Soon after President Trump’s covid-19 diagnosis and admission to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, reporting and analysis quickly morphed into speculation and recrimination. The shaming took two forms — an almost gleeful mocking of Trump for contracting the coronavirus, and head-shaking over the fact that attitudes of most Trump supporters about covid-19 seemed not to have changed despite it.
The latter was summarized quite accurately by a Post article Saturday that noted Trump’s die-hard backers “reacted to his illness with a fatalistic shrug about what that meant for him and for them.” Wisconsin GOP Treasurer Brian Westrate said, “If the leader of the free world can get this, I think it’s kind of silly for the rest of us to pretend a $3 handkerchief from Walmart is going to protect us.”
The assumption that Trump contracting covid-19 would rattle his base into adopting a more serious attitude about the illness springs from the notion that the president’s supporters are a cult whose thoughts or actions depend on the fortunes of its leader. In fact, they are overwhelmingly independent, strongly opinionated Americans who align with Trump not because he tells them what to think but because he thinks like they do.
They wonder why it’s big news any time someone famous contracts the novel coronavirus. Like Trump, most of them consider it a serious virus, but hardly one deserving plague-like news coverage or so much disruption of our daily lives. And they aren’t shamed into changing their opinions even when the media talks of almost no other subject or condescendingly lectures them, a la Fox News’s Chris Wallace yelling: “Wear the damn mask!”
Trump’s supporters cheer him when he produces videos from the hospital without a mask on, or shocks everyone by briefly leaving Walter Reed to ride by and wave to his supporters camped outside (yes, he should have notified the press, which tracks his movements on behalf of all Americans), or is discharged from the hospital after just a long weekend stay, all to the dismay of his critics and many in the medical community. Why?
Because Trump’s backers will love him all the more for treating covid-19 with the same level of concern — no more, no less — even after contracting it himself. “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate you,” Trump tweeted Monday, in line with a statement he reportedly dictated to his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani on Saturday, saying, “I had to confront [the virus] so the American people stopped being afraid of it so we could deal with it responsibly.” It’s a message that will confound those who consider fear the appropriate national response, but hearten many of his supporters.
There is no perfect way to fight the coronavirus, despite what people on both sides might insist. But many believe our wiser path would have been to learn from the Swedish model, which so far has avoided the kind of second wave now hitting some other European countries. Those who embrace Sweden’s approach believe a more laissez-faire attitude would ultimately result in roughly the same overall death toll attributed here to the virus while reducing additional “deaths of despair” associated with the job loss, isolation, loneliness and anxiety.
Experts agree that wearing masks helps slow the spread, but the media is obsessed with whether and when Trump and his staff wear them. Doctors occasionally have to remind us not to think masks make us invulnerable. They don’t. For Trump’s supporters, the fact that the president and others in his circle contracted covid-19 despite extreme testing protocols just lends credence to the stoic belief that the virus is going to find those who are destined to be afflicted, with the vast majority recovering.
Those who sincerely think covid-19 is a terrifying plague worthy of the most oppressive responses and those who sincerely believe the hysteria is overblown won’t come to an agreement anytime soon. Someday, distance and perspective will help us separate the emotions and politics from the covid-19 debate. Presidential election year 2020 will not be that time.
In the meantime, what’s needed is a bit more compassion and a bit less judgment as we all navigate difficult and uncertain terrain. At minimum, I hope we can agree that no one deserves to get sick. We should just pray for the president’s recovery, along with that of all others who contract covid-19, and focus on treatments, cures and vaccines.
Get well, Mr. President.