To the untrained eye, the fact that the president contracted a debilitating virus that will degrade his physical and mental functioning, and might well kill him, seems … bad. But to the cult of Donald Trump, presidential failings do not exist. If there appears to be bad news, one of two responses are available. The first is to dismiss the bad news as a sinister plot against Trump. (The news of Trump’s misconduct is a leak, a witch hunt, or a hoax — evidence of the perfidy of the deep state or the fake news, and certainly not an indication of misconduct by Trump.) The second option is to redefine the bad news as actually good.
In the early hours after Trump’s COVID diagnosis was made public, Republican senator Kelly Loeffler attempted the first tactic. “Remember: China gave this virus to our President @realDonaldTrump and First Lady @FLOTUS,” she tweeted. “WE MUST HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE.” China infected Trump for the same reason the deep state schemed against him. The news about Trump’s diagnosis in no way implicates his extremely open disregard for public-health guidelines. It is simply another underhanded attack on him by our enemies.
But Loeffler’s gesture did not take hold, perhaps because it would require presenting Trump as a victim. Instead, Trump and his devotees have settled on the second line. Trump’s positive diagnosis is evidence of his bravery and devotion.
Trump transmitted the new line to his attorney and criminal-investigation target Rudy Giuliani, who duly conveyed them to the New York Post. “I am the president of the United States. I can’t lock myself in a room,” he said. “I had to confront [the virus] so the American people stopped being afraid of it, so we could deal with it responsibly. I’m going to beat this. Then I will be able to show people we can deal with this disease responsibly, but we shouldn’t be afraid of it … If I had handled it any other way, I would have created more panic, more fear in the American people.”
The logic here is that Trump could have followed scientific advice for suppressing transmission of the pandemic. But doing so would not only have frightened the public, it would have amounted to a kind of surrender. Just as terrorists want us to cower in fear, the virus wants us to minimize contact, avoid crowded spaces, and cover our faces. You can’t give in to either. You fight the virus by exposing yourself to it and daring it to do its worst.
In a videotaped message, Trump reframed his sloppiness as courage:
I had no choice, because I didn’t want to stay in the White House. I was given that alternative. Stay in the White House, lock yourself in, don’t ever leave, don’t even go to the Oval Office. Just stay upstairs and enjoy it, don’t see people, don’t talk to people, and just be done with it. And, I can’t do that. I had to be out front.
This is America. This is the United States. This is the greatest country in the world. This is the most powerful country in the world. I can’t be locked up in a room upstairs and totally safe and just say, ‘Hey, whatever happens, happens.’ I can’t do that. We have to confront problems — as a leader you have to confront problems. There’s never been a great leader that would have done that.
Needless to say, many world leaders (Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, etc.) have managed to suppress the coronavirus without personally contracting it. Indeed, the most effective world leaders have kept transmission far lower than in the United States, while personally modeling sound public-health practices. The idea that Trump’s illness somehow helped him contain the pandemic is bizarre.
And yet the last four years have amply demonstrated that no Trump argument can be so stupid that his cult followers will not repeat it. So this line quickly spread.
Greg Gutfeld appeared on Fox News to congratulate Trump for the bravery he demonstrated by ignoring public-health guidelines:
He didn’t hide from the virus. The reason he didn’t hide from the virus is, he didn’t want America to hide from the virus. He was going to do the same thing, he was going to walk out there on that battlefield with you, and not sit somewhere in a basement and tell you how you have to get back to work, but not go out himself … So he took the risk, he got the virus, but he was doing it for us.
Federalist executive editor Joy Pullmann likewise extols the bravery of the super-spreader-in-chief. “President Trump knew the risks of staying in public, and he chose to face those risks along with the American people he leads, rather than hiding masked in the White House basement,” she writes. “There is something to be said for a leader getting in the trenches with his troops during a war despite the risks to his safety. It could even be called courage.”
If Trump had used face coverings and maintained social distancing, he would have been showing weakness. He needed to fight the virus by allowing it to flow into his nasal passages and infect his body.
The battlefield metaphor is intended to make risk-taking a virtue rather than a liability. If you reconceptualize the pandemic not as a matter of suppressing a virus by preventing transmission, but instead as a series of human-versus-virus battles that must be engaged in order to achieve victory, this makes some sense: If nobody was exposed to the virus, then the virus would run rampant.
If the virus is an enemy that must be confronted in trenches and battlefields, then avoiding it is an act of cowardice. Joe Biden would have appeased the pandemic by cowering in his basement. But then eventually the virus would be rolling down our streets in tanks. Some brave leader had to stand up to the virus by allowing it to enter his body, and then (probably) surviving.
“Listen, he has experience as commander-in-chief, he has experience as a businessman, he has experience, now, fighting the coronavirus as an individual,” Trump campaign spokesperson Erin Perrine said today, “Those firsthand experiences: Joe Biden, he doesn’t have those.” Donald Trump fought the coronavirus. Joe Biden ran and hid. They are really going with this argument.
This column has been updated.