Donald Trump has always thought of himself as above the rules. He has demonstrated this conviction throughout his life: in his business, in his personal behavior, and for almost four years as president of the United States. So we know what to expect from him. But even when Trump does what’s expected—which is generally the worst thing anyone can picture him doing—his actions or inactions can still astonish those Americans who are holding on to their sanity by the thinnest of threads in these insane times.
Trump’s cavalier conduct in the face of the coronavirus pandemic has shown that he imagines himself to be not only above the rules but above science itself, above knowledge, above medicine, immunology, and epidemiology. Trump has known since February that COVID-19 is a serious disease. Nonetheless, he and his staff have gone about their business publicly as if there were no pandemic, putting their friends and families, their colleagues, and by extension the American people in the worst kind of danger.
Even more astonishing is that he endangered himself as well. Last week, he spent days in close confines with Hope Hicks, whom he quickly found out was infected, and then bustled off to an event with donors during which he never told them he was at risk, though they came together for part of the time in an indoor dining room.
Perhaps he didn’t really believe that the virus could touch him. Perhaps Trump thought the pandemic was only for other people, suckers and losers.
Because he thinks he’s above the law and has always wriggled out of every uncomfortable or difficult responsibility, such as contractors’ fees and taking care of his young children, he behaved as if he were immune to COVID-19. After all, he’s Donald Trump, head of the internationally renowned Trump Organization, master of the universe, president of the United States. Possibly a superhuman, a very stable genius, a world-class individual. How could a measly virus disturb this Übermensch?
Since early Friday, when the White House announced that Trump had been diagnosed with COVID-19, everyone, even Trump, has known that Trump is not immune. The lesson for this president is that, distort as you will—lie, cheat, and undermine the country’s truth tellers—reality really is reality, and no one is immune to reality.
During the pandemic, I have not lived like the president. Instead of wearing a mask over my eyes, I’ve confronted the reality of the virus, and worn it where it needs to be worn.
Let’s see. Since March 11, I have not hugged anyone except my husband. When our sons, who are in their 20s, visit us, they get tested and endure brief quarantines, and we still keep six feet apart and don’t hug or kiss.
I don’t shake hands with anyone. Do you? I don’t sit next to people, except for my husband. When we see other people, which is rare, we sit more than six feet apart and outside only. When we walk through the neighborhood, we wear masks and stay more than six feet away from other pedestrians. Sometimes it’s hot out. We still wear masks. If we forget to put on a mask, we go back to get one. We don’t want to get sick, and we know the mask is our best protection.
More than this, though: We don’t want others to get sick. In our community, as in many other communities in the country where so many have been sickened by this virus, it would be socially embarrassing to not wear a mask. A mask protects not only us, but the people around us; not just the people we know, but strangers too. And by protecting those other people, we also protect ourselves. It’s pretty simple. You know all this, and I know all this. And the president and all the president’s men and women know all this.
We know about this disease and what it can do to a person. We know people who have had it and gotten very sick and survived, and we know people who have died. But we don’t just know about the virus because we personally know COVID-19 patients. We know about it because we’re open-eyed people living in the modern world, listening to scientists and health experts, keeping abreast of the latest news on the disease—making sure we have the best information possible.
The riskiest behavior I’ve engaged in since the pandemic began was to pick up my son from LAX on the Fourth of July. I was disease-free and had lived in quarantine since March. I didn’t want my son to take an Uber or taxicab with a stranger driving. So my son sat in the back passenger-side seat. We didn’t kiss hello. We wore masks. I drove 70 mph with all the windows open. My son had been tested in New York, and was negative. But for us, the way we live now, this still felt like risky behavior. All along the freeway, my son filmed fireworks going off on people’s private property, the explosions arcing over the road. Angelenos didn’t gather in crowds as usual for the displays, but somehow this version of the holiday was beautiful and singular and a very moving example of how Americans could celebrate separately but also together and simultaneously. It was the best Fourth of July I’ve ever experienced.
Because of the pandemic, I’ve given up a lot of the things I normally do, with the simple goal of keeping me and my family and friends and our neighborhood and city and country safe and healthy. We’re lucky, because both my husband and I can work from home, although that’s not always fun. It also hasn’t been fun to give up concerts, movies, travel, and so many other things we do every year. But it’s been worth it. Because this way, if I get sick, at least I’ll know I did everything I could to protect myself and to make sure that medical personnel are not being burdened with my care, while risking their own health, for frivolous reasons.
Like so many Americans, I wouldn’t want to add to a nurse’s viral load because I just hadn’t felt cool or free or fashionable wearing a mask. Why on earth should the leaders of this country not agree with me?
On Thursday, Senator Mike Lee, who the next day tested positive for COVID-19, attended a Judiciary Committee discussion on the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. He wasn’t wearing a mask. Incredibly, other senators were also maskless, Democrats and Republicans, not just when they were speaking but when they were sitting there breathing Lee’s droplets. Why? The only senator I saw wearing a mask was Chuck Grassley, 87, who spoke coherently and audibly right through the mask.
The positive tests among prominent Republicans may stem from Barrett’s nomination event. After the announcement on September 26 in the Rose Garden of the White House, the audience of about 100 mingled in the sun, unmasked, undistanced, rushing to embrace one another, hugging, shaking hands. The madcap full-body frolicking and intimacy seemed like an attempt to show how little all these people cared about the virus, how free they felt to violate all norms of the pandemic, how very liberated they were from fear of COVID-19. Around the country and around the world, people who’d been careful about their exposure to the virus were shocked as they watched this display of unconscionable insouciance. Yes, outdoor transmission is much less likely than indoor transmission—but the White House held indoor get-togethers for Barrett as well. And now at least eight of the attendees are infected.
In a video of the event, you can see Lee hug two people at the same time, and then former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who just announced that he too is positive for COVID-19, kiss and hug two people at the same time. When I watched the video, I thought about grandparents I know who haven’t yet been able to meet their new grandchildren because the virus prevents them from traveling; of people dying alone because family can’t come into hospitals to say goodbye; of all the health workers who’ve died or become very sick from COVID-19; of Nick Cordero, the 41-year-old Broadway actor who fell ill and had to have his leg amputated, then died anyway; and of all the people with essential jobs that forced them to work alongside others who have gotten sick and died.
Now Trump is sick. Ah, what a little bout of fever will do to a man’s view of things. Once he, with all his grandeur and invulnerability and Superman-like omnipotence, was threatened by this disease, he suddenly accepted the science about the virus. A day after testing positive, off he rushed to Walter Reed for the latest, most fabulous treatments science can offer. Surrounded by the best doctors and most careful nurses, he will be watched around the clock and his medications will be the best in the world. I understand this: He’s the president (though this one fact is the reality that actually beggars the imagination).
But still, after Trump has exhibited so much carelessness about the welfare of the citizens of the country he’s responsible for, you can’t help feeling angry at the perfection and efficiency of his treatment. The man who mocked masks and advised us to shoot bleach into our interiors receives the best medical treatment science can offer, while Americans languish and die in their sweaty beds.