Donald Trump violated his own administration’s public-health guidelines. While the federal government implored Americans to do their part by wearing masks and forgoing large indoor gatherings, the president threw a party — devoid of masks and social distancing — in the White House’s Diplomatic Room.
As a result of this reckless self-indulgence, Trump transformed himself into a direct agent of COVID-19’s spread, after spending seven months as an indirect one. We do not know the precise chain of infection, but in the wake of the president’s diagnosis, many of his White House colleagues have taken ill.
According to reports, Trump’s positive test caused him severe anxiety and mental distress. Soon, he had a fever and difficulty breathing. He was taken to a hospital where doctors pumped him full of steroids and an experimental antibody cocktail that ordinary Americans cannot access. This intensive, privileged treatment made the president feel somewhat better, although he is still early in the disease’s progression.
Trump could have learned a variety of things from this experience. Getting a taste of the terror and discomfort that millions of U.S. COVID patients have suffered could have made the president more committed to saving others from their plight. Seeing that his symptoms only improved upon receiving medical treatments that are unavailable to the broader public could have heightened Trump’s concern for how well working-class senior citizens will be able to weather the ailment. Learning that many of his colleagues had tested positive — after interacting with him, and observing workplace norms against mask-wearing that he had largely dictated — could have filled the president with guilt, and a resolve to do everything in his power to keep the people around him safe.
But the president learned none of these things, because he is sick in a way that antibodies can’t cure (and has been for as long as we have known him).
Instead, the president chose to prioritize his desire to ride in a car and wave to his fans over minimizing his security detail’s risk of infection. Then, he chose to prioritize a prompt (and possibly medically premature) return to the White House over further jeopardizing the health of his elderly service staff. Finally, he chose to deliver the following message to the nation:
I learned so much about coronavirus. And one thing that’s for certain: don’t let it dominate you; don’t be afraid of it. You’re going to beat it. We have the best medical equipment. We have the best medicines …Don’t let it dominate. Don’t let it take over your lives … We’re going back to work. We’re going to be out front. As your leader, I had to do that. I knew there’s danger to it. But I had to do it. Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did … Don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there.
Not one word for the 210,000 Americans who did not “beat it,” or for those bereaved by their passing. Not one thought or prayer for the tens of thousands fighting for their lives in hospitals across the country — without aid of “the best medicines.” Not one ounce of contrition for violating the rules his own administration implores ordinary Americans to follow.
Instead, at a time when he has no rational basis for treating his full recovery as a foregone conclusion, Trump chose to encourage Americans to take fewer precautions against catching or spreading a fatal disease.
He reiterated this message Tuesday morning, tweeting, “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”
This message is so incoherent in its logic — and monstrous in its likely consequences — that one might be tempted to assume it serves some crass political purpose. Which is to say, one might assume that the president wouldn’t lie about the risks that COVID poses to both the country — and to himself — in a manner that could get more Americans killed if there weren’t some major political advantage in doing so.
And Trump surely believes that there is. But there is no more basis for that conviction than there is for believing that COVID is less fatal than the flu.
By a margin of 54 to 42 percent, Americans say they are more worried about businesses in their area opening too quickly than too slowly, according to a recent NBC News survey. That’s a larger margin than Joe Biden’s advantage in the polling averages. In a new National Geographic survey, meanwhile, 92 percent of Americans say they wear a face mask when they leave home. Before Trump’s COVID diagnosis — when he was already preaching complacency about the virus, while Biden counseled adherence to CDC guidelines — the Democrat’s advantage over the president on the issue of COVID was always larger than his overall lead. There is simply no evidence that Trump has a political interest in associating himself with the message “COVID is no big deal,” at a time when hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of Americans have lost a friend or family member who they could not even kiss good-bye.
It is possible that Americans’ moral views about whether public health should take precedence over economic reopening are out of step with their revealed preferences. In other words, voters may believe they care more about public health, but would actually feel better about the state of the country — and thus, more likely to back the incumbent — if their schools and local businesses fully reopened, even at some cost to human life.
But even if this were the case, Trump’s message would lack political logic. The president does not have the power to dictate the reopening policies of states and cities. His advocacy for putting GDP above human life will not have any significant impact on objective economic conditions. All it will do is wed his campaign to a profoundly unpopular message, while undermining public health.
In truth, the trade-off between the economy and public health was always imaginary. Or, more precisely, it was always dictated by conservative ideological hang-ups, not objective reality. At the pandemic’s peak, personal income growth in the United States hit an all-time record, as the CARES Act’s unemployment benefits and stimulus checks left the median U.S. household flush with cash. In times of divided government, the interests of elected officials and the public are often misaligned. But Trump’s interest in winning reelection, and the American people’s interest in not losing loved ones to a plague, were never actually in tension. The president could have chosen to optimize his constituents’ medical and financial well-being by calling for an extension of the CARES Act’s income supports through the end of the year, while empowering the federal government’s epidemiological experts to do whatever they thought necessary to contain COVID’s spread.
Alas, he was too ignorant, reactive, and lazy to take that path. And so, he has effectively prioritized extending the pandemic over extending his presidency. Trump thinks that he is putting politics above public health. But he is, in fact, subordinating his own political interests to the cause of maximizing the number of Americans who will say farewell to their loved ones on a Zoom call, watching their pixelated grandmother or grandfather or son or daughter or sister or brother or friend or lover leave this world alone and gasping for breath.