It doesn’t have to stay that way, of course. We can still hope that Trump recovers quickly, acknowledges to the American people that he should have been more serious about masks and social distancing, and encourages his followers, finally, to listen to the public health experts.
On Sept. 26, at the White House event introducing Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, scores of guests sat cheek by jowl and, mostly, maskless. Some of them actually took off their masks when they went inside for a reception, turning public health common sense on its head.
On Tuesday, at the debate in Cleveland, Trump’s entourage made a great show of flouting Cleveland Clinic rules, going so far as to rebuff a clinic staffer who offered them face coverings. At that same debate, Trump mocked Democratic nominee Joe Biden for wearing a mask as faithfully as he does.
And then, even after learning that he had been exposed to the illness, Trump traveled to a fundraiser in New Jersey where he met, maskless as usual, with supporters at close range.
Now that so many people who attended those events are falling ill, the humane response would be, first, to apologize for having put people at risk — particularly people who have no choice about the danger being imposed on them, such as security officers and servers.
Then you’d hope to hear an apology for having put millions more people indirectly at risk by discouraging mask-wearing, encouraging reckless opening and undermining governors who have tried to find the right balance. You’d hope to hear: It was wrong to underplay the seriousness of this illness from the start. It was wrong to put concern for the stock market and the campaign above concern for the nation. It was wrong to turn masks, school openings and all the rest into a partisan issue.
Incredibly, so far we’re hearing the opposite: The campaign spin is, if even the most powerful man in the world can get covid-19, how could the rest of us dare to resist?
Listen, for example, to Steve Cortes, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, who told Chris Wallace on “Fox New Sunday” that “tremendous precautions” are taken to protect Trump.
“Given these precautions and given that he is probably the most protected person on earth, the fact that he still got infected shows us that unfortunately this virus has that kind of power, that kind of communicable ability,” Cortes said. “What this shows us for a policy perspective . . . is that we know that even the most severe of lockdowns cannot completely stop the virus. Therefore, we should take reasonable precautions, as a society, and we should not, as Joe Biden threatens, even think about shutting this economy and this society down again.”
National security adviser Robert C. O’Brien offered a variation on the theme on CBS’s Face the Nation. “I think the president made this very clear, he’s going to continue to run this government. And we have to face this virus. We have to open up the country,” he said. “It’s very hard no matter what precautions you take.”
But no one is arguing that Trump should cease running the country (well, not until Jan. 20, at least). Trump did not get sick because public health measures are so hard; he did not get sick despite “the most severe of lockdowns”; he got sick because he arrogantly refused even the simplest of precautions. The virus is formidable, not omnipotent.
The politics underlying this dishonesty aren’t complicated. The Trump administration has overseen one of the world’s least successful responses to the novel coronavirus. More people have died here than in any other country. Infection rates remain stubbornly high. This is bad for our health — and for our economy.
Admit even one fault — yes, the first family should have worn masks at the debate — and you risk exposing the whole, great failure. Better to stick to the campaign strategy: Never admit a mistake and, against all evidence, make Biden seem scary.
Trump’s illness becomes a teachable moment in exactly the wrong way.
Wearing a mask should not be a political statement. It can save lives. We can hope that most Trump supporters will consider those facts, not the latest spin. We can hope they connect the dots of White House carelessness and White House illness and resolve to protect themselves and their loved ones.
That would provide, after all, a silver lining of sorts.