Fintan O'Toole on America the "pitiful," corrupted by Trump's malignant spectacle

Irish author and critic on the "suspension of disbelief" that has made Trump's destruction of America possible

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 26, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Fintan O'Toole and Donald Trump (Salon/Alex Brandon/AP Photo/Alan Betson/The Irish Times)
Fintan O'Toole and Donald Trump (Salon/Alex Brandon/AP Photo/Alan Betson/The Irish Times)

Once again, the coronavirus pandemic has shown American exceptionalism to be a myth now turned into a nightmare. Writing at the Atlantic, George Packer describes this state of affairs:

When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills — a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public — had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity — to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.

Donald Trump is the monster in that nightmare. He is a political version of Freddy Krueger — but with less charm and wit — from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" horror movies.

Donald Trump plays golf while more than 100,000 Americans have been killed by the coronavirus pandemic, a number that is certainly an undercount. He is congratulating himself for a job well done. Trump rules America as if it were a failed state in some forgotten part of the third world.

At almost every key moment of decision, Trump has made choices that have sickened and killed more Americans. This is not negligence. Trump, an apparent sociopath or "high functioning" psychopath, is making intentional choices that have killed many thousands of human beings and ruined the country's economy. If Trump had not chosen to ignore years of repeated warnings about the danger of a pandemic, the number of dead or gravely ill people would be many orders of magnitude smaller. 

Trump is also the leader of a perfidious cabal, which is equally responsible for the human destruction wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Before Trump was even a credible candidate, the Republican Party had destroyed the country's capacity to govern effectively, hollowed out its infrastructure, and systematically discredited the public's belief that government can be a force for good. The right-wing propaganda machine circulates and helps to legitimate the Republican assault on the truth and reality, the commons and the public good. Republican voters and supporters provide the votes and human energy for the right wing's infernal machine of political and human destruction.

At opportune moments to advance their own agendas, neoliberal "establishment" Democrats aided and abetted the Republican destruction of government, the commons and the public good.

In many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the United States to its knees, begging for help with hands open, ashamed. In response, even America's supposed global rivals, China and Russia, have sent respirators and other assistance.

South Korea has conquered the novel coronavirus. The African countries Ghana and Senegal are conquering the coronavirus. The poor, small, Communist island nation of Cuba, which the Trump regime reviles, is managing the coronavirus much better than the United States.

History, it would seem, is not without a sense of irony. The United States was once "the arsenal of democracy" that rebuilt post-war Western Europe with the Marshall Plan, and was the unquestioned leader in a decades-long political and economic struggle against Soviet-style communism. Now America leads the world, by far, in deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, but about 30 percent of all deaths from COVID-19. This is a mark of unbelievable ignominy. 

Fintan O'Toole has been documenting America's decline in the Age of Trump and the coronavirus pandemic. He is a historian, literary critic, author and essayist as well as a longtime columnist for the Irish Times. His work has also appeared in the New York Review of Books, the Guardian and other leading publications. O'Toole is the author of many books, including his most recent, "The Politics of Pain: Postwar England and the Rise of Nationalism."

In a series of recent essays O'Toole has, with rapier-sharp prose, described the pity and pathos of Donald Trump's America, a nation where the pandemic only further exposed the societal and institutional rot that was already long present. 

I recently spoke with O'Toole about the end of American empire, the decline of the country's democracy and its abdication of its preeminent global leadership role. O'Toole also shared his views on the appeal Donald Trump holds, as an authoritarian and con man, to his cult members

In this wide-ranging conversation, O'Toole also reflects on the rise of Donald Trump and global neo-fascism, how and why that movement's appeals to fake populism and political sadism, and the cruel logic of the right-wing's gangster-capitalist death cult.

You can also listen to my conversation with Fintan O'Toole on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling amid the coronavirus pandemic? What is your measure of the public mood?

When it first began, horrible as it sounds, there was a kind of novelty to the experience. It is different. It breaks routine. There is something huge that we can all focus on and we are living in a historic moment. Now, several months into the pandemic, we are really beginning to feel the unraveling of social connections. I am 62 years old and am really being struck by how much we need the presence of other people. I have a family, but there is so much love and contact we take for granted. The virtual and online does not compensate for the present and physical.

And then one starts to think about how so many human lives are being lost unnecessarily. It's a terrible thing to be in the middle of such a disaster. Realistically, we knew that people would die from the coronavirus. But so much of that death could have been prevented. The older people dying in nursing homes and other institutions, for example. They are individuals and their lives matter just as much as everyone else. Such death reveals a great deal about a society's values.  

I have been thinking about what the American people must have done wrong to be afflicted with both Donald Trump and the coronavirus at the same time. It almost seems like some kind of existential punishment for the country's crimes, past and present. But then I realize that "deserve" has nothing to do with it.

As human beings we are hardwired to look for meaning. It is a way of finding comfort in the world, especially when bad things are happening. This search for meaning also helps to explain why conspiracy theories are so attractive to many people. The fact is that there have been plagues for as long as there has been civilization. For most of human history people knew what plagued man. Bad things were the wrath of God. We would look to some priest or other religious figure to explain why God was angry. That provided comfort through explanation. That explanation also reduced plagues and other horrible events down to a single explanation, where if we reformed ourselves then we could make the problem go away by pleasing God.

