Is Trump Apathetic, or Just Ignorant?

Plot Twist: I do know and I do care.

The great philosopher Jimmy Buffett once posed the question "Is it ignorance or apathy?" to which he proposed the answer, "Hey, I don't know and I don't care."

Sometimes, however, the distinction does matter.

In the wake of two of Donald Trump's performances on Monday -- first in a televised conference at the White House, and then later at a rally -- many commentators were left with the impression that Donald just doesn't "get" vaccines. Doesn't understand science. When he repeatedly made ludicrous claims about a forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine in front of his medical and scientific advisers who shot them down only to turn around and repeat those same claims at his rally, many were boggled by what they take as staggering mental incompetence.

This misses the story, though. The King in Orange may or may not understand anything about vaccines, but he knows what he's doing. And his critics should understand that, too.

Here is the money quote:


When Donald Trump asked his advisers and the pharmaceutical reps in a leading way, he was not asking questions he didn't know the answer to. He was telling people who, in his view, work solely for his benefit, what answers he wanted them to give him.

The right answers are the ones that he wants, the ones that sound better. The ones he can sell.

I mean, a vaccine is good, but how about a cure? A cure would sell like hotcakes. (Especially as some of his crowd is leery of vaccines.)


When he keeps pushing up the timeline despite Dr. Fauci having publicly corrected him at least four times... well, it's not that Donald isn't understanding what Dr. Fauci is telling him...


...but rather what is happening here is Dr. Fauci is failing to pick up on what he, Donald, is laying down. 

In Donald's world, he's the boss and what he says goes. He's trying to run the government like he runs his businesses, and in his businesses, the projections are what he says the projections are. The timeline is what he says the timeline is. The story is whatever it takes to get people to buy in.

I'm not saying that Donald Trump is an expert on inoculations, but I wouldn't be surprised if he knows as much about flu vaccines as the average person. I mean, he's famously germophobic. I also wouldn't be surprised if he knows nothing about them, because he's intellectually incurious and trusts his gut over anyone else's expertise. I wouldn't be surprised either way, but either way it doesn't matter.

The issue here isn't that he's ignorant of the truth. The issue is he's apathetic about it. The timeline for producing a vaccine doesn't matter to him because the outcome of having a vaccine doesn't matter. As with a Ukrainian investigation into Joe Biden, he's not looking for a result. He's looking for something he can announce. 

What he wanted from that televised meeting was for very important and learned men to co-sign his announcement that a cure is right around the corner, a super-duper vaccine that will prevent COVID-19 and make you feel better quicker. His failure to get any of those thick-headed fools to do their jobs and play along didn't change his plan. He went to his rally and announced that a vaccine and a cure were coming soon, and heck, since he couldn't get anyone to go on record and say the vaccine would also be a cure, he went one better and said the cure is coming sooner.


This isn't ignorance and it's not incompetence. I mean, he probably wouldn't be the best at the job he's supposed to be doing, but that's not the job he's trying to do. He wants to hype up a cure. He wants to build buzz around his emergency response. To his calculation, having people think he's handling the crisis is better than handling the crisis. It's cheaper, it's easier, and if he actually tried and failed he'd be blamed, whereas if he can completely divorce popular perceptions from reality then there's nothing to blame him for. Any death or destruction becomes "Wow, imagine how bad it would be if we didn't have the Trump Vaccine."

His base has been able to satisfy themselves that he'll drain the swamp next month, he'll lock her up next month, next month there's going to be an IG report and then all the Democrats will be impeached, so there's a good chance he could keep saying the vaccine is right around the corner, right up until the day a year or more from now when it comes out. And if he's out of office before then, he'll be saying he was ready to release the vaccine and he doesn't know what happened.

That's what I see as the best case of the paths he could take it. The far worse but very real possibility is that he does not maintain the fantasy but escalates it, claiming that we have a vaccine ready, that he has a cure now. He's already floated a trial balloon in that direction:


I don't think he tried this one out at his rally, but that's kind of a cat's-out-of-the-bag thing. It's not a promise for the future but a claim for the present. Once he makes the claim in public that the flu vaccine will protect against coronavirus, he's setting in motion a chain of events that he won't be able to undo.

Which doesn't mean he won't.

But for everybody who thinks he just doesn't understand what he's being told, consider that he's kept repeating and even expanding on the other things he floated at the meeting but not that one. It's not because the answer he got on that one randomly penetrated his thick skull. It's because he is thinking strategically, and he knows that misrepresenting the flu vaccine as a coronavirus vaccine (or cure!) is a bigger gun than making unrealistic future promises, so he's not going to fire it unless and until he sees that the small arms aren't penetrating anymore.


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