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Donald Trump Has The Virus. What Will He Do With It?

President Donald J. Trump listens to a question from a reporter during a news briefing in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at The White House in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, September 27, 2020. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Donald J. Trump listens to a question from a reporter during a news briefing in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at The White House in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, September 27, 2020. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Like a lot of Americans, I expected to feel some sense of vindication when Donald Trump announced — via Twitter, naturally — that he and the First Lady had tested positive for the coronavirus. At long last, the virus had infected the man who’s spent months lying about its severity, undermining public health officials, peddling quack cures, and urging his armed followers to “liberate” themselves from the horrors of wearing masks in public.

But what I actually felt was a hollow dread, one that quickly gave way to mistrust. Unable to resist my own Trumpian impulses, I sent a pair of tweets, which read as follows:

He tells the world he has COVID, owns the libs by beating it "very strongly," then returns to the campaign trail in triumph. Very Reality TV. I'm not joking. Given this regime's record of shameless lying, journalists should demand independent verification … before reporting as fact anything this White House says. It may be true. Maybe his arrogant negligence caught up with him. But he also knew he was losing and needed to shake up the race. This makes him a victim/survivor who can minimize the plague he unleashed.

The point here isn’t that Trump has created his very own little COVID hoax. It’s not even whether Trump would or could do such a thing. The point is that he has done so much to undermine public faith that it’s impossible to outright dismiss such a sociopathic ploy.

As veterans of autocratic nations have long observed, Trump hasn’t just waged a war against vulnerable groups or democratic norms. He has waged a war against truth. More precisely, the very idea that Americans can be united in a shared set of truths.

Trump hasn’t just waged a war against vulnerable groups or democratic norms. He has waged a war against truth.

COVID is just the most obvious example. Through a combination of willful ignorance, gullibility, and subterfuge, Trump has signaled to millions of Americans that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax, or a fleeting threat, or merely an obstacle to be pushed out of view so that the stock market can again rev up the American engines of greed. He’s become the patient zero of COVID misinformation, a one-man super-spreader of the disease.

You can hear this in the way he talks about COVID-19. He doesn’t address the virus as a biological reality that kills human beings and leaves behind grief-stricken survivors. He speaks of a “China virus” he can render as an invader, or as set of case numbers and statistics to be manipulated, lest they cause people to view him as a loser.

For Trump, the coronavirus is never something that’s happening to other people. He doesn’t care that more than 200,000 Americans are dead. He doesn’t care that tens of millions are unemployed. He doesn’t care that our kids can no longer go to school, or hug their friends. He doesn’t even care about the super fans who pack his rallies, or the donors who mingled with him in the hours after his closest advisor tested positive. Even his own nomination ceremony of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court — in the White House Rose Garden — is being viewed now as a potential superspreader event. (Already, attendees Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who was maskless, and the president of Notre Dame, Rev. John I. Jenkins, have tested positive.)

Trump will not accept his own illness as proof that COVID is truly lethal. Nor will it inspire him to be honest with his supporters, and work to develop a national strategy to combat the virus, as Boris Johnson did after he was rushed to the hospital with the virus in April.

That would require of him something he cannot give: humility. Trump’s sole focus will be whether contracting the coronavirus can help him cling to power.

Think about how he reacted to the terrorist attacks of September 11. As first responders were sifting through the wreckage for bones, he bragged that one of his buildings was now the tallest in Manhattan. That’s just who he is: a malignant abuser, a moral blackhole.

In the days and weeks to come, our free press must resist the urge to get distracted by the latest twist in this demented reality TV presidency. Journalists of good faith should keep the focus on the issues that now puts our democracy at risk: voter suppression, racial incitement, the ravages of a resurgent plague.

Trump was merely a virus who came along and exploited our worst impulses.

As citizens of good faith, we would like to believe that there will be a reckoning for this president, that the virus he ignored for so long will, at last, hold him accountable, even if his enablers won’t.

That’s not what’s going to happen. Trump’s only thought is likely to be: how can I exploit this to my own benefit? How can I use my condition to further divide us, to erode our sense of shared struggle?

Americans can overcome this pandemic. We can also restore some semblance of justice and mercy to our democracy. But there won’t be a true reckoning in this country until we accept the destructive power of our grievance and scorn and nihilism. In this sense, Trump was merely a virus who came along and exploited our worst impulses.

We can recover from him, too. The only known cure, in fact, is the one he fears most: a free and fair election.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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