When he was asked by Bloomberg for his thoughts on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, rapper and actor Ice Cube astutely remarked that Trump “looks like a boss to everybody, and Americans love a boss.”
He couldn’t have been more right.
American culture is obsessed with the prototypical “alpha male.” The success of films like The Godfather, Scarface, and Wolf of Wall Street is due in part to that obsession. There are a lot of people who would love to step into the shoes of a Vito Corleone and indulge themselves in the power, privileges, and prestige associated with the alpha lifestyle. As Ice Cube noted, that desire is one of the cornerstones of the American Dream.
Trump’s entire campaign was designed to exploit that desire. He knew that the machismo expressed through his oft-boorish behavior and blatant disregard for political decorum would ingratiate him with disgruntled, anti-establishment sectors of society. He understood that the widespread perception of him as a cutthroat, no-nonsense titan of industry would play well with results-driven voters who believed that only a man with his testicular fortitude could march into Washington and restore the nation to its former economic glory. And to capitalize on those advantages, all he had to do was be his authentic self.
The problem is that Trump’s authentic self is a much more flawed creature than many of his supporters realize. America has mythologized the alpha male to such an extreme degree that Trump’s worst attributes are viewed by many as his biggest strengths. That’s one of the reasons why his unearned sense of superiority is considered by some to be one of his most useful and endearing qualities.
But that perception was exposed for the illusion that it is when the White House was struck by a coronavirus outbreak earlier this month, providing Americans with a firsthand look at the destructive nature of Trump’s dangerous arrogance.
Throughout most of his presidency, Trump has managed to evade the consequences of that arrogance by passing the buck to villains both real and imagined. But that’s not going to work this time. He has never taken the pandemic as seriously as he should, and the outbreak at the White House proves it. He has openly shunned the advice of medical experts by consistently refusing to don a mask while in the company of others, refrained from enforcing social distancing protocols at his rallies, and has repeatedly implied that the pandemic was starting to wind down even when the available data suggested otherwise. Now his recklessness has come back to haunt not only him, but also the dozens of other officials who were infected at the White House, and he has no one to blame but himself.
Were he a more humble man, Trump would have regarded his infection and subsequent hospitalization as a wake-up call to the reality of the dangers posed by the virus. Were he a more selfless man, he would have framed this ordeal as a cautionary tale and encouraged his supporters to be more careful than he has been over the last several months. Instead, he immediately began acting like his old self after being discharged from Walter Reed, engaging in a brief but dramatic display of virility on a White House balcony before turning to go back inside without putting on his mask.
Between his maskless appearance on that balcony and the short drive he took with security personnel to greet his supporters outside Walter Reed, it’s apparent that Trump would rather be seen as an iron-willed manly man than take the necessary steps to reduce the risk of infecting the men and women in his employ. His utter disregard for their safety and welfare points to the inconvenient truth that his nonchalant attitude towards the pandemic was never anything more than unbridled selfishness masquerading as courage.
It also serves as a reminder that Trump’s priorities have always been and will always be dictated by his ego. For him, the presidency is more of a vanity project than it is a patriotic calling. That’s why he’s so averse to following the advice of medical experts. He is convinced that putting on a mask is a symbolic act of self-emasculation, and that’s not a sacrifice he’d prefer to make even if it would set the right example for the rest of the country to follow.
If you’re hoping that his battle with the coronavirus might change that, don’t hold your breath. Trump is just as capable of growth as anyone, but his entire identity has been shaped by his outdated conception of the ideal alpha male, and it would prove exceedingly difficult to spark an evolution in his thinking at this late stage of his life and career. He is who he is, and you can either love him or leave him.