms are slowly coming to realize their role as gatekeepers; shameless and egregious provocateurs like Alex Jones have been sidelined; and our personal bullshit detectors are becoming a lot more effective. Maybe we are slowly, haltingly finding a way to self-vaccinate against this virus. One hopes.

But one thing is certain. If we do finally develop herd immunity against the Trump virus, we cannot go back to the way it was. Looking back on the spread of the coronavirus, for instance, it’s clear that China has to do something about its wet markets. For us, it’s clear that we have to change our behaviors, burst our respective bubbles, and rush back in to the radical center — that place where we meet with respect and goodwill and the courage to compromise for the common good.

Americans are smart. They get this. All of us understand, at some level, that we’re part of a great political, social and economic (and relatively young) experiment called America. And each of us is responsible for its outcome. So let’s look each other in the eye, shake hands (or bump elbows) and get on with it.

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