The Na­tional In­ter­est

Trump’s ge­netic delu­sions

New York Magazine - - FEA­TURES - By Jonathan Chait

Last month, ap­pear­ing at a rally in Min­nesota, Pres­i­dent Trump praised the su­pe­rior ge­netic stock of his sup­port­ers in the state. “You have good genes, you know that, right?” Trump ob­served. “You have good genes. A lot of it’s about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you be­lieve? The race­horse the­ory. You think we’re so dif­fer­ent? You have good genes in Min­nesota.”

The com­ment re­ceived some at­ten­tion as fresh ev­i­dence of a decades­long streak of racism, which it cer­tainly is. (There is ob­vi­ously a rea­son the lin­eage of the heav­ily Nordic state drew his at­ten­tion.) But Trump’s ob­ser­va­tions on ge­net­ics are not only an ex­pres­sion of racism. It is also one of his deep­est ob­ses­sions and the ex­pla­na­tion for the bizarre pas­siv­ity that has char­ac­ter­ized his re­sponse to the coro­n­avirus pan­demic from the out­set and that has led him to his likely po­lit­i­cal, if not cor­po­real, demise.

The clas­sic Amer­i­can mil­lion­aire myth, from Carnegie to War­ren Buf­fett, has an ori­gin story, em­ploy­ing at least el­e­ments of truth, built on hard work. The hero rose at dawn and sweated and strove on his rise to great­ness. And yet, de­spite hav­ing spent decades care­fully pol­ish­ing his place in the lin­eage of as­pi­ra­tional wealth, Trump has few well-known sto­ries of pound­ing the pave­ment or por­ing over real-es­tate listings. “It’s in­stincts, not mar­ket­ing stud­ies,” he wrote in The Art of the Deal, the orig­i­nal man­i­festo of his per­son­al­ity cult.

In­stinct is some­thing you are born with or not. In 1988, Oprah Win­frey asked Trump if “all of the peo­ple read­ing Art of the Deal hop­ing to find some an­swer that will sat­isfy their own de­sire for suc­cess” could take away in­spi­ra­tion and lessons. The Amer­i­can pros­per­ity gospel has a hack­neyed re­sponse to this ques­tion: Yes, with re­lent­less ef­fort and per­haps some luck, any­body can get rich in Amer­ica. Even though he was ped­dling a book mar­keted to ad­vance pre­cisely such a fan­tasy, Trump could not bring him­self to sup­ply the fa­mil­iar an­swer. “You have to be born lucky in the sense that you have to have the right genes,” he ex­plained. “You have to have a cer­tain gene.”

Trump brings up his be­lief in genes over and over. “I have a cer­tain gene,” he told CNN in 2010. “I’m a gene be­liever. Hey, when you con

nect two race­horses, you usu­ally end up with a fast horse. And I re­ally was—you know, I had a—a good gene pool from the stand­point of that.” Ad­dress­ing a rally in Mis­sis­sippi in 2016, he in­structed the crowd, “I have Ivy League ed­u­ca­tion, smart guy, good genes. I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a be­liever in.” (In the an­nals of Mis­sis­sippi pol­i­tics, Trump’s high­light­ing his Ivy League pedi­gree was prob­a­bly more novel than his em­pha­sis on ge­netic pu­rity.)

The pres­i­dent’s idea of a fixed ge­netic elite—and its nec­es­sary un­der­class coun­ter­part—would seem to un­der­cut any moral ba­sis for his own priv­i­lege. (The best moral case for let­ting rich peo­ple keep their money is that they worked hard to earn it. So if Trump’s wealth is en­tirely the prod­uct of win­ning the ge­netic lot­tery, why not tax it away and re­dis­tribute the pro­ceeds to his less for­tu­nate in­fe­ri­ors?) It also stands in stark con­trast to the Amer­i­can credo of progress.

What Hath God Wrought?, Daniel Walker Howe’s his­tory of early-19th-cen­tury Amer­ica, em­pha­sizes a be­lief among the Founders, and es­pe­cially the pro­gres­sive Yan­kee fac­tion, in im­prove­ment. This con­cept “con­sti­tuted both an in­di­vid­ual and a col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity, in­volv­ing both the cul­ti­va­tion of per­sonal fac­ul­ties and the de­vel­op­ment of na­tional re­sources.” Just as peo­ple could and must de­velop their own tal­ents through study and dis­ci­plined la­bor, they could en­hance the po­ten­tial of the coun­try by build­ing school­houses, canals, light­houses, and uni­ver­si­ties.

It was a creed em­braced by such dis­parate fig­ures as John Quincy Adams, Abra­ham Lin­coln, and Fred­er­ick Dou­glass. Their po­lit­i­cal ri­vals were south­ern planters who dis­trusted cen­tral­ized gov­ern­ment, which might threaten their im­mutable place atop the hi­er­ar­chy. The planters de­fined suc­cess not as hard work but as lib­er­a­tion from hard work, the bur­den of which would fall on the peo­ple they had en­slaved.

Trump has not nec­es­sar­ily ab­sorbed an­te­bel­lum south­ern thought. But he has in­ter­nal­ized the idea of suc­cess as ge­net­i­cally coded and im­per­vi­ous to ef­fort. The Trump suc­cess for­mula is 100 per­cent in­spi­ra­tion, zero per­cent per­spi­ra­tion. He has re­peat­edly cited his MIT-pro­fes­sor un­cle as his own sci­en­tific cre­den­tial. Trump said at the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion that he im­pressed his hosts with his in­nate grasp of pub­lic health: “I re­ally get it … Ev­ery one of th­ese doc­tors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a nat­u­ral abil­ity,” he said, as if he were lit­er­ally born un­der­stand­ing the work­ings of a virus that did not ex­ist un­til 2019. NBC re­ported that Trump waved off the need to rig­or­ously pre­pare for his de­bate on the grounds that de­bat­ing “isn’t some­thing you have to prac­tice.” His bi­og­ra­pher Michael D’An­to­nio once ex­plained that Trump dis­dains ex­er­cise and gorges on burg­ers and junk food be­cause “he re­ally be­lieves in ge­netic gifts. He wants to as­sume that he can do some­thing that oth­ers can’t do sim­ply be­cause of who he is.”

That is not an ideal men­tal­ity for the per­son you’d want to be in charge of … well, any­thing. But es­pe­cially not a pan­demic that re­quires care­ful study and flex­i­bil­ity of mind to fol­low a quickly mu­tat­ing sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing and the per­se­ver­ance to en­cour­age and ad­here to dis­ci­plined hy­gienic rit­u­als. Ev­ery­thing to him is about who you are, not what you do. Trump did not need to learn about the pan­demic be­cause he is smart. He did not need to pro­tect him­self from it be­cause he is strong.

Trump not only lacks the pa­tience for a la­bo­ri­ous pub­lic-health reg­i­men; the en­tire con­cept of it runs against his ge­netic fa­tal­ism. The very pos­si­bil­ity a dis­ease could fell blond Über­men­sch Don­ald Trump al­most surely never oc­curred to him. The pres­i­dent is nei­ther a ra­tio­nal­ist nor a re­li­gious be­liever. The clos­est proxy in his mind to a di­vine force is genes: in­vis­i­ble, all-pow­er­ful, map­ping out our des­tinies. Were he ca­pa­ble of in­tro­spec­tion, he might look upon his stricken body and dy­ing pres­i­dency and ques­tion his false god. ■

OCT. 5: Af­ter re­turn­ing to the White House from the hos­pi­tal, Trump waved from the bal­cony.

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