It’s been a week since we learned that the president and first lady both tested positive for Covid-19, right after appearing at a series of possible superspreader events, including the largely mask-free feting of Amy Coney Barrett in the White House Rose Garden and a high-dollar fundraiser at Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. While Melania sequestered in the White House to wait out her quarantine (and conveniently avoid a burgeoning scandal over some leaked audiotapes), Donald began what was to be a weeklong parade of increasingly unhinged antics in and out of Walter Reed Hospital.
Though in the past Trump’s absurd displays of his supposed brawn—making a show of his own ability to drink water, for instance—have mostly had the unintended effect of undermining his strength, the last seven days have been a particularly explicit expression of what I can only describe as Death Drive Masculinity, a real commitment to the bit of being extremely manly while also possibly dying and putting others at real risk. If illness is weakness, then Trump, in a series of increasingly farcical and dangerous efforts, would try to prove to the country just how strong he really was.
Just hours before announcing that he and Melania had tested positive, he suggested in a call to Sean Hannity’s show that his disregard for social distancing guidelines was simply a function of his overwhelming popularity among law enforcement. If he was sick, it was only because cops loved him too much. Military and police, he claimed, “come over to you and they want to hug you and kiss you because we really have done a good job for them.” He then added, “You get close, and things happen,” which, incidentally, could have also described any number of the nondistanced events he had attended before his test results were made public. (Since last week, 11 other attendees of the Rose Garden event have also tested positive.)
On Friday night, after he was admitted to Walter Reed and pumped full of drugs, Trump wasted no time in issuing a flurry of dispatches intended to communicate that he was in exceptional health despite his hospitalization. He was, perhaps, the healthiest man alive to have ever been put on oxygen and hospitalized for a round of antivirals and powerful steroids.
The stunts mostly served to put others in harm’s way while only baffling the public: On Saturday, the president arranged for the staging and release of a series of photos in which he appeared to be signing blank sheets of paper from his hospital confinement. (“Nothing can stop him from working for the American people. RELENTLESS!” tweeted Ivanka, though exactly how Americans stand to benefit from Trump’s poring over blank paper remains unclear.) The next day, he went for a casual spin in a limo with some Secret Service agents in order to wave to a group of fans posted outside the hospital and, it should be said, potentially spread Covid-19 to his security detail. “The virus didn’t really slow him down,” Tucker Carlson recently marveled, as if scribbling with markers and riding in the back of an armored vehicle were feats of extreme strength.
And Carlson, of course, is just one of several people who reliably indulges the president in his delusions of hypermasculinity. After news broke that Trump would be leaving the hospital, his doctor, Sean Conley, fawned over the president’s good health (only after several days, naturally, of obfuscating his actual conditions). “He’s met or exceeded all standard hospital discharge criteria,” Conley said, echoing Trump’s previous and similarly sycophantic doctor, Harold Bornstein, who wrote in a now-infamous Trump-dictated letter that his “physical strength and stamina are extraordinary.”
On Monday, in a tweet announcing his departure from the hospital, the president declared that he’d actually never felt better—“better than I did 20 years ago!” Following his release, Trump lurched onto the White House balcony, preened there for a minute in a vaguely Axis Powers fashion, then tore off his mask for no apparent reason other than to give a double thumbs-up and seemingly struggle for air. His decision to leave the hospital predictably threw the White House into disarray; the cleaning crew that remains is now forced to wear hazmat suits, and more than two dozen staffers have tested positive for Covid-19 to date. And yet Trump’s incredible flouting of Covid best practices appears to have permanently seeped into his entourage. “None of the handful of staffers spotted around the West Wing on Monday morning had on masks, except for cleaning staff and the Secret Service agents who still stood at their posts along hallways,” NBC reported.
Then, on Wednesday, just before the vice presidential debate, Trump issued yet another video communiqué from the lawn outside the Oval Office, in which he bellowed about the curative properties of Regeneron, a drug cocktail he had received during his hospital stay. The treatment, however, remains in clinical trial and could potentially cost civilian patients nearly $100,000. As it turns out, Renegeron’s CEO is an “acquaintance” of Trump’s and a member of his golf club; Trump furthermore owned shares of the company as recently as 2017. And though the president promised at some point during his five-minute dispatch to make the drug free, there’s zero indication, as Melody Schreiber recently wrote, of how he plans to go about making that happen.
On Thursday, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the next debate would be held virtually due to concerns about Covid—or more specifically, concerns about the still-contagious president himself spreading the coronavirus as a result of his well-established disregard for the safety of literally anyone else—and Trump accordingly refused to participate. “I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” he said, with the clear subtext that it was weak. Biden, then, should just show up in person and get Covid-19—like a real man.