There was a brief moment, on Tuesday night, when Donald Trump struck what by his standards qualified as a moment of sanity. An undecided voter in the audience of a “town hall” event in Pennsylvania had asked the president why, after mounting a strong first response to the pandemic, he had subsequently thrown vulnerable people under the bus by failing to recommend masks or social distancing. In the course of a long, nonsensical answer, the president said something one rarely hears him say. “It’s a terrible thing,” he said of the pandemic; and, for a split second, he sounded almost rational.
That was it, the sum total of his moment of reason. It didn’t last, obviously. Within the space of the same answer, Trump promised that a vaccine would be available within “three weeks, four weeks”, and flogged the same, implausible line that the US response to the pandemic has been one of the best in the world. By Wednesday, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had felt compelled to step forward and clarify that, in all likelihood, it would be well into 2021 before a vaccine became available, while proffering the opinion that wearing a mask was as, if not, more important. “I think he made a mistake when he said that,” retorted Trump. “It’s just incorrect information.”
And so it goes on, round and round, none of it new. Trump’s unreliability has been on display from day one – it can hardly be said of the man that he deceived us. What has changed, clearly, is the world that we live in, one in which multiple crises put Trump’s shortcomings in a different order of magnitude. On Monday, Trump visited California to meet the governor, Gavin Newsom, to talk about the fires raging on the west coast, during which the president was confronted with the issue of climate science. “I don’t think science knows,” he said. There has never been a more Trumpian statement.
On a national level, the result of all this is that Trump poses a very real threat to the lives of millions of Americans, which in turn poses a personal dilemma. There’s a received wisdom about politics that it shouldn’t come between you and your nearest and dearest; that as mature adults, it should be possible to have a frank exchange of views (if you’re American), or some passive-aggressive avoidance (if you’re British), and move on. Excommunicating people for holding opposing political views is the province of bigots and office-holders at the student union. Besides which, failure to engage is no way to win an argument.
All of this makes sense, while failing to account for the emotional response many of us have towards Trump at this point. On Monday, I had a near-conniption while reading an opinion piece in the Washington Post by a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in which she listed the reasons why she was thinking of voting for Trump. (Broadly, because he acted as a buffer against the takeover of the Democratic party by “hard-left ideologues” whom she considered guilty for promoting the line, among others, that “being white is intrinsically evil”.)
The usual ludicrous rightwing reasoning, in other words, but it lands differently now. The word “evil”, such a childish signifier in public discourse, was well chosen; my own thoughts seized on it as precisely the right word to describe the author of the piece. It is almost impossible, in this climate, to consider giving Trump sympathisers a free pass, or to understand their allegiance to him as anything other than personal interest at the expense of public good. Earlier this month, nine pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca, felt obliged to issue a joint statement saying they would “stand with science”, in implied opposition to the president’s disregard for public safety in pushing for a vaccine. When even the drug companies find a conscience (albeit one that defends their integrity as a mechanism to protect future sales) you have to wonder at the people who persist in backing the president.
For a lot of Americans, the stakes of Trump’s presidency have always been this high. It has taken a pandemic and the burning of large parts of the country to bring everyone else up to speed. Now that we’re here, however, it seems to me almost impossible to engage with the other side. I think of the few people I know – older relatives of friends – who sympathise with Trump, and the dislike I feel towards them is so intense, so visceral, so childish in its desire to scream in their direction, that I practically have to sit on my hands.
Thanksgiving falls after the election in November, and it’s probably the one good thing about the pandemic that most Americans won’t be travelling long distances to celebrate, sparing themselves a family falling-out over politics, and perhaps providing us with a moment to remember that if you don’t scream at people, they can still change their minds. After the town hall in Philadelphia, the floating voter who asked Trump about masks was asked what he thought of the president’s answer. The man had voted for Trump in 2016 and described himself as a pro-life conservative. “He didn’t answer anything,” he said. “He was lying through his teeth.”
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist based in New York