He is still convalescing from covid-19, a highly unpredictable and deadly disease. He remains contagious. His doctor has noted that he may not be “entirely out of the woods.” And since he has been at Walter Reed, the White House has become a coronavirus hot spot. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Monday added her name to the list of staff, residents and recent visitors who have tested positive in the past week, which also includes the first lady.
But no matter. Image is Donald Trump’s everything. Health — his, others', yours — be damned.
Trump announced his return in a victorious tweet in which he described covid-19 as nothing to worry about despite the fact that more than 209,000 people have died in the United States. After receiving treatment unavailable to the average American, he declared himself feeling better than he did 20 years ago, as if he had just spent a few days at a spa: “Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
The fact of his discharge was reiterated by his physician, Sean Conley, who in a news conference said, “He’s back!” All that was missing was the roar of the crowd.
Trump’s response to his covid-19 diagnosis has reeked of disregard for human life. But he has given his image loving, obsessive attention.
On Sunday, the highly contagious commander in chief demanded that Secret Service agents risk their own health to feed his hunger for adulation. He climbed into the back of an SUV so he could ride by the crowd of supporters that had assembled outside Walter Reed. Agents are well prepared to face the dangers inherent in protecting the president. But requiring agents to seal themselves inside a vehicle along with the president’s personal viral load simply because he needed an ego boost should not be part of their job description.
The sight of cheering crowds was the medicine Trump craved. He didn’t seem to understand that what ails him cannot be cured with boisterous chants or celebratory tweets.
But Trump would not be denied. Yet the man who fancies himself the ultimate showman has proved to be terrible at choreographing these bids for attention. His law-and-order posturing in front of St. John’s Church this summer had him looking like a confused would-be strongman manhandling a Bible. And over the weekend, as Trump waved to his devoted followers from behind the tinted windows of the black Chevy Suburban, he looked like the caged ringmaster in a circus of his own creation.
He did not look tough; he looked trapped.
He looked desperate. He looked pathetic. He looked weak — not because he was ill or because he was finally wearing a mask but because instead of doing the hard work of accepting his own vulnerabilities in the face of sickness, he’d propped himself up on the strength and professionalism of Secret Service agents. Instead of focusing on the humbling task of getting better, he was consumed by the desire to simply look good.
Trump is 74 years old and obese, both of which are significant risk factors. He was at one point on supplemental oxygen and is now on multiple therapies as doctors try to see him through a deadly illness with unknown dangers at every turn. But when he left the hospital for that publicity jaunt, he thought it was a great idea and so did his supporters. It would seem that they care for him about as much as Trump’s past actions — notably hosting a Rose Garden reception for judge Amy Coney Barrett during which few people wore masks and at least eight attendees later tested positive for the coronavirus — suggest he cares for others.
Trump’s callous dismissal of human life is reflected back by many of his supporters. They can stand and applaud his motorcade with little thought to how dangerous it is for everyone involved in it — including the very person they’re cheering.
The entire escapade was so unnecessary. It was not about expressing gratitude. It was the action of an addict who needed a hit of public praise. Before the president set off on his short road trip, he’d already expressed his thanks to supporters and world leaders for their well wishes in multiple soft-focus videos. (No, he didn’t wear a mask — if only to serve as a visual statement of regret for not having been more conscientious earlier.) The White House had already released photographs of the president out of bed and sitting at a table covered with small stacks of paper. At the very least, Trump was working hard at pretending to be hard at work.
But neither the videos nor the photographs could give Trump adulation.
So off he went. Why would anyone try to stop him? The president has surrounded himself with a host of people who acquiesce to his every whim. He is their means to an end, whether it be a paycheck or a place in the history books. They may be true believers in his politics; they may bathe in the sea of grievance he has unleashed. But they are invested in the character he has created. Everything is in service to it. He has crafted an image of himself as infallible and invincible. And he is abetted by a doctor who publicly describes Trump’s progress through covid-19 as though he is recounting the legend of Superman.
In this White House, there are few candid, behind-the-scenes photographs of Trump in the residence or in the Oval Office. There are few images that remind the public that while he may be an inordinately confident man, he is, nonetheless, just a man. His supporters bear placards suggesting he has been sent by God. He does all that he can to invest himself with lordly power — from affixing his signature to stimulus checks to declaring that he alone is the fixer of what troubles America.
Trump has surrounded himself with people who have put their faith in his image. They minister to it and worship it. The man himself, as witnessed by his own deeds, is expendable.