What is more shocking: the words or the images?
The words are astonishing, to be sure.
“I learned so much about coronavirus. One thing that’s for certain, don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it. You’re going to beat it. We have the best medical equipment. We have the best medicines, all developed recently, and you’re going to beat it,” Donald Trump said last night, after returning to the White House following three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center battling COVID-19. “Don’t let it dominate. Don’t let it take over your lives. Don’t let that happen.”
In a tweet this morning, he sounded the same theme: “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!” (This is false: No more than 61,000 Americans have died of the flu any year in the past decade.)
But an image is, as Trump knows well, a powerful thing. And the visual of the president standing on a White House balcony, visibly uncomfortable and appearing to wince, but stripping off his face covering, said it all.
The mask is off. After months of flirting with the notion, Trump is now explicit about his plan for the pandemic: He has none. He wants Americans to take the punch, take the deaths, and pretend all is fine. Trump is acting as though he has triumphed over the virus, and thus the rest of the country can too. But with his words and acts, he is making it likely that more Americans will die.
Whether Trump is truly recovering is an open question. Shifting, partial, and confusing accounts of his health from his medical team and other aides mean there’s no way for members of the public to trust what they’ve heard about his prognosis. Many COVID-19 patients see the worst stretch of the disease between the seventh and tenth days, which for Trump are (apparently) still to come. He was administered drugs that are typically used for serious cases, and doctors won’t speak about his lung function. The president seemed to be in pain during his return to the White House, which was clearly designed to act as an ad for his reelection campaign.
If, in fact, Trump is solidly on the mend, his case is hardly representative. Most Americans who contract COVID-19 will not receive the treatment he has. The president has a personal physician on duty at his residence, and was cared for at Walter Reed by a team of dozens of doctors and other providers from the best institutions in the world. He was given an unusual course of drugs not available to most Americans—in fact, as his doctor, Sean Conley, said during a press conference yesterday, it’s not clear that any other patient has been able to receive this particular combination of treatments. “We’re in a bit of uncharted territory when it comes to a patient that received the therapies he has so early in the course,” he said.
For months, Trump has equivocated about the disease, occasionally recommending that Americans take precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing to fight the pandemic, but more often calling for hasty reopenings of the economy, schools, sports leagues, and other institutions in the hopes of producing something more like normal. That has placed him at odds with much of the nation. Large majorities disapprove of his handling of the pandemic. Nearly three-quarters of Americans said in a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll that Trump was personally reckless in his approach to the disease.
As he recuperated in the hospital, his campaign aides and some pundits gave voice to the hope that Trump’s illness would give him a chance to reset his view of the pandemic and strike a tone more in harmony with that of the American public.
This idea was as naive as it seemed. Something did change when Trump became sick: He no longer worried about the disease striking him personally. “Maybe I’m immune,” he said. “I don’t know. But don’t let it dominate your lives.”
It is much easier to shrug off a pandemic once you believe you’re safe from harm. Given how callously Trump already approached the health of his closest aides and donors, his callousness with the nation as a whole comes as little surprise.
In times of crisis, American leaders usually want to be like Franklin D. Roosevelt, telling the nation in his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is … fear itself.” Or they want to be like George W. Bush after 9/11, telling Americans to go about their lives in the face of terrorism. They imagine the nation carrying on with the stiff upper lip of Londoners amid the Blitz or V-2 attacks.
This is the rhetorical tradition from which Trump is drawing when he calls on Americans not to “let [the coronavirus] dominate you” and to “learn to live with it.” But Trump’s exhortations are built on a simple but crucial error. Roosevelt was speaking to a nation petrified by a sudden economic collapse—“nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Bush’s point was that the goal of terrorism was to freeze people into staying home, thus ruining social bonds and the economy; only by resisting fear could Americans resist terror.
But a virus can’t be bluffed. Its effects are physiological, not psychological. It is different from an aerial bombardment—Britons could not control how many bombs fell on them, but acting recklessly with the virus promises to increase the number of people who will be infected, and the number who will die.
Trump has certainly tried to bluff COVID-19. He pretended that the virus would not make it to American shores. He spent more time engaging in petty disputes over federalism with governors than preparing the country. He encouraged businesses to reopen and states to drop their restrictions. He demanded that schools reopen, but failed to provide the resources needed to get the pandemic under sufficient control for parents, teachers, and staff to feel safe sending kids back.
He sought to defy the virus in his personal life too. He refused to wear a mask regularly, practice social distancing, and cancel risky events such as in-person fundraisers and rallies. Last week, the coronavirus called his bluff. The president had to be given supplemental oxygen, helicoptered to a hospital, and given experimental drugs—the best care in the world, at no cost to himself, billed to those Americans who actually pay their income taxes. He decided to leave the hospital yesterday against the recommendations of many medical experts.
Now Trump is encouraging all other Americans to take the same risks he did, apparently to boost his electoral prospects. It is true that most people who contract the virus will not die. But some will—about 210,000 Americans already have. Even if they live, the long-term effects of the illness are still not well understood. Americans who catch the disease might have to foot large medical bills. They will miss work, and may lose their job, at a time when unemployment is high. If Americans take Trump’s advice, some of them will die, and many of them will suffer in lesser ways.
The only silver lining is that most Americans will probably ignore him. The president’s views on the coronavirus have proved extremely unpopular. Most members of the public ignored him this summer when he encouraged them to go out, and they largely ignored him on school reopenings too. Three in five Americans said in a new Morning Consult poll that Trump is wrong to tell Americans not to be afraid of COVID-19. Three-quarters of Americans say they always wear a mask when they go out.
But even if Trump’s electoral ploy seems doomed, it could still endanger lives. Some Americans may heed Trump and decide to forgo reasonable precautions, though the pool of people who can be swayed by Trump if they have not already been cannot be large. Still, even a small number of reckless people can encourage the disease to spread widely—just look at the White House over the past 10 days.
Trump is a man who hates to be constrained by outside forces. Marriage contracts, tax codes, congressional appropriations, fair-housing rules—he refuses to recognize their boundaries. He has sought to treat the pandemic the same way, and has found that it is not so easily ignored. Yet he still wants the rest of the country to follow his lead, no matter the risk to their lives. Over the past 24 hours, Trump has unmasked himself in more than one way.