On Sunday, as he stepped out of his suite at Walter Reed Medical Center, where he’s being treated for the coronavirus, President Donald Trump made one of the most unwittingly revealing remarks in his entire term in office. “I’ve learned a lot about COVID,” he told reporters, then added:
I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn’t the let’s-read-the-book school. And I get it, and I understand it, and it’s a very interesting thing, and I’m going to be letting you know about it.
Apparently, the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans, the infection of 7 million, the many briefings from the nation’s most prominent health specialists, the profound toll that the virus has taken on every aspect of life worldwide—none of this made much of an impression.* It was only when he caught the bug, sweated with fever, gasped for air, and suffered who knows what other sensations we haven’t been told about, that he realized COVID-19 was “a very interesting thing.”
The remark explains a lot about Trump’s behavior over the years. It is not merely that he lacks empathy, compassion, or curiosity. Those deficits are but symptoms of a larger, central character flaw: He is a narcissist and, perhaps beyond that, a solipsist—someone in whose mind other people don’t really quite exist.
Look at what he did after proclaiming his epiphany. Did he apologize to his wife and some of his closest aides for facilitating their infection? Did he stare into the camera and tell his fellow Americans to wear masks, maintain distance, wash their hands, and take the other precautions that the doctors have been prescribing all these months? No, he got into a bulletproof limousine, thus endangering the driver and Secret Service agents who followed along, and took a slow ride by the crowd of supporters who had gathered outside Walter Reed. “They’ve got Trump flags, and they love our country,” he said about them, because, in his mind, waving Trump flags and loving America are the same thing, just as hating Trump and hating America are the same thing, because America is Trump.
The driver didn’t matter, the Secret Service agents didn’t matter (some have spoken out about his blithe disregard for their safety), and even the fans didn’t matter, except to the extent that they cheer and chant and vote for him.
Nor is it likely that, if and when he returns to the White House, he will reconvene his long-dormant, never-serious coronavirus task force and, this time, focus on taking the measures experts say are necessary. No, the experience of coming down with the virus himself will only deepen his fundamental belief that he knows more than anyone else about any subject to which he’s had the slightest personal exposure.
Take another look at the remark he made before taking the car ride. COVID, he said, turns out to be “a very interesting thing, and I’m going to be letting you know about it.” As if we don’t already know about it, as if many of us haven’t been reading about it every day for the past seven months. No, we’ve merely been going to “let’s-read-the-book school,” not the “real school” that has engaged Trump the past few days. And, as for those of you who have been doing more than book learning about the subject—whose jobs have vanished, whose friends or relatives have died, who haven’t hugged anyone but spouses or bubble-mates since the lockdown began—well, your experience isn’t as authentic as Donald Trump’s experience, so he’ll “be letting you know about it.”
This failure to recognize any experiences or perspectives beyond his own extends to a vast range of topics. He views international alliances, such as NATO, as shakedown operations, in part because he has no interest in other nations’ security but also because his own businesses have largely been shakedown operations. He said, early on in his term, that he knew more about ISIS than the generals did, because he couldn’t imagine anyone else having experiences or insights more valuable than his own. He has even said, a few times, that he knows a lot about “nuclear” because his uncle was a professor who studied it at MIT. (“So,” Trump told Bob Woodward, “I understand that stuff … genetically.”)
Most presidents read biographies of other presidents to learn how their predecessors handled crises similar to those they might face. Trump, famously, doesn’t read. Most presidents speak with their living predecessors now and then for the same reason. Trump isn’t interested in what others might have learned. He doesn’t want to believe that there might be gaps in his knowledge or intelligence. (His angriest moment, during the debate with Joe Biden, came when Biden suggested that Trump wasn’t “smart.”)
The president of the United States has at his fingertips, working exclusively for him, the most elaborate intelligence agencies in the world. He could call the world’s most renowned experts, on any subject that strikes his fancy, any time, day or night—and those experts, regardless of their political leanings, would drop everything to talk to the world’s most powerful leader. (Barack Obama invited presidential historians to the White House a few times. Once, when he was in Rome, he asked the U.S. ambassador to put together a dinner party with Italian intellectuals and entrepreneurs—an architect, a physicist, a filmmaker, a CEO, and the owner of a soccer club—just because he wanted to talk with such people about sports, science, and the universe.)
Yet Trump has told his intelligence directors that he doesn’t want to hear anything that discredits his self-serving notions. He rivets himself to Fox News, his sole portal to the outside world, except when one of its anchors or its polling team reports something contrary to his interests, in which case he pouts that the network “isn’t working for us anymore” and, in some cases, demands that a traitor be fired.
Another telling moment over this past weekend came when the White House released a photo showing Trump at work in his hospital room. His daughter Ivanka tweeted, “Nothing can stop him from working for the American people. RELENTLESS!” Yet a close-up of the photo revealed that the document Trump seemed to be signing was in fact a blank sheet of paper. The time codes on this photo and another picture, showing him at work in a different room, revealed that the two were taken a mere 10 minutes apart, suggesting that the entire exercise was staged.
Then again, Trump seems to regard his entire presidency as a grand sequel to The Apprentice, the faux reality show that molded his image as a successful, decisive businessman—the image that got him elected in 2016 and that he has since come to believe. The difference is, in real reality, his bluster and flailing have life-and-death consequences, which, even now, he sees—in what passes for him as a moment of enlightenment—as “a very interesting thing.”
Correction, Oct. 5, 2020: This article originally misstated the number of Americans infected with the coronavirus. It is over 7 million, not 1 million.