Ethics & Public Policy Center

Now Comes the Reckoning

Published in The Atlantic on October 5, 2020


“Truth will come to light,” Launcelot Gobbo tells his father in The Merchant of Venice. “At the length truth will out.”

For Donald Trump, this past week is when, for all except his most beguiled and gullible supporters, the truth willed itself out. At the start of the week, the ground on which the president’s most fanatical followers stood started to crumble; by the end of the week, it had completely collapsed.

During a campaign in which even many significant events haven’t moved the needle, this five-day stretch did.

The president’s week from hell began with the September 27 blockbuster story in The New York Times, which reported that Trump’s long-concealed tax records show chronic losses, struggling properties, years of tax avoidance, and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt coming due.

The entire narrative Trump had constructed about himself—a self-made billionaire, a world-class businessman, a master dealmaker—was pure fiction.

“It was all a hoax,” in the words of the Times’ Mike McIntire, Russ Buettner, and Susanne Craig. And they have the documents to prove it.

Then came last Tuesday’s catastrophic debate, in which Trump confirmed, in more than an hour and a half, nearly every concern the public has had about the president’s character and psychological state. He was abusive, belligerent, uncontrolled, unstable, vindictive, and indecent. It’s one thing to be told about the president’s tweets or to hear snippets from his campaign rallies or press conferences; it is quite another for more than 70 million Americans to watch an unhinged president for a sustained period of time.

The debate had “the explosive force of a howitzer,” in the words of David Brooks, a contributing writer for The Atlantic.

Then, on Friday, came news first that President Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 and then that he had been taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The president’s symptoms, including high fever and fluctuating oxygen levels for which he received supplemental oxygen, combined with the measures being taken by his medical team—including prescribing remdesivir and dexamethasone, a corticosteroid used in a wide range of conditions for its anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant effects that can have psychiatric side effectssuggest that his case might be severe. (It’s impossible to know with certainty, because the president’s physician has offered a misleading picture of his condition.)

The problem for the president isn’t simply that his reelection campaign, which now faces a dramatic financial disadvantage compared with Joe Biden’s, has been stopped in its tracks while he’s trailing the former vice president by eight points nationally and in almost every swing state, a huge deficit with less than 30 days left in the campaign.

No, the problem is that the president has contracted COVID-19 after epically bungling the response to the pandemic, repeatedly lying about it, peddling hydroxychloroquine and injecting disinfectant as cures, waging war on medicine and science, and mocking those who raised concerns about the dangers of COVID-19. He has repeatedly taunted Biden for wearing a mask, even though that is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus. He also acted recklessly himself, hosting super-spreader events indoors and outdoors on September 26, to announce Amy Coney Barrett as his choice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

The issue on which the president is most vulnerable, and that he has done everything in his power to obscure—the pandemic—is now, because of his own illness, front and center in the presidential campaign.

And on Sunday the president’s staggering disregard for the well-being of others was on display, as he had Secret Service agents drive him outside Walter Reed so he could wave to supporters, because he was bored and wanted to project strength during his illness, according to aides.

“Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days,” tweeted James P. Phillips, an attending physician at Walter Reed who is also a professor at George Washington University. “They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.”

From the outset of the Trump years, the president’s supporters—many of whom I’ve heard from—have insisted there’s a sharp demarcation between his character and his governing record.

What they mean by character is that Trump might be a little rough around the edges—too aggressive and a bit rude at times, with an unfortunate (but long ago) record of marital infidelity, perhaps, but he is also appealingly unconventional, politically incorrect, and tough. He was, they believed, the kind of wrecking ball that was needed to shake up the system.

Other Republicans were too genteel, too civilized, and too easily cowed by the press, or so the president’s supporters claimed. Not Donald Trump. He was always on the attack, he never apologized, and he hated the people they hated—Democrats, progressives, “the Squad,” the media, the “ruling-class elite,” RINOs. The president gives voice to their grievances, and they have grown to love him for it.

It’s true that Trump might have said some things now and then that made them a bit uncomfortable, especially early on in his run for the presidency—was it really necessary to mock John McCain’s time as a POW, or a reporter with a disability?—but they quickly grew accustomed to it. Some even came to appreciate it. In any case, they came to believe that it was part of the packaged deal. You take the bad with the good with Trump. And, truth be told, the bad wasn’t all that bad—and the good was really, really good.

Trump supporters believe that Trump critics, especially conservatives like myself, are too delicate. What mattered, we were told, is not what Trump said, not what he tweeted, but what Trump did.

Like Bill Clinton’s supporters in the late 1990s, they invoked the concept of compartmentalization. Trump may have said some unnecessarily provocative things, but the country was doing great under his stewardship—and besides, no real cost was associated with his regrettable words or deeds. On top of that, they believed, Trump was entertaining. Politics had become staid, even boring, before Trump; his presidency brought sparks, energy, excitement.

A few of us who had been lifelong Republicans said no. Much of the Republican Party’s base and its political leadership may have rallied round Donald Trump, despite many of them knowing better, but count us out. Character is destiny, personal honor and rectitude matter, and integrity and excellence count. In Donald Trump, we found the antithesis of probity. He is a man of nearly unfathomable corruption, incuriosity, and ineptitude, a person who is psychologically damaged and emotionally wounded.

The day after Trump was inaugurated, I wrote, “A man with illiberal tendencies, a volatile personality and no internal checks is now president. This isn’t going to end well.”

It couldn’t end well. Donald Trump could not outrun events forever. Living in his hall of mirrors would eventually become too disorienting; the United States couldn’t indefinitely escape the costs of his massive misjudgments and staggering incompetence, his mendacity and nihilism, his assaults on norms and institutions.

Ultimately, Donald Trump could not be anything other than who he is: a con artist; a person living in a world of lies and illusions; a cruel, lonely, rootless, and deeply broken man. The tragedy is that during his presidency, he has broken much of America. Now comes the reckoning. Then hopefully, after Trump, comes the healing. It won’t be easy, but healing and renewal are within our reach.

“Pain and suffering, they are a secret,” Alan Paton wrote in his exquisite novel Cry, the Beloved Country. “Kindness and love, they are a secret. But I have learned that kindness and love can pay for pain and suffering.”

 

Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.

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