The president is now back at the White House convalescing, yet it’s impossible to ascertain how sick he really is. Wondering about the date of the president’s last negative test? Forget about it. Without consistent and complete reports on his condition, the only thing we know about this crisis is that we don’t know much.
That provides the template for a potentially scarier crisis to come after Election Day.
This trouble in getting to the bottom of things with Trump has reached unprecedented levels, even considering other cases of coverup by this especially obfuscating administration. Much is made of Trump’s yen for smashing norms to smithereens, and his behavior in this case is the same as it ever was. What makes this episode so difficult to interpret, however, isn’t only Trump’s deviation from norms — which, in fact, is about the only thing we can actually count on from him. What makes Trump so perplexing is his deviation from basic normalcy.
We realized long ago that we couldn’t trust this White House. So today, when we seek to learn what the president knew about his health and when he knew it, we’re forced to rely on a combination of intrepid reportage and our own heads. We generally ground our hypotheses in our understanding of how people and politics normally operate. The problem is that in the president’s case, we’re confronted with a person who is utterly abnormal.
Irrationality has been a pattern for Trump, but this week particularly has been stuffed with endless oddities: His actions, from leaving the hospital early, to pivoting back to his unpopular “it’s just the flu” blathering, to sinking talks on a coronavirus relief bill that could boost the economy in the nick of electoral time, all risk political or physical disaster. They simply don’t add up.
Usually when we’re unable to tie our surmises to what’s normal, we can at least tie them to what’s particular: a person’s tendencies, say, or his principles. Yet with this president, we’re stumped all over again. We think he’s selfish, and he goes and acts against his self-interest. We think he hates mail-in ballots, and he tweets exhorting Arizonans to request them. Trump’s only tendency is toward entropy. Principles aren’t even in the picture.
This all renders penetrating the White House’s fog of falsehoods futile. The snippets slowly trickling out about the mysteries of the day lead us to conclusions that boggle the brain: that he could have traveled on Air Force One with his staff despite having tested positive, even though a slew of infected employees was guaranteed to create a crisis, or that he might have been getting tested disturbingly infrequently, even though frequent testing is a luxury most would love to have. Everywhere we turn, another contradiction stands in our way.
So what do we do? We’re catapulted into a vortex of conspiracy theories. A cousin on Facebook thinks the president is actually dying; a high-school buddy surmises he’s faking the whole shebang. No explanation seems entirely plausible, and so none seems entirely implausible either. Right, wrong and reality blur. The week has taken us further than ever into a realm where truth is not just unknown, it is also unknowable.
You might expect that to hurt our laid-low leader. Now you can sling pretty much any crazy thing at him, and it could get traction. But really it helps him — because it creates the distrustful and disoriented country he would need to pull off a maneuver he has been hinting at all fall.
Remember, Trump has been saying for months that he can lose the election only if it’s rigged. He has been trumpeting all manner of alleged malfeasance, training us to suspect that something lurks in the shadows whether or not we can see it. With the pandemonium caused by his diagnosis, the whole nation has traveled fully into a warped world where searching for answers is fruitless, and where we’re forced to believe everything and nothing all at once.
Imagine our jumbled minds a few weeks from now, and add to the mess a close race in Pennsylvania or Florida. All around us the president has spread fecund soil for sowing doubt in our democracy: for saying, should we not have a resolution at the accustomed time on the night of Nov. 3, that the results of the election won’t be certain even when they’re certified — that the winner isn’t only unknown but will always be unknowable. Unless, of course, the winner is Donald Trump.
Watch Opinions videos: