Donald Trump has, for most of the pandemic, merely abetted the spread of the coronavirus—through what has alternately been called “misinformation,” incompetence, and “stupidity.” His indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, led to the death of former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, and an outdoor fete for Supreme Court appointee Amy Coney Barrett appears to have infected dozens of Republican senators and administration officials. Now, with one month to go before the election, he seems intent on becoming a superspreader himself.
Since returning to the White House from Walter Reed Medical Center, where he was laid up for four days, the president has violated every safety protocol imaginable. He took off his mask almost immediately after entering the White House and has, seemingly, not put it on again since. He has insisted on returning to the Oval Office—what he actually does there is anyone’s guess, but it certainly isn’t work—despite the fact that he is likely still contagious, possibly highly so. His administration has barely coordinated with local officials in Washington, D.C., leading to concerns of an outbreak that extends beyond the White House and Capitol Hill. And on Thursday, when the Commission on Presidential Debates announced it would hold the next debate virtually to prevent transmission, Trump insisted that he would not “do a virtual debate,” preferring to debate Joe Biden in person.
Some of this can be explained by Trump’s signature mix of machismo and desperation. Since March, he has hawked a series of miracle cures for Covid-19, in an attempt to falsely convince Americans that the pandemic will come to an end at any moment. Having contracted Covid-19, been hospitalized for apparently serious symptoms, and subsequently released, Trump is now attempting, along with his allies, to make the case that his recovery was a kind of miracle. Over the last two days, Trump has starred in two videos that are essentially infomercials for Regeneron, a company whose experimental treatment Trump claims has cured him completely. He “felt good immediately” after taking the drug, which he says will be available for free, “especially if you’re a senior.” (Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert, told The New York Times that there is “one million percent no” chance that the company’s antibody cocktail cured the president in less than a week.)
The case Trump is making is simple and completely fraudulent: Since Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment—which is still undergoing clinical trials and has yet to be brought to market—according to him works wonders and can cure anybody, there is simply no need to worry about Covid-19 anymore. The economy can come roaring back, and you can thank the president by voting for him (and against the radical socialists who would lock you in your home) in November. Perhaps the foremost disciple of Norman Vincent Peale’s school of positive thinking, Trump possibly believes his own bullshit—though his hoarseness and apparent shortness of breath in videos hardly suggest full health.
For months, as Covid-19 spread across the country, Trump tried to pretend that the country itself was, essentially, fine—that what was happening was no worse than the flu, that we would bounce back quickly. In April, he was already promising “phenomenal growth” and an amazing “comeback.” That hasn’t happened, but his message hasn’t changed. Having contracted the virus himself, Trump is now trying to will this kind of transformation, arguing that because he did not die or get put on a ventilator, the country itself is rocketing forward, that the drugs that allegedly worked for him will work for everyone.
What this means in practice, however, is that Donald Trump is doing a lot of things that risk getting a lot of people very sick. The White House’s lax safety protocols have already infected the president, his wife, his campaign manager, several senior administration officials, three United States senators, and many others. Trump has sent a loud, clear message since his diagnosis: He has learned nothing. Instead, the White House is less safe than it was two weeks ago. After Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, Mike Pence was joined onstage by his wife who was, seemingly, the event’s only unmasked nonparticipant. President Trump, meanwhile, also appears to be wandering around maskless, insisting that he work as normal. It’s unclear who is doing the president’s makeup—a seemingly dangerous job given his condition—though the president’s recent appearance suggests he might be applying it himself. “What White House staffer would still wanna go to work tomorrow???” Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist with the Federation of American Scientists, tweeted on Monday. “Epidemiologists just wanna vomit.”
Trump’s insistence on an in-person debate is the culmination of his absurd and dangerous Covid-19 approach. It could be a tacit admission that he is still ill—that he is bluffing, hoping to postpone debates to conceal symptoms that he has been able to hide from the public since returning to the White House on Monday. It could also be part of his strategy of trying to will a return to “normalcy,” of refusing to acknowledge that life has changed in innumerable ways since March. But in practice, it only underscores the fact that the president is a coronavirus superspreader. First, his administration failed to act, creating one of the worst outbreaks in the world. Now, with the president himself infected, he is personally exposing others to the virus—first in the White House and Washington, D.C., and next, if he has his way, at the second presidential debate.