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us as a species that we need to be humble. We human beings do not control the world. The natural world does not care about us. If "deserve" has anything to do with the coronavirus plague and all the death and misery it has caused, then it is a rebuke to the absolutely appalling arrogance of our species and of the ways we have organized ourselves in relation to the world around us.

But of course, instead of humility we are seeing the arrogance and hubris of right-wing populism, nationalism and neo-fascism assert itself even more. This moment is also feeding the type of malignant egotism we are seeing in the United States.

Trump and his allies in the media, the churches, the Republican Party, the plutocrats and others are using the coronavirus virus to create a full-on death cult. They are literally telling people to go out and die for "the economy" — and of course their true mission is to save Trump's presidency. It borders on human sacrifice, but what is more disturbing is how the American people seem numb to the abomination.

Trump loves using the word "losers." And in these right-wing evangelical churches there is a belief where in the end "God decides" what happens. That is rooted in a particular strain of Christianity which deems that the "winners" and "losers" have already been decided by God. The "saved" and the "damned" have already been decided by God, long before any of us was born. There's nothing we can really do about it.

In Trump's books there is a recurring theme that some people are "losers" and some people — like himself, of course — are "winners". That logic drives the reckless swagger that is being shown by these men who carry their guns, form a militia and then storm state capitals, as we saw in Michigan several weeks ago. In their minds that makes them "winners" because only "winners" would have the nerve to do such a thing. The "losers," of course, are cowering, they are afraid to come out and face the coronavirus pandemic. This is the twisted logic driving the behavior we are seeing by many Americans in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The result is an insane pathological death wish — for other people. The people who are going to die from the virus are "losers." That is why they are expendable. Of course, that includes people who are older — but not the mothers or fathers of people who would advocate such deaths as being "necessary," Such an idea was voiced here in the United Kingdom by Dominic Cummings.

He is [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson's adviser and the person who really triggered Brexit. Cummings said that everybody in the community should catch the coronavirus and that would create "herd immunity."

Of course, that means people will die. The phrase Cummings used was "pensioners" — in Britain that means older people. In Cummings' mind, who cares? So what! That callousness runs very deep among the right wing. What the coronavirus pandemic is revealing is just how deep the death culture and such attitudes are in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Donald Trump cannot even pretend to have any kind of empathy for other people. He does not even possess a vague sense that he should pretend to feel empathy for others. Other leaders around the world show empathy, care and concern for those who are suffering and dying from the coronavirus pandemic. Why can't Trump show empathy? He is so far gone he cannot even muster a tiny bit of the emotion.

Such a lack of humanity has become something that we now take for granted about Trump. Children and babies are being put in cages along the U.S.-Mexico border by the Trump administration. As a society the American people are being habituated into accepting cruelty on a wide scale. Americans are being taught by Trump and his administration not to see other people as human beings whose lives are as important as their own. Once that line has been crossed — and it is not just Trump and the people around him, but many of Trump's supporters as well — then we know where that all leads, what the ultimate destination is. There is no mystery about it. We know what happens when a government and its leaders dehumanize large numbers of people.

The abundance of public evidence shows that Donald Trump is apparently mentally ill and suffers from various pathologies. Is it a mistake to try to find parsimonious explanations for his aberrant behavior?

Certainly, for me, the professional, human urge is to try to find some threads that you can pull upon and then follow through the crazy labyrinth of Trump's mind where by doing so we can see what the themes are, what ideas repeat themselves and how it all comes together. Trump, by any standards, is of course deranged. But I do think there are dangers in trying to impose a type of coherence on a fundamentally incoherent man.

We should also be careful of making Donald Trump into something too complex. Yes, Trump is complex, but his thinking is a function of crude, tired, old right-wing ideas, emotions and tropes that have been around for a very long time.

There is nothing original about Donald Trump. Here is the challenge and problem in writing about Donald Trump: By necessity, we are engaging in an effort that is designed to apply some type of shape and order on the thing we are describing. Does that just misrepresent the sheer craziness that is Donald Trump? How do we go about the job of representing and presenting the craziness that is Donald Trump? The problem is that by writing about Trump we are in some way normalizing him, because no matter how hard we try one gets used to Trump's craziness.

Unless Donald Trump is doing something horribly unprecedented — by his standards — too many people just brush off his aberrant behavior: "You know, it is just another day in Trumpland!"

Trump is a character. That is why the mainstream news media and its stenographers have such a difficult time understanding the danger that he represents and the great harm he has done to the United States and the world. The fact that Trump is a performer and a symbol is also why his supporters love him. Trumpism is not about material politics per se, but rather emotions and identity. That fact is also all too often missed by traditional journalists and pundits.

We are used to thinking about politics as a function of belief, a belief in some ideology or some leader.

That's not what theater is. Theater is suspension of disbelief and it's a willing suspension of one's faculties to say, "Hold on. That's nonsense! That's not true!" One cannot enter into the performance if you don't turn off that part of your brain. That's what we do when we go to the theater or the movies.

