The key to understanding Donald Trump’s core belief system is found in the proper placement of three letters: i, m and a; two vowels and a consonant. A person is said to be immoral if they share a value set with a community but fail to follow those values. A person is said to be amoral if they have no personal value set whatsoever, and give not a single fig for what society has to say about right and wrong.
Trump is amoral to a nearly pitch-perfect degree. His existence is entirely transactional: no good, no bad, only what’s in it for Trump. The fact that what’s in it for Trump tends to be bad for almost everyone else makes him appear immoral, but the base nature of his existence dwells in a deeper and danker cellar of the soul. The devoted lickspittles in his orbit are mostly immoral, as many of them know what they’re doing is wrong but stay in it because fleecing the rubes makes for good money. Trump’s amorality makes no such distinctions; if it’s good for him, then it’s good, end of file and gimme.
It can be startling, then, when he actually does the right thing as he bumbles along through his bleak, grasping, monochromic existence. There’s no context for it. It’s like watching Neo take off and fly at the end of The Matrix. He can do that? Who knew? Speaking personally, I can count on two fingers the number of moral actions then-President Trump presided over: He got a lot fewer soldiers and civilians killed than his Republican predecessor, and he made the rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine his administration’s highest priority.
Of course, any morality found within Trump’s quest for a rapid vaccine is stripped to the bone by his ultimate motivation for obtaining the thing. It was not to save lives and curtail the pandemic, but to save his own ass in an increasingly fraught election year. He was perfectly happy to mock the effectiveness of masks (the result of which almost certainly got people sick and dead), and threw science itself under the bus more times than can be accurately counted. In October 2020, he lied about his own COVID status on the eve of the first debate and put God knows how many people, including his opponent Joe Biden, in peril.
Trump’s deliberate creation (and continued fealty to) the polar “us vs. them” theme that continues to scramble our approach to the pandemic was the defining element of his final year in office, and of the election that ultimately showed him the door… but even then, throughout it all, he pounded the vaccine drum with all his might. To his thinking, vaccines were the magic elixir that would rescue him from defeat. To Trump, it’s OK that he dumped on masks, science, doctors, safe practices and everything else the pandemic required; the vax was his silver bullet, and would take care of everything, especially him.
Flash forward a year, and Trump’s polemics against masks and science have resulted in a nation about to endure two variant waves simultaneously with some 40 percent of the population still unvaccinated. The vaccines he championed are medical miracles, but his advocacy for them never translated into acceptance within his base of support because of his generalized anti-science rhetoric, leaving the country vulnerable to the complete collapse of the health care system if the unvaccinated among us are overwhelmed. In many places, this is already happening.
So it was quite the moment last Sunday when Trump, in Dallas doing a road show with disgraced former Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly, was booed by the usually-adoring crowd after admitting he had received the vaccine booster shot. “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, no, no,” he barked back at the booers. “That’s — there’s a very tiny group over there.” Trump was so distraught over the crowd reaction that he reportedly had to be consoled by O’Reilly afterward.
Flash forward to Tuesday, when Trump had a sit with notorious right-wing hack Candace Owens and the topic of vaccines came up. Trump was quick to take total credit for them — of course — as he lauded their effectiveness. Owens attempted to spin the discussion into a conspiracy-fueled attack on the medicines, but Trump would have none of it.
“Oh no, the vaccines work,” Trump quickly retorted, “but some people aren’t the ones. The ones who get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don’t take the vaccine. But it’s still their choice. And if you take the vaccine, you’re protected. Look, the results of the vaccine are very good, and if you do get it, it’s a very minor form. People aren’t dying when they take the vaccine.”
That’s twice in a week Trump has bared his throat to his own horde, and the current president took notice by praising Trump for it in a speech. Trump reacted to that praise in a way I’d never seen before: He was kind, gregarious even. “I’m very appreciative of that,” Trump said to Fox News. “I was surprised to hear it. I think it was a terrific thing, and I think it makes a lot of people happy…. I think [Biden] did something very good. You know, it has to be a process of healing in this country, and that will help a lot.”
The head spins, the mind reels, and you can expect more of the same. Trump has not suddenly found religion here: He wants a piece of the action. He wants his face up there on Vaccine Mt. Rushmore when the day finally comes that we have this thing under some semblance of control. For sure the cry of “I did the vaccines all by myself!” will be the centerpiece to his campaign should he run for president again. This lays the groundwork for that, and there is certainly more to come. Trump is the world heavyweight champion of consistent messaging, and this is his new message.
…and you know what? Fine. Let him try. We need all the help we can get. At present, those who are dug in against the vaccines refuse to listen to anyone in science or government advocating for the shots. They are not to be trusted, as Trump gamely taught his supporters for years. He is greatly responsible for this, and if his own blistering self-interest causes him to act in the self-interest of his countrymen for a refreshing change of pace, I see no sense in trying to thwart him because of his original culpability. If Donald Trump praising the vaccines (and himself) serves to get a few needles into the arms of a few vax-deniers, he will have performed the best act of his life since entering politics.