“I think masks are okay,” President Trump said at the debate on Tuesday, but emphasized that Joe Biden was going too far with mask-wearing. “I don’t wear a mask like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
Trump’s point was that Biden wears a mask even when it might not be completely necessary, and that such caution is essentially performative and thus should be regarded with contempt. In other words, Biden is just doing it for show.
But with Trump now testing positive for the novel coronavirus (along with his wife, the chair of the Republican Party and who knows how many others in and around the White House) the full consequences of his double failure on the pandemic are becoming clear. And ironically — since this is a president who cares about the show above all — it’s his messaging that has caused the most damage. Even to himself.
Here’s what I mean when I speak of his double failure. Trump’s management of the government’s response to the pandemic has been erratic, incompetent and chaotic from the very beginning. He has ignored scientific advice, let his son-in-law take over the effort, and generally acted as though actually handling the mechanics of the pandemic was too much of a distraction from his TV-watching obligations to bother with.
That’s the practical side. When it came to his public communication, Trump used the megaphone of the presidency in ways that made the crisis incalculably worse.
We often treat public messaging from presidents as just “politics,” something separate from whether problems actually get solved. And in most cases, it is.
When a president tells the public “My economic policies are working” or “The other party’s ideas about health care are dangerous,” he’s trying to shape the way we all think and feel, but there isn’t anything we have to do in response, other than vote for him in the next election.
A pandemic, however, is fundamentally different. Our behavior — whether we avoid large indoor gatherings, maintain physical distance, and wear masks around other people — determines how the virus spreads. The president can shape that behavior by what he says and does.
In countries that have successfully contained the virus — South Korea, Germany, Canada and many others — you see competent government administration, and just as important, leaders who persuaded their nations to pull together in a spirit of common effort.
But Trump never even considered doing that. As his conversations with Bob Woodward proved, he knew even in February that the virus was deadly and likely airborne. He chose to lie to the public about it, saying there was virtually no risk and it would soon disappear.
That was only the beginning. Not only did he continue to play down the severity of the pandemic, he encouraged his supporters to protest Democratic governors imposing stay-at-home orders. He treated public safety measures — including mask-wearing — with disdain. He held large gatherings in which almost no one wore masks. He turned the pandemic into a partisan issue, in which flouting sensible precautions became a way to show your loyalty to Trump.
Why did he do all that? It’s because he viewed the message he sent about the coronavirus as fundamentally about himself, and not about what people would do in response. How will this make people think about me? Will they think I’m confident and competent, that my administration is a success?
With that as his only apparent consideration, his answer was simple: I have to say that the pandemic is under control and there’s nothing to worry about. If I do that, my approval ratings won’t go down, and everything will be fine.
On most issues, that’s the kind of ordinary political calculation a president makes. But in this case, it meant that millions of people altered their behavior.
Had Trump said, “This is serious, but if we all pull together and take these simple precautions, we can defeat this pandemic much more quickly,” the behavior of the public — especially his own supporters — would have been far different. Had he engaged in some of the performative messaging Biden is doing, setting a clear example through his own behavior, those supporters would have followed suit.
Which would have meant that far fewer people would have gotten sick and died. Today we might be in a position like that of, say, Germany, where they haven’t had a day in which covid-19 deaths exceeded single digits since early July. Instead, we’re still seeing around 750 Americans die every day, with new hot spots emerging all the time.
And now it has come to the White House itself, where although they took some practical steps to protect the president and those around him, including frequent testing, they have assimilated his message more than anyone. Their offices are full, and if you wear a mask in the White House you’re considered weak and disloyal.
That covid came to the Oval Office is not at all a surprise. In fact, it might have been inevitable. Trump was so worried about how the politics of the pandemic would affect him that he opened the door for the virus itself to spread. And like the rest of us, he’s facing the consequence.
President Trump tests positive for coronavirus
Reconstruction: Trump’s movements, contacts before he tested positive