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.
Anne Applebaum: Il Donald
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.