U.S. President Donald Trump debates Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. This is the last debate between the two candidates before the November 3 election. Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images
In the earliest days of the Trump crisis, just about a month after the inauguration, I received the horrifying news that my best friend and podcast partner, Chez Pazienza, had died of a drug overdose.
It was the evening of Feb. 25, 2017, and the shock still hasn't quite worn off. In fact, I ask myself nearly every day what Chez might've said about the most recent atrocity committed by the chief executive. I'll never know for sure, but there's something comforting in that exercise, imagining how he'd frame this dark ride with equal parts Gen-X angst, stinging Bourdain-ish erudition and artistically worded blue streaks that would've made George Carlin applaud.
I'm convinced, however, that it wasn't really an overdose that killed him. Sure, it was the weapon of choice, but it wasn't the ultimate cause of death. Chez possessed the ability to foresee this Trump crisis stretched out in front of him — maybe not the specifics, but a general concept in his big brain for the horror show that was awaiting us. I believe it was the crushing reality of not only being force-fed a Trump presidency every day but also covering it professionally that forced him to drift back to his old addictions to ease the pain. And I wish more than anything that I could have stopped him.
Nevertheless, Chez could clearly see the incoming abuses, the crimes, the ungainly nonsense, the recklessness, the racism, the petty vindictiveness — all of it.
In 2015, he accurately forecast that Trump, if elected, would spitefully withhold federal funding from regions that refused to support his cruel whimsy. Naturally, we've watched this play out with Puerto Rico, California and most recently Pennsylvania, where Trump, this week, threatened to withhold funding for the commonwealth because of Gov. Tom Wolf's COVID plan. In Trump's view, responsible leadership is worthy of punishment because it makes him look bad by contrast, while incompetence, mainly his own, is routinely lionized.
Trump's blinding dumbness in the areas of history, the Constitution, the presidency and democratic institutions has infected him with an ugly, bastardized view of his job description, inflamed by his own biases and whatever he's picked up from watching cable news. He's a presidential dilettante, even now, nearly four years into the gig.
His wafer-thin understanding of presidential leadership contributes to his most self-defeating misapprehension: that he's only the president of the red states. Everyone else is the enemy, even more so than our actual overseas adversaries — surely more than Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, whom Trump praises more often than many of his fellow citizens and colleagues. The rest of us are only useful to him as punching bags and targets for his screechy, obscene, misspelled tweets and, more recently, his fascist police force. The upside of his deformed view of the presidency is that if he loses this election, it'll partly be because he refused to expand his support beyond his loyalists.
This is one of the reasons why he felt compelled to cheat in the 2020 election by attempting to blackmail the president of Ukraine into smearing Joe Biden — a plot that ended with Trump's impeachment and trial in the Senate. After all, how could he win re-election with only 40-44 percent popular support without making up the difference … somehow?
His relationship with his disciples is a match made in hell, given that his Red Hat fanboys have an equally stunted view of the presidency. I assure you, they'd never allow Trump-style behavior from their doctors, their kids' teachers or, hell, their airline pilots. If they hadn't been so badly brainwashed by the conservative entertainment complex, they never would have gifted the nuclear codes and the immense power of the presidency to such an unstable, erratic, incompetent political tourist who has utterly failed to grow into the job and rise to the occasion — who has failed to accept the intense gravity of his post. As Barack Obama said in August, "It's because he can't."
At no other time has that been more evident than in Trump's response to the pandemic. For the first two years of his presidency, many of us sat on the edge of our seats wondering when Trump would be seriously challenged either by a military threat, a terrorist attack or a global pandemic. From the moment Hillary Clinton conceded, I suspected this buffoonish greenhorn would be put to the test and fail badly. I never imagined that his reaction, untethered from experts, would be quite this calamitous.
His response to the hurricanes that collided with Puerto Rico represented a harrowing preview of how he'd handle the pandemic. I was convinced at the time that he was at least temporarily unaware that Puerto Rico was even part of the United States. I mean, how could he have been so thoughtless and unsympathetic to actual Americans? Turns out, he probably knew — he just didn't give a shit. Never before has a modern president behaved so callously toward a devastated population of his own people, hurling paper towels at their heads as if he were firing a T-shirt cannon at a college basketball pep rally. Today, the island territory continues to rebuild despite Trump's reprehensible indifference.
America is better than this. We're better than him.
There have to be consequences for his indifference to the destruction in Puerto Rico as well as the 225,000 casualties of COVID-19 (and counting). Neither should have happened here. But this is what it looks like when the president and his people fail to do the paint-by-numbers things in response to a crisis — things that so many other presidents managed to achieve. Had Trump listened to the experts at the CDC and WHO, thousands of Americans would still be alive today and we might have been free and clear of this blight by now. Instead, Trump listened to the entertainers on Fox News, not to mention the shrieking voices in his head, convincing him to abandon the effort at exactly the wrong time — in April, at the initial height of the infection curve.
