Many patients emerge from illness having had a come-to-Jesus moment that reorients their thinking. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for one, issued a mea culpa last week after he was discharged from a COVID-19 hospitalization that included a week in the intensive-care unit. “When you get this disease, it hits you how easy it is to prevent,” he wrote under the headline “I Should Have Worn a Mask” in The Wall Street Journal. “We are asked to wear cloth over our mouth and nose, wash our hands and avoid crowds. Seldom has so little been asked for so much benefit.”
Trump had no such revelation. Instead, in the weeks since his illness, he has escalated from downplaying or neglecting the virus to outright denialism. After returning to the White House and sanctimoniously removing his mask, he has centered his reelection campaign around the notion that the pandemic is over. “With the fake news, everything is COVID, COVID, COVID,” he said at an Omaha, Nebraska, rally this week. “I had it. Here I am, right?” He cited the illness of his son Baron—who contracted the virus shortly after his father tested positive—as being extremely mild. He did not mention the first lady, Melania, who described having COVID-19 as “a rollercoaster of symptoms,” the experience of which “gives you a lot of time to reflect” and reminded her of the need for “compassion and humility.”
At a few points in the pandemic, Trump displayed these qualities. He regularly stood beside the doctors on his task force, such as Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, and nodded as they warned that this disease is indeed serious (even if he contradicted them later at rallies, and ignored their recommendations about masking). Now, Trump has taken to mocking social distancing and pushing a conspiracy theory wherein the basic facts of people dying are an attempt to hurt him. He has accused doctors of exaggerating the disease, and vilified them as enemies in his crusade to return to “normal,” even as the daily death toll has topped 1,000 people in recent days.
To look on, inert, as Americans suffer and die is one thing; to deny that it is happening is another. This is a clear and ominous glimpse of how the pandemic will continue to play out if Trump remains in power. During America’s final lurch into the election, the president has become an even darker caricature of himself, laying bare his willingness to abandon Americans’ health and well-being for his own self-preservation. He is now even more dangerous as a vector of disease than when he was actively shedding the virus.
On Wednesday, Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary of health and human services, appeared on the Today show and made the rare move of directly contradicting the president’s claims. “The cases are actually going up,” he said. “They’re real.”