The Virus Is Not Justice for Trump

President Trump before he was hospitalized on Friday. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Donald Trump has COVID-19, and I am running out of things to say. Sure, there’s news to report, and possible outcomes to analyze, and the days to come will only provide more noise to interpret. Over the weekend, the cases multiplied: Several Republican senators fell ill. Chris Christie is in the hospital. More cases are likely to come, and the people involved won’t all be famous. The consequences of the Trump administration’s disregard for life will be felt far beyond the White House.

But in other respects, the president’s diagnosis changes nothing at all. He is the same person he was yesterday, which is the same person he will be tomorrow. Trump is still lying about his health. This falsehood is a vantage point from which all things look permissible to him. So keen is he to avoid the slightest appearance of weakness that he took a joyride outside Walter Reed on Sunday. He tooled around for his hooting followers, heedless of the risk to his security detail or even to his own health. He is still careless, and he is still callous. He prefers conspiracy over fact. If he survives, he will almost certainly tell us that it’s no big deal or that a mask would have been useless anyway. Trump routinely ordered staffers to remove their masks, sources told the New York Times. His party follows his lead. At the behest of Governor Ron DeSantis, bars in Florida are open, even as the state surpasses 700,000 cases of COVID-19.

Aping Trump, Republicans pretend to be brave. Give me open bars, or give me death. Now they might get both. But unfortunately the intransigence displayed by Trump and his party creates a problem for everyone else. We are back to where we started before the virus, with a president whose narcissism and selfishness are central to the way he governs. It’s not a surprise that Trump put others, even his own supporters, at risk. His actions this week are what we’ve known of him for years.

The Trump presidency has been so maximally destructive that it provokes a sense of dissociation. By the time the coronavirus first appeared in the U.S., Trump had already exhausted us. He’d overseen a continued transfer of wealth to the very top. He’d caged migrants, including children, at the border in such filthy conditions that some died. Women in ICE custody in Georgia say they’ve been sterilized against their will. White nationalists have rioted and killed, but Trump wouldn’t and still won’t condemn them: He doesn’t like to “say something bad about people who support him,” Rick Santorum explained last week. The president’s moral failures appear nearly endless. There have been two-dozen accusations of sexual assault. The incompetence, the cruelty, and the corruption all generate constant headlines that come and go. And yet Trump endures. Nothing topples him. His tenacity is so audacious that next to it, his sins almost look intangible.

So when my fiancé shook me awake at 1 a.m. Friday to tell me that Trump had the virus, I felt at first like I was dreaming. I’d seen footage of Trump, maskless, at the White House and at his rallies — he’d killed Herman Cain! I watched his press conference for Amy Coney Barrett last Saturday. Hardly anyone wore a mask. Nobody kept six feet apart from each other. Barrett even dragged her entire maskless family to the event. At the time, a potential irony presented itself: Trump might have spread a deadly disease while announcing his pro-life Supreme Court nominee. It was too obvious, I thought; too extreme. Reality isn’t quite that florid.

But here we are: The president himself has the virus. Trump tends to bring the most outrageous possibilities to life. This is principally a problem for everyone Trump exposed to the virus. My own problem is of secondary importance. I am a writer, and I can’t concoct any novel insights into the character of the president. I can’t do much with him at all. He’s the dullest sort of person imaginable, a bully whose insecurities and prejudices are neither subtle or rare. It is year four of this presidency, month eight of this pandemic, month six of this recession, and I have nothing to offer but weariness and rage. Of course the president’s behavior got him sick. Of course his illness didn’t transform the GOP into the party of science. The virus, again, changes nothing. We’re stuck in a loop with him, and sometimes nothing feels real.

Except for America’s COVID death toll, which is as heavy as concrete. It has the power to make the news corporeal again. Whatever happens next, more than 209,000 Americans will still be dead from COVID and more will die every day. Break it down further, and the virus has killed one out of every 1,000 Black Americans and one out of every 1,220 Indigenous Americans. Tens of thousands of elderly people are gone. One of them is my grandfather, who died last month from a pandemic that Trump called a hoax.

So there is only one thing I have left to say about Trump. At some point, there will have to be justice. It won’t come from the virus, which is not a moral agent. It will have to come from us. The necessity of voting him out is so obvious it barely needs mentioning, but it isn’t really justice, either. To rectify crimes as comprehensive as Trump’s, you need more than ballots. Reality feels unbelievable because it is sick and it is broken, and that is a political problem. Trump’s obsession with reopening the economy at all costs, and his hostility to public health, all stem from the same ideological location: The heartless free-market absolutism he embodies ought to end with his presidency. Nothing can bring Trump’s dead back to life, but we must make sure their memories matter.

The Virus Is Not Justice for Trump