“President Trump sought to dispel any perception of weakness.” That’s how the Times described the motives behind the COVID-afflicted president’s luridly dystopian car ride past his ravening personal cultists assembled outside of Walter Reed Medical Center on Sunday afternoon. The Times‘ assessment is true, or almost certainly true, as far as it goes: Donald Trump infamously does fixate on the question of whether he appears weak or strong at a given moment, to the exclusion of all other considerations and also to the profound detriment of the nation he’s been squatting atop these past four years. In a pinch, seeking to dispel any perception of weakness could explain pretty much every moment of his life.
Donald Trump does not care about the sign-waving lunatics he treated to those weird juddering waves; on his healthiest day he would not break stride to put out a fire on their backs if you spotted him a bucket of water. They are nothing to him wherever the spiral-eyed fervency of their adulation can’t serve as a confirmation, for him, that he is the best and indeed only real thing in existence. And yet, for all his failures and his obvious distaste for everything and everyone that isn’t him, Trump is everything to them. The grades of MAGA dead-enders who would show up to stand vigil outside Donald Trump’s hospital would never permit themselves to see even the faintest hint of anything less than galactic God-Emperor strength in him even if he were groveling in a puddle of his own urine at their feet. That book is closed. So just whose perception are we talking about, here?
You can say “the media,” if you like. As with the Times‘ attribution up there, that would be correct in strict terms. The eyes Trump needed to witness and record his grim and hermetically airtight parade and more generally his performance of some ghastly childish idea of strength, in real time and in general, are all behind cameras. Had there been no television cameras along that stretch of road, no force on earth could have made Donald Trump appear there. Trump does not care about how, like, Maggie Haberman or Gabriel Sherman grades his strength; he does not value the esteem of Joe Scarborough or Chris Wallace; he would cackle with glee if you let him watch his friend and devoted toady Sean Hannity being torn apart by dogs.
It’s not just that none of those people matter to Donald Trump. They don’t, but also none of them are people to him. The only perception Donald Trump values is his own. And not in some self-actualized I need nothing but my own respect sense, just in case there remained any doubt about that. Donald Trump is an old man who spends his days obsessively watching cable news programs about Donald Trump. He likes it when they show him doing stuff and taking action and being strong; he likes it when they show him. He does not like it when they show other people, their faces crinkled in actorly concern, talking about his fever and saying he has had trouble breathing. A guy who can’t breathe, who requires supplemental oxygen and thrashes and sweats through a fever—honestly, that person just sounds like a total loser. A guy who can sit up in the car like a big boy is stronger than that.
How many lives, how much of the future, has already disappeared into the circle created by this vainglorious nincompoop’s endless appetite for watching himself on TV? He fed tens and tens of thousands of American lives to a pandemic disease because he liked to watch himself big-timing it; because he thought he looked weak in a mask and strong when he could see his own mouth as he scoffed at coronavirus and called it names. What’s one car ride compared to that? He was waving to himself. He always is.