A sadist walks into a pandemic....
On October 30, CNN reported that in his recent rallies Trump made a series of baseless claims that doctors were inflating the coronavirus death count for their own monetary gain, despite the fact that COVID cases and deaths are rapidly surging across our country. At a rally in Michigan’s Waterford Township, Trump said, "Our doctors get more money if someone dies from COVID. You know that, right? I mean our doctors are very smart people. So, what they do is they say, 'I'm sorry but everybody dies of COVID.'”
The President of the American Medical Association, Dr. Susan Bailey, called Trump’s comments “malicious.” She was right that Trump’s attacks on doctors are born out of unconscious sadism. Pundits called Trump’s attacks on doctors bizarre, not understanding that he views the virus as something that is attacking him, literally and figuratively: in his view, doctors are on the side of the virus in their insistence on making it the headline. Trump believes that he should be the only headline, lauded for his heroic defeat of COVID at Walter Reed.
But more important, his ignoring of the crisis altogether – not giving it much thought because he didn’t want to “panic” the American people” – was also a sadistic act. He expresses this sadism with cowardice. It isn’t just that Trump sat on what he knew about the dangerous virus in January, despite Bob Woodward reporting it that way. He didn’t fully connect with the information he possessed, because over time sadism has destroyed not only Trump’s compassion but also his curiosity and ultimately, his ability to think. This results from the sadist’s need to dehumanize victims, in order to protect the sadist from feeling guilt. First, the sadist discounts any possible suffering they endure. Soon all capacity for compassion disappears, followed by a loss of competence to deal with a situation that no longer has any meaning to the sadist.
I see Trump’s attitude toward the pandemic as malignant neglect. Trump’s brand of sadism is passive; lethal while less overtly obvious. What is the relationship of malign neglect to sadism? In psychoanalytic terms, sadism involves pleasure at inflicting cruelty. What Trump has done is disguise that sadism. He downplayed and ignored the danger of COVID while simultaneously claiming to be a wartime president who would conquer the virus. His promise was essentially sadistic, cruelly teasing us with a pledge of concerned action when he was in fact uninterested, uncaring and incapable of creating a plan, much less executing one. Trump is at heart a coward, and even his sadism is expressed through his cowardice. He told Woodward that he didn’t want to panic the American people about the dangers posed by COVID. But actually, he was too cowardly to tell them.
The vaccine is not just a campaign promise; it is a sadistic tease. It expresses Trump’s cruelty by offering something that doesn’t exist (like his health-care plan and even sad old “Infrastructure Week”) in order to inflict disappointment and hurt. That was the con at the heart of his failed Trump University scheme. But with COVID, add illness and death to disappointment and hurt. He passively expresses sadism by neglect, and actively expresses it by frequently holding COVID-spreading rallies. Trump is the spreader in chief; and that means he is the sadist in chief. As I wrote in Trump on the Couch, “He prefers doing what he wants over doing what he must – and what he often wants to do is to inflict cruelty on others.”
And now in the waning days of the campaign, he repeats the word COVID again and again. For Trump, COVID has morphed into a verbal virus that Biden and the press use to attack him relentlessly - so much so that he has to mock it in order to survive. His sadism includes removing Fauci from his COVID task force – hurtful both to Fauci and the doctor’s pride at being America’s leading virus warrior, and of course hurtful to those suffering from the virus itself. Trump failed to act while at the same time actively putting people in danger. Trump is a fading reality TV star who avoids reality itself. Our reality, however, is that President Trump is America’s sadist-in-chief whom the voters must remove and then place in permanent quarantine on November 3.
Justin A Frank, MD is the author of Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President