The Fabulous Wife and I avoided the first presidential debate by watching early episodes of The Good Place. (The final season just came to Netflix, and we’re reviewing before watching it.) The Good Place is a sitcom about four young people who have died and been told they’re in heaven, only to discover they’re actually in an experimental form of hell. They team up to reach the real Good Place, an ambition that requires constant grappling with ethical philosophy, because only exemplary behavior will admit them to their destination.
One of the challenges of season two is explaining existential dread to a being who had taken immortality for granted. “All humans are aware of death, so we’re all a little bit sad, all the time. And if you try and ignore your sadness, it just ends up leaking out of you anyway,” confesses one of the dead humans. Well put, especially by the writing standards of American network television.
I thought of those lines after learning the debate had devolved into a kill-me-now experience due mainly to Trump’s disruptive logorrhea.
Try as he might to ignore it, down deep Trump must know he’s close to losing not only the presidency, but his financial fortune — his twin reasons for being. Thanks to stellar investigative reporting by the New York Times, we’ve learned that over the next few years he needs to repay over $400 million in loans he has personally guaranteed, and may owe the federal government nearly $100 million in tax, interest, and penalties. Although the Times doesn’t say as much, it implies Trump lacks the assets to cover those debts. If true, that must make him more than a little bit sad — enough to lash out on a national stage.
An honest reckoning with existential angst might once have been possible for Trump. Perhaps his last chance came in the 1990s, after multiple bankruptcies and the death of his father. But not even in those dark times did the Angel of Introspection appear unto him. Then in 2004 a television producer came along with a show that portrayed Trump as he always imagined himself. Existential reckoning became irrelevant after The Apprentice reinforced Trump’s most grandiose self-delusions. (It also deluded the public, much of which still perceives Trump as a shrewd businessman rather than what he is: the dissolute son of a shrewd businessman.)
Trump’s misery leaks out nonetheless. Whether or not he’d publicly acknowledge it, he must know he won’t win a majority of votes (FiveThirtyEight.com puts that probability at just ten percent) or a majority in the electoral college (just a twenty percent likelihood). Instead of trying something redemptive, though, he’s doubled down on the rude-and-crude routine and dedicated his campaign to suppressing the vote, undermining the electoral process, and sowing enough doubt about the election results to force a resolution either in the Supreme Court, where he’ll soon enjoy an augmented majority, or in the House of Representatives, where each state, regardless of size, gets one vote for president, and Republicans currently comprise a majority in 26 state delegations.
I doubt a case of COVID-19 will change that. Were I a betting man, I’d put my money on him emerging from the sickness even more defiant. (Despite all, I wish him and his wife a swift recovery.)
Trump and his base will never look in the mirror for the source of their woe. They’re too accustomed to aiming their sadness outward, and they take comfort watching their collective fear, anger, and resentment merge into a sweeping torrent. Even if they’re decisively repudiated next month, do not expect the U.S. to escape this political Bad Place for years to come.