President Trump’s peculiar brew of relentless dishonesty and utter shamelessness often acts as a shield against his interviewers. The lies tumble out at such a furious pace, and the display of corrupt motives is so blatant, that pinning Trump down on them is like (and apologies for the cliche, but nothing else is better) nailing jello to a wall.
Axios’s Jonathan Swan conducted a stunning interview with Trump that is gaining praise for getting around this problem. But the full import of how Swan did this, I think, is still eluding attention, and properly accounting for it exposes core truths about this extraordinary moment that we still struggle to find the right language to express.
Again and again, Swan practically pleaded with Trump to demonstrate a shred of basic humanity about the mounting toll under his presidency, and to display a glimmer of recognition of responsibility for it. Again and again, Trump failed this most basic test.
The beseeching quality of those lines of inquiry contrasted jarringly with Trump’s serial inability to rise to this fundamental threshold, or even to perceive what was being asked of him. This, I think, is the source of this interview’s unsettling revelatory power — and it captured a crucial aspect of Trump’s unfitness to serve as president that I suspect a majority of the country has figured out.
Swan noted that experts believe “the wishful thinking and the salesmanship is just not suitable at a time when a pandemic has killed 145,000 Americans,” and added: “For the past five months, it’s been, ‘the virus is totally under control,’ and the cases have been going up and the deaths have been going up.”
Trump responded with silly evasions about what was previously understood about pandemics, absurd distortions about how other countries are faring worse than we are, and his usual grotesque exaggerations about the efficacy of his halting of travel from China.
TRUMP: Those people that really understand it, they said it’s incredible the job that we’ve done.
SWAN: Who says that?
TRUMP: Banning China from coming in —
SWAN: But it was already in here!
Swan is not just challenging Trump’s distortions. He’s also practically begging him to acknowledge the fact that after Trump’s glorious China ban, a whole range of failures to take action subsequently allowed the coronavirus to rampage out of control here.
The unspoken question hovering over much of this was Swan pleading with Trump to share in our collective horror about the consequences that have unfolded since, and to take some measure of responsibility for those consequences. This taking of responsibility would itself speak to the gravity of what the country is enduring, and show basic respect for the sick, the dead and the bereaved.
Trump couldn’t do it. He made only the most perfunctory reference to the dead, even as he hailed his own great response again and again while blaming everyone else for the toll that Swan kept reminding him of, from the “fake news” to China.
Swan then tried to access Trump’s humanity through the portal of his narcissism. He did so by bringing up Trump’s great rally crowds.
“These people, they listen to you,” Swan pleaded, by way of suggesting that he should use his power over his followers for good, that is, to get them to take the virus seriously for their own well-being.
In the most perfect moment ever, Trump’s immediate response to this was to accuse the media of downplaying the size of the crowd at his Tulsa rally.
“Why would you have wanted a huge crowd?” Swan asked, again trying to focus Trump on the consequences his words have for his supporters.
“Because that area was a very good area at the time,” Trump replied.
In fact, cases were rising in Oklahoma at the time — and Tulsa saw a surge after the rally — but the more important unspoken truth revealed here is that Trump could not rise to the challenge of showing basic humanity.
This exchange underscored the point:
SWAN: Many of them are older people, Mr. President — it’s giving them a false sense of security.
TRUMP: Right now, I think it’s under control.
SWAN: How? A thousand Americans are dying a day.
TRUMP: They are dying. That’s true. It is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it.
Even during the very occasional moments in which Trump did show a glimmer of awareness of the human toll, he immediately marred it with absurd blame-shifting to governors, who were screaming about the dangers for weeks early on while Trump dithered.
“I’m talking about death. It’s going up,” Swan said, in another effort to break through to Trump during this subsequent exchange:
That is superficially a debate about statistics. But it’s actually a debate over Trump’s inability to show that basic human empathy and decency that the exchange demanded of him.
As Tim Miller says, Trump simply doesn’t view the coronavirus as something to be defeated. Making this more destructive, Trump and his propagandists are working to keep the actual real-world failures of his response cosseted away in a place where they cannot be subjected to outside criticism — or corrected.
I would only add that Trump’s true position here, laid bare, is that this is the best we can do. Whether this is due to narcissism and the inability to hear criticism and self-correct, or whether it’s due to naked malevolence, that may be the biggest revelation here of all.