It's difficult to make the case that we learned anything new about the president during his disastrous interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios, even if Swan conducted the best interview of our fearless leader in recent memory. It's not exactly a breaking news bulletin, for instance, that the American president is the kid who didn't do the reading. Swan, to his credit, was the teacher who made the president get up in front of the class to deliver his book report. The result was typically shameful, if not for the president personally—his entire life is built around contorting reality to avoid the feeling, and he may well be immune to it at this point—then for the nation he purportedly leads.
It's not just that the president knows nothing about anything and cares less. This was an astounding showcase for his malignant narcissism, his inability to process anything except as it directly relates to him. The whole world of observable reality is filtered through how it affects him, and him only. You and everyone you know and love are not relevant. The task of thinking about himself is all-consuming. When Swan pressed him on his decision to hold an indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June—the culmination of a prolonged spasm of happy talk on the pandemic—he went immediately to how big the crowd was, and how Fox News got its best ratings ever for his speech.
"I'm asking about the public health," Swan said.
But the crescendo came in an exchange regarding how many Americans are dying due to the novel coronavirus pandemic Trump has essentially given up trying to control. The United States has a little over four percent of the world's population, and nearly 23 percent of the world's recorded COVID-19 deaths. This is a comprehensive failure for the world's richest nation. Or, in the president's words here: "They are dying, that’s true, it is what it is." Or, as he tried to put it elsewhere in the interview, it's not so bad because we also have a lot of cases. Just look at these charts, which the president has definitely seen before this exact moment.
.@jonathanvswan: “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc.”@realdonaldtrump: “You can’t do that.”— Axios (@axios) August 4, 2020
Swan: “Why can’t I do that?” pic.twitter.com/MStySfkV39
"You can’t do that!"
These are the words of a small child. You can't present information in context that demonstrates what a terrible job I'm doing! You have to do it this way! This is just another expression of the president's deeply held belief that the contours of reality can be bent to serve his purposes. The deaths of 158,000 Americans are another detail you can smudge to close the deal. But they aren't, and not just from a moral standpoint, which has never been relevant to this guy anyway. A new Ipsos survey found one in five Americans knows someone who's died from COVID-19. You can't just change the subject, like how The Caravan mysteriously disappeared after the 2018 midterms. This is a very practical and immediate disaster.
But by all indications, the president may not be capable of caring about these people's lives. It is not within him. It takes a particular kind of damaged psyche to turn a question about the public-health risks of holding a stadium rally in a pandemic into a diatribe about how great the ratings were. This person is not well. It goes far beyond the fact that he doesn't know anything, a bare fact that rose again in an exchange on testing. (Trump suggested many people are saying you can test too much. Swan wisely asked who says that. "Read the manuals, read the books," the American president said.) It goes beyond his preposterous claims he's done more for African-Americans than anybody, "with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln." It was a generous caveat in an exchange where Swan ultimately led the president to demonstrate he has no idea what the Civil Rights Act is.
(As an aside, it was remarkable to witness the surprise, and perhaps fear, in the president's eyes when he was asked simple follow-up questions about his intergalactically false claims. This ought to be a lesson to future questioners to ask simple questions and not move on when he starts to throw a hissy fit. I am still waiting for the day in the White House Rose Garden when someone asks the president to name the three branches of government.)
Elsewhere, on reports that unidentified federal agents—secret police—were rounding people up on the streets of Portland last month and the resulting investigation from the Justice Department Inspector General, there was this exchange:
SWAN: Do you support that investigation?
TRUMP: Well, I haven't seen the result yet.
If you're looking for a neat summation of the process by which this president and his administration conduct their business, you're looking at it. You start with a conclusion, and you seek out any evidence that might support it. Everything else gets brushed aside. What actually happened, in reality, is not relevant. If the investigation yields something useful to the president—something he can use as a cudgel against his enemies—then it's a good investigation. If it produces something negative for the president, it's a Rigged Deep State Hoax. And of course, whether the constitutional rights of American citizens have been violated does not factor in at all.
But the crowning spasm of narcissism came at the end, when Swan asked about the passing of John Lewis, civil-rights icon and genuine hero of the American experiment, who at the time of the interview was lying in state at the United States Capitol. "How do you think history will remember John Lewis?" Swan asked, offering up a softball for any reasonably well-adjusted politician to knock out of the park. Here was the American president's answer:
TRUMP: I don't know. I really don't know. I don't know. I don't know John Lewis. He chose not to come to my inauguration. He chose—I never met John Lewis, actually, I don't believe.
SWAN: Do you find him impressive?
TRUMP: Uh, I can't say one way or another. I find a lot of people impressive, I find a lot of people not impressive...He didn't come to my inauguration, he didn't come to my State of the Union speeches, and that's OK, that's his right. And again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have. He should have come. I think he made a big mistake—
SWAN: But taking your relationship with him out of it. Do you find his story impressive, what he's done for this country?
TRUMP: He was a person who devoted a lot of energy and a lot of heart to civil rights. But there were many others also.
In fairness, the president did offer he has "no objection" to renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge after Lewis. But this is an astounding demonstration of his inability to consider anything except as it relates to him. John Lewis, towering figure of American history who fought for his entire life to make this a full democracy that lived up to its founding values, is reduced to his Trump Event Attendance Record. After prodding, Trump grants that Lewis may have done things in the world that did not directly involve Trump, though he of course cannot name a single one. Why would he know about that? It's got nothing to do with him.
It does, however, have something to do with the United States of America. The president of that nation would take that into account when answering—would consider that, while Lewis may not have done anything directly for him, there are millions of people, all of whom are the president's constituents, for whom Lewis did a great deal. But while Trump talks a lot about America, he does not truly consider himself to be president of the whole United States, or at least all of its citizens. He's president of His People—the minority who voted for and continue to support him—and everyone else is just there. A nuisance at best, an Enemy of the State at worst. Even His People can potentially be sacrificed as required, like at the Tulsa rally, because they do not truly exist in the world independent of him. Their importance, such as it is, lies in their usefulness to him.
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