Donald Trump (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/Salon)

Trump's magical thinking: Snake oil, an Easter resurrection and killing Nana for capitalism

Trump's in way over his head and his own businesses are failing — and his desperate flailing will kill people


Heather Digby Parton
March 25, 2020 1:20PM (UTC)

You have to feel sorry for President Trump. He's under a lot of pressure and he got some very bad news this week. Sure, the coronavirus pandemic is racing through the American population like an out-of-control locomotive. And yes, massive numbers of Americans have abruptly lost their incomes. But this week the crisis came home to Trump himself. He had to face the fact that he personally stands to lose a fortune as his hotels and resorts, here and abroad, are shut down and he and his family are hemorrhaging money.

Normally Americans could feel secure that the president of the United States wasn't making life or death decisions based upon the financial needs of his family business — the one he continues to own and be involved with even while he is in the White House. But this is Donald Trump and nothing has been normal for years now.

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Over the weekend he was asked at one of his daily White House coronavirus campaign rallies about whether or not he would be taking any bailout money, or if he had sold any stock before the market crashed. He answered with a long, meandering disquisition about how hard it is for rich people to run for office:

He's said that sort of thing before, but his evasion of the question was even more clumsy than usual. He admitted for the first time that he speaks to his sons about the business, which he originally promised not to do. So he was very well aware of all the details outlined in this Washington Post story revealing that the Trump Organization has had to close its properties and it is costing him nearly half a million dollars a day.

This may be the real explanation for his recent abrupt pronouncement that he plans to end all this stay-at-home pandemic folderol and send everyone back to work. He needs the money.

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But really, this is just the latest round of the Trumpian magical thinking he has indulged in since the beginning of this crisis. It's clear that he's completely in over his head and truly doesn't know what to do. The health experts tell him that he must do things that endanger his personal fortune and his prospects of re-election. His business buddies, on the other hand, tell him the doctors and scientists are making mountains out of molehills: All he needs to do is appease the markets and give businesses confidence and everything will be fine. As he has done since he became president, he makes decisions impulsively, based upon wishful thinking and the advice he got from the last person he talked to.

For the first couple of months of this looming crisis, Trump counted on luck to get him out of it. He assured everyone that he had it totally under control and people didn't need to worry their little heads about anything. When that failed, and cases started turning up around the country just as the experts had predicted, he tried to claim that the system was actually working perfectly, the people who were sick were all getting better and it was all working out great.

That was when he started searching for a miracle.

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At first, Trump seemed to think he could force the pharmaceutical industry to quickly whip up a vaccine. He pushed them publicly and privately to get on the ball and just get 'er done. Despite his self-professed "natural ability" to understand immunology and epidemiology, it took quite a while before it finally sank in that this could not possibly be done in a few days or weeks.

That was when he turned to a miracle cure. It's unclear where he originally got the idea that doctors had discovered a treatment with the use of an older malaria drug. But wherever he heard about hydroxychloroquine, he decided it was going to be the magic bullet that got him out of this jam. He began selling it as "the answer" relentlessly, even at one point tweeting:

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As this Salon article by Nicole Karlis points out, that's a long shot. Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that a new Chinese study has found that this drug makes no difference for patients with COVID-19. But Trump has been touting the fact that New York will begin running a trial this week as if that signaled it was already a proven treatment.

Having secured a "cure," he startled every health professional and political leader in the country with his new motto: "The cure must not be worse than the disease." Evidently, he's been fielding a lot of calls from business leaders who just want to get their profits flowing again, regardless of how many people will die. Since his own profits are in jeopardy as well, Trump eagerly switched gears.

So did his devoted followers, including Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who went on Fox News and said that seniors (like himself) should be willing to be "sacrificed" so the children don't "lose our whole country" to an "economic collapse." Glenn Beck suggested that seniors should all go into the workforce and take the risk of the disease while younger people shelter in place, presumably until the virus ravages the elders and burns itself out. Apparently, these people are so primitive they believe in human sacrifice to the market gods. They certainly have very little faith in the resilience of the American people or the economy.

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In any case, this is all a very bad idea:

Trump has a sunnier view. In a Fox News town hall on Tuesday, he declared that America would be back at work by Easter, only two and a half weeks away. He said, "Easter Sunday, and you'll have packed churches all over our country. I think it would be a beautiful time." Fox anchor Bill Hemmer affectionately suggested that would be the "resurrection of America."

This is all nonsense, of course. Trump never ordered a national lockdown, can't order one lifted. He can tell everyone they're free to go back to work as long as they wash their hands, but "stay at home" orders are coming from governors and mayors, not the federal government. Moreover, he can't just order the virus to stop infecting people so we can get the economy going again. Article II of the Constitution is powerful, but it doesn't make him God.

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Much of the government at all levels has learned that in order to be allowed to do its job in this emergency, officials must pretend that Trump is a great leader directing a magnificently successful response. But the truth is that his magical thinking, from the beginning, left the whole country woefully behind the curve in dealing with this, and now states and localities have had to take the reins under terrible circumstances. Trump is just a figurehead to be appeased with flattery while the real leaders try to get the job done.


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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