For those of you not of a certain age, a reference to drinking Kool-Aid may not ring a bell. In November 1978, 918 members of a self-styled revolutionary cult committed mass suicide on the orders of their leader, Jim Jones, mostly by drinking a cyanide-laced brew. It probably wasn’t Kool-Aid after all, but the brand name stuck. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” means believing sheer nonsense and doing something absolutely nuts.
That’s what our modern-day Jim Jones, Donald Trump, served up to a stunned press corps and a national television audience last week. He suggested that we inject disinfectant into our lungs and mainline ultraviolet light (somehow) into our bodies as a way of killing the coronavirus. The Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, reported that the state’s healthcare hotlines were besieged by callers asking if they should take their president’s advice. The parent company of Lysol felt obliged to issue a public statement saying that their cleaning products should not be ingested under any circumstances.
As CNN anchor Jake Tapper put it: “We’re running out of words to describe this era.” Let me try a few, though: No great nation, and probably no poor and miserable one, has ever been led by anyone combining personal vileness and unfathomable stupidity as Donald J. Trump has.
Okay, there was Elagabalus, who became emperor of Rome in the early third century at the age of fourteen, castrated himself and then demanded worship as a god. But he wasn’t elected by anybody, and he didn’t demand that anyone imitate his personal surgery.
Trump, though, is only the iceberg tip of our dysfunctionality. In the first place, he wasn’t elected to begin with but crowned by a system, unique to the U.S., that enables the loser of a presidential race to be its winner. We don’t allow our city council members to be picked that way, or anybody else. The Electoral College results that got Trump his scepter and coronet were enabled by voter suppression in key states, abetted by a court system stacked against democratic majorities. We will face the same rigged system in the fall. To call ourselves a democracy in these circumstances is something much sicker than a joke.
It is a fact that, from the day he announced his first presidential candidacy, Trump has never enjoyed majority support for a single day. George W. Bush was also a minority president, and he left office a despised one, but he did poll well in the aftermath of 9/11. Trump has never had the support of a majority of his fellow citizens on any day. In any other world but ours, that would be called a dictatorship.
On the other hand, Trump has enjoyed the consistent support of his so-called base, which has been fairly stable at or above 40 percent of the electorate. The 46 percent of voters who made Trump a president in 2016 was one thing; for many of them, he represented a brick flung at a system that they felt, with good reason, was stacked against them. That the great majority should be sticking with him into the fourth year of his term is another matter. Trump has deliberately weakened every institution of American democracy — Congress, the courts, the press, the electorate itself — with the open goal of arrogating supreme and unquestionable power to himself, and he has achieved it to an astonishing extent. He has successfully defied two of the essential powers vested in Congress by the Constitution: the power of oversight through subpoena and the power of the purse. He has largely brought the courts to heel, thanks in good part to a two-generation campaign to pack them with advocates of an untrammeled presidency. He has undermined a free press — crying “fake news” — while seeking to discredit every election that did not go his own way and even some that did.
The functioning of institutions deserves, of course, constant scrutiny and often criticism; that is how a democracy should work. But Trump has sought to discredit every democratic institution in the country, not for failing to do its job but for doing the one job basic to all of them in a system of checks and balances, namely keeping power from being monopolized in the hands of any single individual. That 40 percent of the voting population continues to support this, and the agenda of racism, sexism and xenophobia that has come with it suggests that the constituency for democracy itself is dangerously low.
I said last week that I thought Donald Trump was a plague on this country on a par with the coronavirus. At this point, I’ll have to correct myself. Donald Trump is the virus itself, and COVID-19 merely the latest and most outward expression of the damage he has wreaked on us. Yes, of course, COVID is actual, and it has been devastating everywhere. But Trump has been the principal vector of its transmission into the United States by refusing to acknowledge it to begin with, by failing to prepare for it and by failing on every level — medical, economic, political and social — to deal with it. This has meant tens of thousands of avoidable deaths, and will mean tens, if not hundreds, of thousands more. It has meant sudden unemployment for upwards of 30 million workers and looming disaster for American small businesses. Donald Trump has done his best to destroy American democracy. Now, and no less deliberately, he is doing his best to destroy the health, welfare and economy of the country as well. COVID is not only his opportunity; it is his means.
One might reply, of course, that COVID is a disaster for Trump too, since he was planning to run for reelection on the presumed flourishing of the American economy — a lie, in fact, but just one more in his theater of lies. But Trump lives, simply, on destruction, and he has always been willing to hazard his own. If he did not wish a pandemic, he is nonetheless its agent. Having achieved the infection of every organ of our civil body politic, he now presides over the preventable spread of a disease that attacks every organ of the human body. Lysol to clean out your lungs?
Only a virus could think of that.