Trump's supporters have entered into a deep state of suspension of disbelief, which is why traditional journalism has little to no power against him and his supporters. Traditional journalism is based on claims and facts and evaluating them in an effort to find the truth. But if there is this suspension of disbelief, then those rules do not apply. Nothing is disbelieved anymore. Critical thinking has been suspended. Such a situation in terms of news and politics and reality is so toxic because there is no distinction between fantasy and reality.

As others have pointed out, in the Age of Trump and this pandemic there will be no singular hero and no dramatic moment when he or she arrives to save the day. The Age of Trump is all rising action. When Trump is removed from office, there will be no great catharsis for the country. The sky is not going to open and angels will not be singing. In the short term, good Americans and the world will feel better. But there is so much work to be done to heal the country. Ridding the country of Trump and his movement will not solve the core problems which made the disaster possible.

We have to start a new story. The kind of right-wing populism that Trump represents is time-limited in one way, because the endgame is the elimination of democracy. The followers of fascism are never going to be disillusioned or disabused of their beliefs, even if their ultimate goals are not achieved.

Historically, people who supported fascism were not disillusioned. They were defeated. The world in which fascist ideology functions was destroyed.

The pandemic itself will not be a story where the heroes are the scientists and then one day everything is fine, and we have a climax to the story and some closure. It seems that when the pandemic ends, it will be with a whimper, not a bang. It is going to be around a long time. The economic consequences are going to be at least a decade long and maybe longer.

Politically, even if Biden beats Trump where is the release of all the grief that has been built up? What will the new and better story be? Joe Biden, as a great alternative to Donald Trump, is not particularly convincing. If I were American, would I be desperately hoping that Joe Biden wins? Absolutely. But Biden is not capable of being a symbol for a new set of values, a new way of organizing society and a new way of thinking about the economy. To believe that Biden could represent that deep change is a stretch, to put it mildly.

You have written a great deal about the connections between sadism and politics. What does that relationship look like in practice?

Historian Timothy Snyder uses the language of "sado-populism" to describe this phenomenon. Some examples: Southern whites, who may have been dirt-poor, were given license to inflict pain on black people who were below them in American society. In the Irish context, which is where I'm from, one of the driving factors behind the Northern Ireland conflict was that the ordinary working-class Protestants, who were paid very poorly by UK standards, could feel superior to Catholics. That sense of hierarchy and permission is what Donald Trump plays upon.

Trump's base of support is immovable as long as he can license their contempt for other people. They are not going to betray him. Trump has given his supporters permission to show contempt for other people and they experience that permission as "liberation." Many of them have always wanted to permission to show their contempt, bigotry, racism and the like. When Trump talks about "political correctness" that is what he means.

In Trump's supporters' minds, "political correctness" is stopping them from expressing what they believe to be their superiority over other people, categorized on the basis of their race or gender or their sexual orientation or their foreignness or whatever else it may be. In their minds, Trump's attack on political correctness "allows me to be who I am. Trump is allowing me to express the obvious truth that I am superior to those people." For many of Trump's white supporters, and some others, that is an enormous type of compensation.

Such beliefs can be challenged. Such systems of belief have been torn down by people who were oppressed by them. I also believe that Trump and other leaders who traffic in contempt and sado-populism can be fought back against by asking their supporters basic questions: Is Trump giving you permission to act badly against other people substantive compensation for the fact that your entire community's economy is being destroyed and all the jobs are gone?

The coronavirus pandemic will be a real crucible and test in that regard. Many of Trump's most loyal supporters and their communities are going to be hit very hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Trump's base is also much older than the American public on average.

They are going to suffer. Will the pleasures they get from hurting other people be greater than the pain of the coronavirus that is being caused by Donald Trump?

What do you think happens to the followers of a Donald Trump, a Boris Johnson or other neo-fascists when their political drug is taken away? What will the withdrawal symptoms look like?

For Trump's hardcore supporters it is going to be nasty, and they are going to turn that rage against other people. Trump has already indicated who those "enemies" will be. It will be the Chinese, per Trump's pandemic coronavirus conspiracies. Other groups of people will be targeted as well. What does a person do when there is a plague and God has not saved you? What happens when a leader with a God complex is viewed as being a real type of god by his followers? If the Trump god fails, his believers will turn on who they view as the outsiders.

Historically, in Europe that was the Jewish people. In the United States under Trump, it will be those groups he has already dehumanized. There will be resistance by those groups of course. But America is not in for an easy time.

Britain fully lost its empire after World War II. What advice would you give the American people about navigating their country's decline in the Age of Trump?

The United States looks pitiful. I don't use that word with any pleasure. I feel really, terribly sorry for the majority of Americans who did not vote for Donald Trump. None of America's peers in the West are in the situation the American people are experiencing with Donald Trump and the pandemic. The United States has an active malignant presence with Donald Trump in the heart of its government. Failure of government is one thing, but Donald Trump is actively promoting the spread of a fatal disease. Donald Trump is promoting death. His entire approach to the coronavirus has been to ensure that more and more people will die from it.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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