Opinion | The Pandemic Comes for the President

It’s a measure of the cynicism that has infected American politics — and, yes, me — that among my initial reactions to the news that President Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus was: Are we sure? Can we trust that? A man who so frequently and flamboyantly plays the victim, and who has been prophylactically compiling ways to explain away or dispute a projected loss to Joe Biden, is now being forced off the campaign trail, which will be a monster of an excuse.

I couldn’t help thinking that, and I soon realized that I was in robust company. On Twitter, on television and everywhere else I turned, doubters noted that Trump had once already suggested that the election be postponed: Was this a fresh tactic along those lines? He had just turned in a repellent performance in the first presidential debate: Was he wriggling out of the second and third debates?

At another time, under a different president, these questions would be callous. At this time, under this president, they were sadly and perfectly understandable.

I couldn’t help thinking, too, about karma, and I immediately felt petty for that. I don’t wish illness upon Trump. I hope he has a prompt and full recovery. But it’s important to note that he has spent much of the past eight months, during which more than 200,000 Americans died of causes related to the coronavirus, downplaying the pandemic, flinging out false reassurances and refusing to abide by the very public health guidelines that officials in his own government were fervently promoting.

He didn’t wear a mask. He encouraged large gatherings — including his big convention speech and, earlier, the Tulsa, Okla., rally that Herman Cain attended before falling sick with the coronavirus and dying — at which hundreds and even thousands of people, many without any facial covering, packed in tight. At the first presidential debate on Tuesday night, he mocked Biden for so often wearing a mask, suggesting that it was a sign of … what? Timidity? Weakness? Voguishness? Moral vanity?

With Trump it can be hard to know, and it’s also hard to know whether his own defiance was a kind of wishful thinking about the coronavirus’s true prevalence, a reflection of his belief in his own physical invincibility, some combination of the two or none of the above.

But it’s easy to identify the morals of this story.

The most obvious is that the coronavirus has not gone away and there is no guarantee, contrary to the president’s sunny prophecies, that it’s going away anytime soon, certainly not if we’re cavalier about it.

Which brings up another moral, also obvious but apparently necessary to articulate: There is real risk in such cavalierness. The president is now the embodiment of that. The first lady, too. Also Hope Hicks, one of his closest advisers, and who knows how many others who have been around him. From the start, there has been a culture of aloofness, indifference and blasé behavior at the White House when it comes to the coronavirus.

That culture was on flabbergasting display during those evening briefings the president used to do, the ones devoted primarily to congratulating himself and his administration on their fantabulous job battling the pandemic. They battled it all the way to America’s exceptional status as the world leader in recorded cases of, and deaths associated with, the coronavirus.

That culture was evident in the rallies that the president arranged and insisted on doing over recent weeks. That culture persisted on Thursday, when, according to an article by Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman in The Times, Kayleigh McEnany, maskless, held a briefing with reporters after Hicks’s infection with the virus was confirmed and after McEnany was on a plane with her and exposed to her.

I read that and I winced and I gasped — and then wondered why in the world I was wincing and gasping when it was par for the course. It was business as usual. It was an explanation for why we are where we are as a country and why Trump is where he is as a president and a patient.

Trump had been around Hicks in the days leading up to her diagnosis and, like McEnany, mingled with other people after it. He flew to his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., on Thursday afternoon for a fund-raising event, where, according to The Times, he “addressed hundreds of supporters both outdoors and indoors.” He did not wear a mask.

Even some White House officials were reportedly baffled and bothered by that, both retrospectively and in real time. They privately marveled at the denialism of it all.

But then the reality-show president has long been determined to live outside reality and was seemingly convinced that he could. I was half convinced myself. He jettisoned truth without consequences. He sailed above the laws of cause and effect when it came to paying taxes, paying off Stormy Daniels, strong-arming the president of Ukraine, playing footsie with the president of Russia and so much more.

But reality is reality. Truth is truth. Science is science, and it alerted all of us — including the president — to the danger of the coronavirus, how it spreads and what we can and should do to protect ourselves and others. There’s no getting around those facts.

There’s also no getting around the centrality of the coronavirus to this presidency and this election. Trump had tried assiduously to push it to the margins, but it was never going to stay there. Now it’s inside him.

It is time, at long last, to learn. To be more conscious and conscientious. To be more considerate. Apparently no one in Trump’s circle reached out, before the news became public, to tell the Biden camp about the president’s positive coronavirus test, even though Biden had shared a debate stage with the president for more than 90 minutes. No one directly informed Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House. This is also the state of America. And it’s not right.

We can’t erase the mistakes made since the coronavirus dawned, but we can correct them going forward. The way to treat Trump’s diagnosis is as a turning point and a new start. This is when we woke up.

The presidency and the president are always national mirrors, in many different ways at once, and that’s another moral. Trump has shown America its resentments. He has modeled its rage. Now he personifies its recklessness.

Late Friday, administration officials were still deliberating how and when he might address Americans about his condition, a decision no doubt contingent on his condition. He was taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for tests. People close to him told reporters that he had a low-grade fever, nasal congestion and a cough.

When he does talk about what he’s going through, I hope he reflects on what the entire country has been through, and on what lies ahead. I hope he does it in a civic-minded way, recognizing that his own struggle is part of a much larger picture.

Because I don’t want us to be cynical, no matter how much cause we’ve been given. I want us to be better.

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