Every once in a while the universe aligns, the clouds part in the sky, and out of nowhere an instance of unexpected clarity shines through. A moment of Zen, if you will. On Tuesday, just such a moment arrived when the gods of side-eye looked down upon our beleaguered nation and delivered President Donald Trump touring a N95 mask manufacturing plant in Phoenix. During the coronavirus crisis, Trump’s profound lack of anything resembling human emotions has been startling, even by Trump standards. Instead, the president has obsessed over numbers in their various forms: the death count, ventilator production, COVID tests performed, the stock market, poll numbers, approval ratings, and, perhaps most macabre, the TV ratings of his nightly pandemic press conference disasters where he lies, obfuscates, and distorts all of the above.
Throughout it all, Trump has provided no collective moral, ethical, or even practical framework for how to address the interrelated problems posed by the pandemic, both in terms of public health and our collective economic well-being. This is a profoundly hard calculation to get right, but so far the human element of what is happening to actual Americans on the other side of the number-based presidential scorecard had been noticeably absent. There is no acknowledgment from this president—or his party really—that you can want to go back to work, even need to go back to work, while simultaneously being legitimately fearful, unwilling, or unable to do so.
It’s been abundantly clear since the president first floated “reopening the economy” by Easter, a single week after shutting down the country, that Trump’s open ’er up mantra on the economy has always been in service of his numbers, not his people. In some quarters of the American psyche, somehow Trump and his allies have managed to transform ill-informed, short-term decision-making—that will likely come at enormous human and economic cost in the medium and long term—into a vague resemblance of and amorphous referendum on “freedom.” At this particular moment, “freedom” for Trump and his people is the freedom to do absolutely whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. Essential liberties like the freedom to go to a crowded beach on a hot day no matter the consequences. The freedom to refuse to wear a mask even if it could save your life—and most importantly others’ lives. What do you call this particular brand of absolutist, consequences-be-damned freedom that is bubbling to the surface in the current moment?
On Tuesday, we got an answer when in walked Trump to the Honeywell mask plant for a tour of the production of vital PPE equipment that took so long to get underway. Because this is Donald Trump, the tour was accompanied by a soundtrack blaring in the background that made it hard to hear what was being said. Because this is President Donald Trump, the background music resembled a campaign rally of one, complete with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” It’s hard to imagine the world that the Trump administration inhabits, or the mind of the president it serves, where this somber moment in American history felt like the right time to turn to Trumpified Jock Jams. During the tour, Trump and his chief of staff Mark Meadows did not wear masks, even though the country is recommending Americans wear them and some states are compelling citizens to do so.
As a rep from the company explained to Trump the mask production process, the stars aligned, the soundtrack flipped to its next song, the clouds cleared, a moment of clarity arrived. Trump nodded along comprehendingly to the presentation while the lyrics from Guns N’ Roses’ version of “Live and Let Die” drowned out the mask-making details. And in that moment of Zen, the live and let die philosophy of governance was born.