This means that Trump was willing to put his audience and their community at risk of infection and death. And for what? To bask in adulation? To restart his faltering campaign? Any excuse is ridiculously reckless. And because of the demography of death from covid-19, Trump was being particularly reckless with the lives of older people.
It is the oddest of campaign messages: “Trump 2020: Worth the Added Morbidity!” But the Tulsa event was the natural expression of a broader campaign strategy. Trump plainly believes that his reelection prospects depend on the appearance of economic improvement by Election Day. As such, he has fed populist support for reopening at every turn. Now, more than two dozen states (including Oklahoma) are reporting coronavirus surges. This is subjecting the American public to a measurable risk of death — a risk that increases dramatically with age. (The highest number of U.S. coronavirus-related deaths since February have come among people 85 and older. The second highest has come among people 75 to 85. Taken together, these categories represent well over half of deaths involving covid-19.)
Trump’s apparent assumption that rapid reopening will ultimately be good for the economy may prove mistaken (since full recovery will come only when people truly believe the worst of the disease is over). But Trump obviously believes this course is in his personal interest. And it raises profound ethical issues.
There will always be some trade-off between social freedom — the freedom to move and associate — and the requirements of public health during a pandemic. Some measures of enforced social distancing are too draconian to maintain for long (except in extreme cases). Some level of risk to life is unavoidable.
But the relative weight one puts on the value of life, particularly on the preservation of vulnerable lives, matters greatly. A utilitarian — one who believes the best moral outcome is the greatest good for the greatest number — would find it easier to justify the sacrifice of tens of thousands of people over the age of 75 for the sake of economic growth and free movement. Someone who claims to be pro-life — as Trump does — should start from a different set of assumptions.
Being pro-life means placing additional moral and legal emphasis on the lives of the weak and voiceless. It means speaking up for human beings who are often regarded as expendable in utilitarian calculations — particularly human beings at the very beginning of life, human beings with intellectual and physical disabilities, and human beings near the end of life.
There is such a thing as a natural death, and we are under no moral obligation to indefinitely extend the dying process. But with covid-19, we are talking about thousands of deaths that can be avoided through the reasonable best practices of public health. And though other social goods are at stake, the political needs of the president should count for nothing in this calculation. Nothing.
Where would we end up if a high value were placed on the lives of the elderly and all political considerations were removed? The resulting approach would certainly not allow events such as Trump’s Tulsan-roulette rally, which one health expert placed among the “highest risk gatherings.” And a responsible covid-19 policy would not abandon effective public health measures even as the first wave of the disease continues to roll in much of the United States.
On public health, Trump is not acting like a pro-life president. Rather than placing a finger on the scale regarding vulnerable lives, he is placing his full weight on the side of his perceived interests. His morality does not even rise to the level of utilitarianism. He seeks the greatest good for one person, and one person alone. Many are likely to suffer because of it.