Before giving up, he applied travel restrictions to China, but it was too little too late. Forty thousand people arrived in the United States from China by flying through Europe and landing in New York, magnifying the catastrophic outbreak there. After that, Trump did nothing else to slow the spread, making George W. Bush's 2005 response to Hurricane Katrina look masterful by comparison. Now, eight months into this disaster, Trump continues to ignore the rules, ignore safety protocols and ignore the experts, holding maskless, undistanced rally after rally, fueling his own ego, even after being infected himself. And there's no end in sight.
Win or lose, his bungled, herky-jerky reaction to the pandemic will be remembered as the defining failure of his presidency, and it's the No. 1 reason why he deserves nothing but ignominy and prison.
Rather than accepting the challenge and rising to meet it, as any other president would have, he's spent all these months of national stress, uncertainty and illness not comforting or proactively leading the American people, but whining, whining and whining some more about how COVID ruined his presidency. Solving the pandemic could have been his greatest achievement — but Trump always makes things worse for Trump. Undermining himself and then playing the victim when things go sideways is the only thing he's good at.
He possesses the most brittle ego of any president since Richard Nixon — one of many character flaws that undermine his self-identification as a manly alpha. Indeed, he's nothing more than an easily-ruffled snowflake who constantly bellyaches about how "unfair" the world treats him — you know, the alleged billionaire president. So unfair.
Donald Trump has redefined what it means to be an empty suit. He talks an enormous game, but in reality his entire record is composed of failures and stolen successes. He claims to understand things he's never able to explain openly or in any detail. Accordingly, he's obsessed with repealing the Affordable Care Act, but only because it was Barack Obama's signature achievement, not because it's bad policy — and it's not bad policy, he just says it is and his fanboys believe him.
If challenged, I'd wager a year's salary he couldn't name anything in the law beyond the mandate and the coverage for pre-existing conditions. I'm sure he doesn't know about the myriad consumer protections or the mandatory benefits, or how the low-income subsidies work or the Medicaid expansion or the marketplaces — none of it. Yet he's seeing to it that the entire thing is obliterated mid-pandemic when Americans need coverage the most. He definitely doesn't know that coverage for pre-existing conditions is made possible, for example, by placing caps on premiums and co-pays, while banning rescission and lifetime limits on coverage. Worst of all, he doesn't know that many of his own voters are covered today because of the ACA.
Between the pandemic and the possible repeal of the ACA, America is physically sick. And because of Donald Trump, we're spiritually sick, too. He doesn't understand that the president sets the tone for the nation. He'll never grasp that the way he communicates influences the way we communicate with each other. His constant firehose of crapola encourages others to let their hatred, racism and obnoxious, crazy-eyed antagonism fly freely — playing out in our public spaces and on our social media platforms every damn day.
Trump has debased the presidency, replacing decency and humility with unearned self-praise and horrendous sadism. Our nation's most cherished values and institutions have been randomly crushed by this 90-foot kaiju monster for too long. His constant antagonism has turned father against son, mother against daughter, family against family. Over what? The damaging misadventures of a political fraud — a garish old brat who bankrupted his businesses, defrauded Americans with his sham foundation and university and is currently bankrupting the U.S. treasury while establishing himself as a Putin-style kleptocrat.
In 1860, our nation nearly crumbled under the weight of slavery and secession. Today, our nation is on the verge of collapse under the weight of a painted-up clown whose performative fascism has led to the extrajudicial murder of American citizens on American soil; the use of Homeland Security as a secret police force tasked with assaulting Americans in advance of awkward photo-ops; the use of the Department of Justice as a personal law firm; taxpayer revenue as a personal slush fund; and, worst of all, the construction of internment camps for Central American migrant children, where some have been raped by American guards. Rivaled only by the pandemic response, the Trump Cages are the most disgusting and unforgivable aspect of this presidential crisis.
The 2020 election is about ending all that, while beginning the process of a second Reconstruction — rebuilding our government in a way that guarantees this will never happen again, while convening a Trump Crimes Commission to hold the perpetrators accountable. Part of that process is about remembering what happened here, in this era. There will be voices who insist we should move on and forget about all this ugliness. We would do well to ignore those voices. The minute we forget the damage he's inflicted upon us all, the next Trump will be waiting to strike.
Indeed, the only way to move on is to punish the crimes and plug the holes. We have no choice but to use this dark ride — one that took my friend Chez and many thousands of others — as an opportunity to repair the gaping Trump-shaped craters in the system exposed and exploited by this unqualified, disgracefully unpresidential and obviously unglued president. If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris successfully oust Trump, a week from today, the Trump crisis will be on its way to ending, while the hard work of cleaning up the mess will begin. In both the election and the aftermath, we cannot fail. Everything depends on what happens next.