During Tuesday night’s debate, moderator Chris Wallace pressed Donald Trump on his cavalier attitude toward COVID-19 safety measures. The president mocked the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden (“Every time you see him, he’s got a mask”), but he also insisted that he was personally careful—everyone around him was tested regularly.
“I have a mask right here. I put a mask on when I think I need it,” he said. “Tonight, as an example, everybody’s had a test, and you’ve had social distancing and all of the things that you have to. But I wear masks when needed.”
Barely 48 hours later, Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, tested positive for the coronavirus, offering an alarming dramatization of the danger of Trump’s continued refusal to take the virus seriously.
From the first indications that a new coronavirus was spreading last year, Trump has been the biggest obstacle to the United States stopping its spread. He has, instead, tried to bluff his way past the virus. The results have been disastrous. Trump’s approach kept the U.S. from preparing adequately early this year. Then his failure to contain its spread crashed the American economy. More recently, it has prevented schools from reopening. More than 200,000 Americans have lost their lives.
Trump believed that taking the coronavirus seriously would panic the markets, threatening his presidency and his chance at reelection. Now his own denialism has placed both his presidency and his campaign in peril. And like all the other reckless irresponsibility, it was entirely preventable.
The president’s atrocious record on the pandemic is familiar. Early on, he lavishly praised China for its handling of the new virus, though he has now blamed the country for its spread. In February, when the United States had 15 known cases (though likely many more unknown), Trump assured the nation that the case count “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” Later, he said that the pandemic would be over in the United States by Easter. He heralded each new grim milestone of fatalities as a relative victory, only for each death toll to be quickly eclipsed.
As cities and states around the country began to lock down, and as consumers and workers holed up, the pandemic knocked the economy flat. Trump demanded that businesses reopen and restrictions be dropped, hoping to rescue the economy and with it his political prospects. The president didn’t understand that Americans were taking the virus far more seriously than he was, and that there could be no full recovery until the pandemic was under control.
The same dynamic occurred again later in the summer, as Trump insisted that schools around the country could open. But once again, many citizens and local authorities were no longer willing to take Trump’s word for it, and wanted spread to be more controlled before classrooms reopened.
Some people did heed Trump’s blasé attitude, though. According to a study from Cornell University, the president is the single largest source of misinformation about the virus. Many Americans still don’t wear masks, practice social distancing, or take other steps to prevent the spread of the disease. The result is that the country is too sick to reopen, but also too open to stifle COVID-19. The president’s campaign encouraged people to attend massive rallies, often without masks, against the advice of public-health authorities. Herman Cain, a high-profile supporter of Trump’s, died of COVID-19 after attending a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Nonetheless, Trump’s own diagnosis is surprising. It is hardly news that the president is careless with the lives of American citizens, but he is obsessive about his own health. He has maintained an aggressive testing regime around him, in an attempt to allow him to live without the limitations most Americans now experience.
There have been occasional breaks in the defenses. In May, after a presidential valet tested positive, Trump claimed he was taking hydroxychloroquine, the drug that he heralded as a miracle cure but that medical professionals have said is neither safe nor effective against the coronavirus. Mostly, the large bubble around Trump has held—until now. Trump has said that he is safe because everyone around him is safe.
That is no longer true. We don’t know how Trump contracted the virus. Earlier yesterday, the White House announced that his close aide Hope Hicks had tested positive. The president has traveled frequently as he tries to float his flailing reelection campaign, including to the debate Tuesday in Cleveland. Yesterday, he attended an in-person fundraiser at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he reportedly came in contact with about 100 people.
It’s far too soon to know what effect the president’s illness will have on the campaign. In the immediate term, it will freeze up his own travel, even as millions of Americans cast their vote this week. A presidential illness might garner sympathy, and a recovery might bolster the aura of invincibility that Trump has cultivated among his supporters, but even if that is true, it could come too late: Trump was already consistently trailing Joe Biden in the polls, in part because the president’s mishandling of the pandemic has turned voters against him.
Trump is said to be exhibiting mild symptoms. The president will receive the best medical care in the world, and with some luck will recover fully. But perhaps the news will jolt Americans who have heeded his dangerous encouragement to disregard the virus. If even the president of the United States can’t be kept safe, maybe it’s long past time for the rest of the country to put on masks and socially distance.