The White House Coronavirus Superspreader Week is now among the biggest governmental outbreaks in the world, with the president’s residence ranking as one of the worst hot spots in the city of Washington. Grim photos show custodial staff decontaminating the press briefing room, now clad in head-to-toe personal protective equipment as they work. Trump, eager to appear healthy and vigorous, reportedly wants to work from the Oval Office today, which means that “staff coming in contact with him will wear gowns, gloves, mask, [and] eye protection,” according to CBS News. A fun day at the office for everybody, all because the president wants to be photographed signing yet more blank pieces of paper in The Room Where President Stuff Happens.
The answer to the question of how we arrived at this bizarre point is that the president and his close associates have continuously acted as if the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans was not, in fact, a threat. It honestly might be more remarkable that it took so long for the natural consequences of these actions to reach them. Most of the rest of the country understands that masks are a trivial burden that helps to limit the spread of the virus, and that things like standing at least six feet away from people and limiting indoor events are unfortunate but necessary measures to deal with this new and deadly disease that we barely understand. Most people, even those whose class position has made them far more likely to lose income from the pandemic’s effects, understand that the virus cannot be toughed out or wished away.
But Trump has consistently acted like a Facebook uncle who thinks his nephews are pussies for canceling their spring break trip. Even now, with the virus still in his body and still at risk of killing him, he refuses to rest or stop pretending to work. Just a couple days in a comfortable hospital were too much for him to bear. His bizarre decisions can be partly explained by the fact that his particularly nasty interpretation of masculinity requires acting as if all threats can be dominated simply by being Strong, and partly because he sensed it would be politically beneficial to broadcast a resolute dismissiveness of the virus’s threat. This turned out not to be the case, but Trump has always been more attuned to the dark pathologies of those who support him, even as following these instincts increasingly alienates the rest of the country. This stance has now come back to bite him and many people around him.
A more capably corrupt administration, wrestling with the need to extract a maximum political benefit from downplaying the pandemic, might put up a dismissive front for the camera while taking care to protect itself from the virus behind the scenes. But one thing we have learned from this outbreak is that the Trump administration is not a capably corrupt one. Rather, its utterly perplexing insistence on pretending that the pandemic isn’t that bad, that the disease isn’t that infectious, that protecting yourself and others with a mask is unnecessary or feminine all apparently stem from genuine beliefs. It is hard to judge whether this is more or less disturbing than the Machiavellian alternative; either way, those beliefs are insane and wrong, and sincerely holding them makes these people no more defensible than if they were cynically acting as if the virus wasn’t a big deal for political or financial reasons.
Still, it is interesting, if not particularly useful, to know that these people really did think masks were for losers and that they couldn’t get the virus—or that if they did, it would be no worse than the flu, because it only kills old people. Or something along those lines. Who knows exactly how they rationalize their personal health decisions, let alone the knowledge that they are complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. The point is that if they didn’t believe these things, you have to imagine that the basic human instinct of self-preservation would have kicked in at some point, and they would have started donning the ol’ face cloth that the rest of us have gotten used to by now. Not every worker who’s been forced to keep showing up at their job throughout the pandemic has had the luxury of protecting themselves. If I were a well-paid staffer at the White House, expected to go into the office every day even as most other offices in Washington shut down, I would have been wearing an N95 every day. (If anyone could get them—even at the height of the PPE crisis, you would imagine it would be these well-connected administration goblins. What’s the point of Jared Kushner otherwise?)
Now more than 20 people who have had direct contact with Donald Trump have tested positive for the virus. Thirteen employees who staffed a fundraiser Trump attended in Minneapolis are also quarantining. There is no doubt that the virus is real—Trump says he has “learned a lot” about it—yet the campaign still mocked Kamala Harris for suggesting that the vice presidential debate tonight should feature plexiglass barriers. “If Senator Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it,” said Pence aide Katie Miller, whose husband, Stephen Miller, just tested positive for the virus yesterday. Miller herself already had the virus just a month ago. It takes a special kind of utter moron to act as if a virus that you yourself caught is nothing to be afraid of.
When he left the hospital this week, Trump told Americans not to let the virus “dominate your life.” Whether he likes it or not, it dominates his: Sickening the people around him is the least of it, compared to how it’s shaped this year of his presidency and what it’s done to his reelection chances. But he would not be Trump if he could change course now, and it certainly doesn’t matter to him how many more people around him get sick. After all, dying by his side is the ultimate display of loyalty.