One of the most notorious moments of the presidency of Donald J. Trump has to be that visit he made to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) on March 6th of 2020. COVID-19 hadn't even been named yet and the World Health Organization (WHO) hadn't yet designated it a pandemic but we all knew that something very bad was happening. Cases had shown up in Washington state and California. The whole country was riveted by the plight of a cruise ship sailing off the West Coast with sick people aboard and nowhere to moor. The president was reportedly angry about the whole thing and was resisting dealing with it but finally agreed to travel to the CDC's Atlanta headquarters for a photo-op to show his concern. It was one of the most astonishing presidential performances of all time:
But perhaps the most memorable of all was this:
You know, my uncle was a great person. He was at MIT. He taught at MIT for, I think, like a record number of years. He was a great super genius. Dr. John Trump. I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, "How do you know so much about this?" Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for President.
Those exchanges illustrated the fundamental bind Trump was in from the beginning of the crisis. He wanted to "downplay" the virus, as he admitted to Bob Woodward around that time, but he also wanted to be the very stable genius who personally solved it. So he wavered back and forth throughout, some days saying the whole thing was just going away by itself and that his political enemies were talking it up to hurt his re-election chances. On other days he promoted snake oil cures, even offering advice to scientists on what they should be researching to treat the virus, apparently convinced that he had brilliant ideas that hadn't been explored:
He grew impatient with the medical professionals who kept telling him bad news and instead turned to the quack remedies like Hydroxychloroquine which people like Fox News personality Laura Ingraham were promoting. He listened to quack doctors like Fox News radiologist Dr. Scott Atlas, who would tell him what he wanted to hear. As his COVID task force coordinator Dr Deborah Birx has testified before Congress, during the final months of his term, Trump completely lost interest in COVID altogether — at least until he came down with it himself.
However, towards the end, the vaccines were coming on line and Trump very much wanted to be given credit for them. He claimed over and over again that everyone said it would take five years but he made sure they were done in record time and nobody could have achieved that but him. In his first press conference after the election he said this:
The vaccines, and by the way, don't let Joe Biden take credit for the vaccines. If Joe Biden… Joe Biden failed with the swine flu, H1N1. Totally failed with the swine flu. Don't let him take credit for the vaccines because the vaccines were me and I pushed people harder than they've ever been pushed before. But the vaccines, there are those that says one of the greatest things. It's a medical miracle. Don't let anyone try and take credit for it.
As you can see, he was desperate to be given credit, as if he had personally spent that previous few months cooking up the vaccines in the White House kitchen. After all, he had a genius uncle who taught at MIT and all the doctors were astounded by his "natural ability." As he put it, "the vaccines were me."
We found out later that he and Melania Trump were among the first to be vaccinated while they were still in the White House, although they didn't announce it or do what all the other politicians were doing by having cameras present to record the moment as a way to reassure the public that they were safe. Nonetheless, over the following months, Trump would from time to time talk up the vaccines, mostly as a way to talk up his part in it, and while always emphasizing that people "have their freedoms." Last September, he even joined the freedom from sanity club himself saying that he probably wouldn't get the booster when they became available.
His followers were not convinced.
After all those months of Trump downplaying the virus, refusing to wear a mask and otherwise encouraging his voters to see the mitigation strategies as a Democratic plot to bring him down, they have continued to chase snake oil cures and refused to get vaccinated. They don't see the "medical miracle" of vaccines as a Trump triumph. They see it as a threat.
This week, Trump told another audience that he had received the booster after all — and he got booed. He took the opportunity to once again try to make the case that he should get credit and that his supporters are "playing into [the Democrats'] hands" by booing him.
"Take credit for it. What we've done is historic," Trump told an audience over the weekend. "If you don't want to take it you don't have to, you shouldn't be forced to take it, no mandates. But take credit because we saved tens of millions of lives, take credit, don't let them take that away from you."
He meant, "don't let them take that away from me."
Many people have seen those comments as Trump encouraging people to get vaccinated, but it really wasn't and I doubt any of his followers saw it that way. In fact, he made it clear that he doesn't care if they do it or not and that all that matters is that he is acknowledged as a big hero. In other words, his comment was really just more of his partisan politicization of the pandemic that's gotten us into this mess in the first place.
And even if he did make an explicit pitch for people to get vaccinated, it's unlikely that it would make a difference. Polls show that the resistance to vaccines is now baked into the MAGA psyche, with him or without him. He may have created this problem but he has no power to fix it and I imagine that's intensely frustrating for him.
Trump yearns to be worshiped as the great leader who single-handedly saved the world but his followers are all inexplicably offering themselves up as human sacrifices instead.