As short stories go, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is very short. At 2,378 words it would qualify as a decently economical Jamboroo installment, and can be neatly summed up in a sentence. During a time of plague, a prince and his royal buddies repair to a well-provisioned castle, weld the iron gates shut, and throw themselves a heedless, non-stop party in defiance of the sickness ravaging the world outside, until such time as that party becomes immediately and entirely untenable. It’s a perfect story, but it’s not a subtle one.
If there’s any aspect of the presidency in which Donald Trump has come close to flourishing during his first term, it is the ceremonial one. To the extent that anything in his plummy, anxious, relentlessly public life prepared him for the job ahead, it was this. Trump has bobbed and leered through gaudy ballrooms all his life, blithely cutting the line at one buffet after another and demanding one more ashen flap of beef than any other guest is permitted, rising to Make Some Remarks at some point in the evening, and otherwise circling and circulating to receive the thanks and praise that are his due as host. He may enjoy all of that, but it’s just as likely that he doesn’t. Trump is not at these parties to have fun, anyway. He’s there because it’s the only place he can be.
The thing for him is to move, to collect whatever adulation there is and then to float on, leaving behind the absolute minimum of his own small self. The tribute he receives from these supplicants—the habitually divorced, the serial franchisees, the plump pink yachters and the reckless sunburned boaters alike—is fulsome but reflexive. It’s thin and vague and it doesn’t sustain him so much as it propels him ahead; it’s the continual rush of water through a shark’s gills that allows it to breathe. The other guests, the schools of smaller Trumps that push him around the room, are all mostly there because he is, but the party doesn’t really start until he leaves. It’s then, lit up with the memories of the moment when they saw some perfected and untouchable version of themselves in Donald Trump and were acknowledged by him in turn, that the celebrating starts.
“Staff and guests lingered after the president was there,” the Minnesota political consultant Blois Olson said of Trump’s private fundraiser at the home of a countertop company’s CEO in the state on Wednesday. “They sang karaoke, they had their arms around each other.” The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem was one of the celebrants, but between that fundraiser and a rally in Duluth and flights around the state with various Republican officials and Members of Congress, Trump saw a lot of people during his visit. Some percentage of them may now have picked up the coronavirus that Trump himself and numerous members of his executive entourage confirmed they had on Thursday night.
Again, the story is concise and perfect and not really remotely a metaphor. When Trump called Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Thursday night, shortly before the public announcement that he and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19, he made clear that none of this was really anyone’s fault. “You know, it is very very hard when you are with people from the military or from law enforcement,” Trump said, “and they want to hug you and they want to kiss you, because we really have done a good job for ’em. You get close, and things happen.”
Like every story that Trump tells, this is both one he tells often and always to the same end. People just can’t help themselves around him, they come up to him with tears in their eyes—the big people, the tough and even rough people, the successful people and the real workers—and they need to be near him. Who could tell them to keep their distance, or to wear a mask, or take any of the precautions that some other citizens have taken because they are the only way to stop the spread of the pandemic that Trump has effectively chosen to ignore? Who would? “There are some who would have thought him mad,” Poe wrote of Prince Prospero, the decadent party’s decadent host. “His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure he was not.”
The basic premise of Trumpism and the fundamental promise that Trump has made during his political career is that those who are with him will be treated one way, and those who are not will be treated in another, much worse way. Because of how Trump is—because of how avaricious and joyless he is, and because of how fearful and paranoid he is, and because of how unrelentingly aggrieved he is—this promise is fundamentally negative. Only the most powerful of the people that fell into formation behind him will receive any positive benefit from anything that he does; this is axiomatic, as Trump doesn’t do anything for anyone other than himself. Everyone that follows him understands and accepts this to some extent, and the less influential of those who lined up behind him either out of perceived interest or some rote and sour habit or pure servile instinct surely know as much. They also know that they will receive a more diffuse but still quite valuable dividend for their service, which is the certainty that they will never be treated as badly as the people on the other side.
That certainty is false, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Trump has lived his life inside a curdled and childish belief that he can do and take and keep whatever he wants, without consequence, forever. As a sort of tabloid cartoon of a rich person, an adult Richie Rich that had somehow figured out how to use a smartphone and commit adultery, this delusion has served him decently well; the realities of his wealth and the structural forces that the country has built to protect people of similar fecklessness and similar means conspired to sustain it for decades. The version of this impunity that Trump sells to his audience is a cheaper reproduction, not sold in any store and available exclusively through this limited-time television offer, in which they can feel as invulnerable and unaccountable as him, and be just as lazy and just as cruel, without actually being anywhere near as well-insulated from the consequences of their actions. “I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump “writes” in the ghostwritten Art Of The Deal. “People may not always think big themselves. but they can get very excited by those who do.”
“That,” Trump continues, “is why a little hyperbole never hurts.” When it comes to building a brand or a public image, the utility of this sort of theatrical dishonesty is at least debatable. But the open secret with Trump is that there is nothing underneath all of this—not just no actual values beneath the pretend ones or actual product behind the pitch, but nothing at all. There is just bottomless idiotic appetite and unstinting demand, the urgency and endlessness of which makes any number of outlandish cruelties not just possible but inevitable. Trump is not the only person who is like this, but it may be that no one is more like this than him. Discernment isn’t on the menu, but it also fundamentally isn’t an option—admitting any kind of error or demonstrating any kind of vulnerability would mean not just defeat but a sort of death. The nature of this country and its economic and political depravities guarantee that such a person—someone rich enough and determined enough, stupid enough and frightened enough and selfish enough—can go a very long way. The idea of being that way is something that can be sold, because the shiny false certainty of it is something that people want to display, and feel themselves. It is a poisonous lie, but an aspirational one.
It is true that, from a public health perspective and a political one, Trump could have done any number of things to fight the pandemic that’s still spreading unchecked across the United States. But the reason he did basically none of them is that Trump is incapable of thinking of this challenge—of any challenge, really—from a public health perspective or a political one. These are abstractions to him, and as such much less interesting or important than his own comfort. Trump would and could not wear a mask because to do so would signal that he could get sick like anyone else; he could not tell the truth about what needed to be done to fight the pandemic, let alone actually do those things, because it would interrupt the story he prefers to tell about his own success. He could not follow or even accept the advice of scientists and epidemiologists because it would be a tacit admission that they knew more about this than he did. Most importantly, though, Trump could not care about what the pandemic does, about the communities it hurts and people it kills, because none of that is him; their deaths just don’t rate relative to his own discomfort.
And so the move, the only move, was to go on in denial, to push irritably and impatiently through the unrelenting fact of the disease behind the fantasy that none of it could ever have any consequences for him. His people followed on behind, not so much in denial as in defiance of the thought that any of this could possibly apply to them. The people that fly into rages upon being asked to wear a mask to protect other people and stop the spread of the disease would, paradoxically or not, also fly into a rage if the people serving them were not wearing masks themselves. This is because these people are fucking unwell, but it is also because that facile distinction between themselves and other people is a load-bearing one. It holds up the whole gilded edifice, until it doesn’t.
It was probably inevitable that Trump would get the virus, because the country is still awash in it and because he has refused to protect himself or others from it. It is, again, not really much of a metaphor that he himself seems to have become something of a vector for its spread in his own gilded circles. This is not a complicated story, or a long one. It’s the nature of a virus to spread, to move blindly from one person to the next, absolutely and always as illimitable as it is permitted to become.