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The Martyrdom of Donald Trump

Pandemic be damned, the president intends to see out the conservative mission of cutting out America’s democratic heart.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The president is a sick man. On its face, Trump’s appalling handling of his coronavirus diagnosis doesn’t seem to tell us much more than we already knew about him. His inability to admit to any fault or vulnerability, his reckless disregard for others, and his brazen dishonesty are all too familiar to us now. But our weariness shouldn’t obscure the fact that Trump’s departure from Walter Reed and premature return to the White House and campaign trail—a potentially life-threatening course of action—is, by a wide margin, the bravest thing he’s ever done, a feat of personal daring that, of course, can’t really be construed as an act of personal sacrifice.

What is it all for? He isn’t the first president to downplay or obscure an illness, and he probably won’t be the last. But he may be the first to have risked worsening his condition without an obvious substantive rationale in mind. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy hid and worked to overcome their illnesses because they had things to do; Trump plainly does not. If he is reelected, a cadre of conservative advisers and strategists will reassemble to foist their policy objectives on him again, but at this point for Trump, who has yet to offer the public a real sense of what his own second-term priorities might be, victory is apparently its own end. For reasons that are possibly obscure even to him, Trump would like to remain the widely loathed and beleaguered leader of a country whose mounting crises he has only deepened.

It’s clear that he’s resumed his rallies and normal routines partially because he believes a faux recovery might flatter his strength, maintain an image of control, minimize the virus’s severity, and in so doing, revive his fading campaign. It’s also clear, already, that this strategy has failed⁠—Biden is now leading many national polls by double digits; the latest state polls suggest even Texas and Georgia might be slipping away from Trump’s column. But beyond strategy, Trump also seems intent on living out a particular principle. His willingness to put his own health at risk and return to business can be understood as an expression of the only real worldview he can really be assumed to hold—that the world should bend to his will and the will of men like him, all entitled to a life unencumbered by whatever claims society and good sense might make on them.

This is the thread that runs through so much of what people find most objectionable about him—from his crimes in office to the revelation at long last, in late September, that he’d paid little to nothing in income taxes for many years. His boorishness, his authoritarian personality, his simple venality are all secondary traits, derivatives of a more fundamental aspect of his character and identity. The idea at the bottom of it all is that Donald Trump cannot justly be restrained or even inconvenienced by the mores and concerns of the common—that his position at the top of the imbricated hierarchies ordering American society will always immunize him morally and spiritually, if not literally.

The word for this is conservatism. Even now, there are those who insist Trump represents a meaningful departure from it: Pundits committed to the idea that the right has cathected to something foreign and novel within him. In truth, he’s simply embodied all they already were and all they already believed, without apology, obfuscation, or restraint. In his illness, his appeal has become corporeal—he both spreads and manifests the gospel of personal liberty with his own straining lungs. The word has been made flesh.

It’s perhaps fitting that the libertarian tenor of what might be Trump’s final weeks and months in office matches the tenor of the movement that made his rise possible 10 years ago. There are reminders anywhere one cares to look these days of how thoroughly the Tea Party succeeded in stripping conservative politics down to its essentials. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Mike Pence was, as one of the inaugural members of the Tea Party Caucus, among the early architects of the bridge between the party’s electrified base and its establishment that Trump would eventually cross. His role now is to establish continuity, not just in the morbid sense the last week has invited us to consider, but ideologically—win or lose in November, it will be his job to help ensure the GOP finds its way back to respectability in the eyes of Trump’s critics and the voters it’s lost.

His performance at this week’s vice presidential debate offered ample reason to suspect that he and all the others who will take up that project might succeed. Pence, while fully in lockstep with Trump, is now a banal enough figure to Trump’s mainstream critics, by comparison, that the most significant moment of his performance, if one believes the press and social media, came when a fly landed on his head.

This was bad news for those on the Trump campaign hoping for a bit of drama to turn the race around but ultimately good news for conservatives already thinking about the party’s future: a sign that the hood can be slipped back on, the alarms can be silenced, and liberals and centrists can find themselves comfortably bored again. “Last night’s vice-presidential debate, despite its limitations, felt like a breakthrough after the recent top-of-the-ticket atrocity,” Bloomberg’s Editorial Board wrote the morning after. “Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris let each other speak, for the most part. They exchanged some intelligible opinions. They were civil, even if they sometimes voiced their courtesy through gritted teeth. Many viewers must’ve felt nostalgic for what used to be normal politics. Perhaps, after all, it might one day resume.”

What might we expect from the right if it does? Those truly listening to Pence Wednesday night would have heard one answer in his defense of the White House’s Rose Garden ceremony announcing Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which fueled a local viral outbreak. “It was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise,” he said. “The difference here is President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates, and not just mandates with the coronavirus but a government takeover of health, the Green New Deal—all government control. We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people.” For all the talk over the last few years about Trump spurring the rise of an anti–laissez faire right populism, the man formally best positioned to succeed him as the central figure in Republican politics hasn’t taken a real interest in it.

Again, it should be trivially understood by now that the “American people” as conceived by Trump, Pence, and the rest of the right are a small, homogenous bunch. They don’t include nonwhite immigrants, minority activists, women seeking abortions, or gay people wondering now, after a Supreme Court dissent from Justices Thomas and Alito this week, whether the ruling that finally allowed them to marry freely just a few years ago might suddenly be overturned. The legitimate public is white conservative America, with few caveats. “If you’re a young African American, an immigrant,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham helpfully clarified on Friday, “you can go anywhere in this state—you just need to be conservative, not liberal.”

It is tyrannical and antithetical to human liberty to suppose that we might govern them. But governing us is their inalienable right; our political institutions exist for their benefit. “Democracy isn’t the objective,” Utah Senator Mike Lee wrote on Twitter Thursday. “Liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish.”

There have been plenty of reasonable challenges to his remarks⁠. Lee readily appeals to “American democracy” in opposition to “late-term abortion” and the Obama administration’s immigration policies; his distinction between democracies and republics is historically dubious and descended from the rhetoric of the John Birch Society and the fight against civil rights. But none have been quite as compelling as that wayward experiment in human flourishing that was just uncovered in Michigan.

Trump and his circle have responded to the plot against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer over the state’s “tyrannical” coronavirus restrictions with about the same ambivalence they offered in response to Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder of two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. In a Thursday Fox News interview, White House adviser Jason Miller asked Whitmer to examine the “hatred in her heart towards President Trump” after she rightly condemned him for fueling right-wing extremism. If they have just as little respect for peace as they do for democracy, that leaves, in Lee’s formulation, only two other worthwhile goals for the right and the country: liberty and prosperity.

But if conservative voters imagine both might finally be theirs whenever liberals and the government are finally defeated, they’re mistaken—this is the great lie of conservative politics. The freedoms the right’s politicians offer to their constituents are the freedoms compatible with the domination of capital; ordinary conservatives might be higher up the totem pole of American power than the rest of us, but true prosperity is for those fortunate enough to find themselves at the very top, as is true liberty. Trump has spent his entire life taking that liberty wholly for granted; he owes everything to this arrogance. It’s the trait that brought him to the center of conservative politics and that his supporters most admire. At this point, it’s also the trait that may lose him the presidency, if not his life.