It’s been over 24 years since I read “Atlas Shrugged.” It was during the “blizzard of ‘96,” a miracle of snowfall that turned the western New Jersey landscape into a vast prodigy of silence, that I yawned my way through Ayn Rand’s pretentious, self-congratulatory tome. My assessment of the book at that time came without any presentiment of its later (for me) political implications. I didn’t know I would one day grapple online with rabid Libertarians and Tea Party “fans” of the book, who clearly had never actually read the thing. For me it was nothing more than the most overrated “classic” ever written, an assessment that remained unchallenged until I finally got around to reading “The Great Gatsby” last year, which at least had the good taste of being shorter.
Even so, “Shrugged” gave me a takeaway, which “Gatsby” did not (unless you count the fact that the American aristocracy of any era is composed of shallow, pointless, ornamental idiots, but I didn’t need Gatsby for that.) Rand conveyed, with uncanny, superlative clarity, the sound of the whine of the coward whose principal job — whose only job really — is to convince everyone in earshot that everything that goes wrong is emphatically not their fault. Rand didn’t need a whole book for that, but give credit where credit is due. She’s so good at it I wonder now if she wasn’t one of them.
So in that tradition one of Donald Trump’s jobs these days is convincing everyone that nothing bad is ever his fault. He even hamfistedly engineers it that way by keeping cruise ships, lousy with COVID-19 cases, offshore to artificially deflate the number of “official” American sufferers. He points out that, while the 2018 dismantling of the whole apparatus of the pandemic response team may in fact have been a bad thing, it also wasn’t his fault, because he didn’t know about it.
The buck (or, in Ayn Rand parlance, the almighty dollar) stops anywhere but there, in Trumpland. As outrageous as all this is, it’s not half as outrageous as the Republican readiness to enable him. These days no official word from the White House can come without its inveterate paeans to the president. Someone is coaching them, reminding them before they go on that they can’t talk very long without praising Trump. “This was all BB’s [Big Brother’s] idea, of course,” Syme says to Winston Smith in Orwell’s “1984.”
But I think Trump may have painted himself into another one of his famous corners by insisting that he has tested negative for coronavirus. I hope it goes without saying that we have no idea if this is true or not. In fact, there are two parts to this question, really. One, we have no idea if he was tested or not and, two, we have no idea of the outcome of the test if he was. Three possibilities and we are truly no wiser now than we ever were about which possibility is correct. Such is the current credibility of this White House and this president.
The important question remains. Does Trump have it? There’s a good chance he does, but it would almost be an extension of his Devil’s luck if he didn’t. But assuming he does then he is in serious trouble, not only because we will have almost perfect proof that he lied, but that he is meantime infecting American politicians and world leaders and diplomats and golf cronies all over the place. If that’s true and one of them should die, then Trump will be an existential murderer. And if one of his victims should turn out to be an important foreigner and they should die, it could trigger an international incident of staggering proportions.
If I had to guess I would guess that Trump has not been tested and he doesn’t have a clue if he’s infected (or infectious) or not — and, because he’s a sociopath, he doesn’t care. I think Trump assumes he isn’t infected because he’s Donald Trump and he’s immune to consequences from coronavirus the same way he’s immune to heart attack because of his diet, or the same way he’s immune from the law because of his criminal activities. In any case, he thinks he doesn’t need to be tested for that reason. That everything is going to one day catch up with him, maybe even all at once, never occurs to him because he’s stupid and he has no imagination.
So what does all this mean? Greed is good? You’ll get no help from Ayn Rand (or her much smarter fictional descendant, Gordon Gekko.) Only from Orwell, the true genius here, can any useful answer come. “For the first time he perceived,” Orwell writes, “that if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.” Trump’s problem is that if he’s infected, he won’t be able to hide it much longer. Not from himself, not from anyone else. Should that be the case you may be assured that, the perennial victim Trump, will loudly and truculently proclaim that it’s not his fault,