“I don’t wear masks like him,” President Trump sneered at Joe Biden at the debate Tuesday night. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
COVID-19 is not a morality test. It afflicts the careful as well as the heedless. Some of its victims have jobs that inherently expose them to risk. Biden has taken every precaution, but might contract the virus because he was exposed to Trump, who hasn’t. And nobody, however heedless they may be to the safety of themselves or others, deserves to suffer.
But as coronavirus victims go, Donald Trump is as far from innocent as you can get. He and his supporters may wish to treat his positive test as a national tragedy for which we can express no thought other than a prayer for his recovery, a kind of mini-9/11. The truth is that Trump is deeply culpable not only for the national response to the pandemic but his own condition.
Any adolescent bully knows that the easiest taunt is against the nerd who is taking precautions against danger, especially in some way that makes them look different. Trump has made mockery of his rival’s fastidious precautions one of his central campaign themes. In May he shared a tweet ridiculing Biden’s appearance in a face mask, and the next day, explained, “I thought it was very unusual he had one on.” One of his favorite riffs is to insinuate Biden’s mask usage suggests some deeper defect. “Did you ever see a man who likes a mask as much as him?,” he laughed last month. “He has it hanging down. Because it gives him a feeling of security. If I were a psychiatrist, right, you know I’d say: ‘This guy’s got some big issues.’”
Trump’s heedlessness of contagion was a predominant theme of his campaign. The president denied the seriousness of the pandemic from the outset, and despite being wrestled by his aides into performative concern for fleeting moments, kept returning to that stance. His campaign was a visual affirmation of his claim that the virus would disappear, that hardly anybody is affected, that the “lockdowns” are a plot by Democrats to sabotage his reelection. He has refused to allow his crowds to be subject to any social-distancing measures, and attendees have usually disdained mask usage.
He has delighted his packed crowds by ridiculing his opponent for practicing social distancing. “You know when sleepy Joe Biden, he’s got the circles,” he laughed last month, in a riff he has used repeatedly. “You know those big circles? You know why he has the circles? … He got like four, sometimes he has six because that’s a good way of saying, if you don’t have any people, just put them in the circle and he’s ‘practicing the science.’ Now it doesn’t work out.”
Another of Trump’s running gags at his rallies is that he is calling them “peaceful protests” in order to evade the restrictions on campaigning that other candidates have obeyed. “Because they have rules in these Democrat-run states that if you campaign you cannot have more than five people,” Trump recently laughed. “You can’t go to church, you can’t do anything outside. If you are willing to riot, running down the main street, if you want to riot and stand on top of each other’s face and do whatever the hell you want to do, you are allowed to do that because you are considered a peaceful protester.” Social-distancing restrictions, in his mind, are pure punishment, like paying taxes. Violating them makes you smart.
One of the most telling exchanges of the debate focused on this very contrast. Chris Wallace asked Trump why he was holding large, packed rallies. Trump responded that his opponent was only using distancing as an excuse to hide the fact nobody wanted to attend his events:
WALLACE: I want to ask you both about one last subject because your different approaches has even affected the way that you have campaigned. President Trump, you’re holding the large rallies with crowds packed together, thousands of people.
WALLACE: Outside. Yes, sir. Agreed. Vice President Biden, you are holding much smaller events with –
TRUMP: Because nobody will show up.
WALLACE: – people with masks.
TRUMP: Well it’s true. Nobody shows up to his rallies.
WALLACE: All right. In any case, why are you holding the big rallies? Why you not? You go first, sir.
TRUMP: Because people want to hear what I have to say. I mean -
WALLACE: But are you not worried about it spreading disease?
TRUMP: I’ve done a great job as a president and I’ll have 25,000, 35,000 people show up at airports. We use airports and hangars.
WALLACE: Are you not worried about the disease issue, sir?
TRUMP: We have a lot of people – well, so far we have had no problem whatsoever. It’s outside. That’s a big difference. According to the experts, we do them outside. We have tremendous crowds as you see. I mean, every – and literally in 24 hours notice, and Joe does the circles and has three people someplace.
This choppy but extraordinarily revealing exchange culminated in Biden replying, “He’s been totally irresponsible the way in which he has handled the social distancing and people wearing masks, basically encouraged them not to. He’s a fool on this.” To which Trump retorted, “If you could get the crowds, you would have done the same thing. But you can’t. Nobody cares.”
Heedlessness toward public-health measures filtered down to his staff, who came to treat masks as a culture-war statement, indicating disloyalty to the cause. In May, Mattathias Schwartz interviewed Attorney General William Barr in his office, where Barr’s aides instructed him to remove his mask. Five weeks ago, when Peter Nicholas visited the White House, he likened the scene to a petri dish. “When I passed by aides at their desks today, virtually none was wearing a mask,” he observed with prescient alarm. Former Homeland Security staffer Olivia Troye observed that in the White House, “no one wears a mask” and “when you wear one, you get stared at in the West Wing like you’re an alien.” CNN reports that, after the National Security Council started wearing masks, they were quickly counteracted by a high-level official. “If you have the whole West Wing running around wearing masks, it wasn’t a good look when all they wanted to do at that point was portray confidence and make the public believe there was absolutely nothing to worry about,” a source explains.
At the debate, Trump’s retinue was spotted without masks and “waved off” the offer of masks from members of the Cleveland Clinic, according to Wallace. The Washington Post reports that even after White House officials discovered his top aide, Hope Hicks, had symptoms and had been in his presence, Trump attended a fundraiser where he did not wear a mask and had contact with “dozens” of people.
Trump has always reveled in his (exaggerated) physical vigor. Four years ago, he ridiculed Hillary Clinton for contracting pneumonia:
To subject Trump to the same treatment he uses against his opponents would be to make his moral standards our own. He deserves our wishes for a rapid recovery. And yet the truth is that Trump’s positive diagnosis is more evidence of his own incompetence and unfitness for office. The pandemic he did almost nothing to contain has finally come home.
This column has been updated.