A dark wind is blowing through this country, and what destruction it will finally bring we can only await. Before the coronavirus descended on us, we were already in crisis. We had endured three years of Donald Trump, thinking we could outlast him, and then, when the comedy of impeachment had played itself out, that there was no other choice. Already, as the Republican Party was completing its terminal disgrace in the United States Senate, the virus was at work among us, Death’s opportunist. No, Covid-19 is not a morality play, a punishment for our sins. But just as it attacked the weakest and most vulnerable of us, so it has attacked human societies around the globe at their weakest points. It attacked China for its secrecy and fear of the truth. It attacked Russia for an autocratic leadership beneath which lay institutional chaos and anarchy. It has attacked us for the stain of poverty and injustice in a land of plenty, and for the original sin of racial oppression. It seems we are to pay a particularly heavy price.
Hospitals are ordinarily the place for masks, to prevent contagion. Epidemics spread contagion far and wide; pandemics spread them everywhere. That’s when everyone needs a mask, at least in public places. It’s understood that you should wear one, both to protect yourself and others. Even the droplets released in speech can convey the virus. If you don’t wear a covering for your nose and mouth, authorities have the right and duty to stop you. Such a rule applies to everyone.
Except the president. He alone sets himself above the law. He alone believes he is the law.
Well, you may think, what’s a little presidential spittle, especially if it’s nowhere close to where you are? Except that this is the whole point. Everything the president utters has been fatally infected since day one of his administration. Infected with lies—17,000 of them, and counting north. Infected with racism, the subtext where not the overt content of everything he says. Infected with hate.
And now, since the middle of the winter, infected with something more direct: Death.
Trump’s first reaction to Covid-19 was denial. It was news he didn’t want to hear, not because it portended catastrophe for the country but because it would jeopardize the sole objective of his administration, reelection. This meant deaths for tens of thousands of Americans, a number that continues to grow exponentially as Trump encourages his fellow countrymen to share his denial or to regard the deaths to come as a salutary public health measure to thin the ranks of those disinclined to vote for him. The poor would die disproportionately, crowded in cities or without adequate medical attention. Minorities would die, defined as un-American and unworthy of a berth on the Mayflower. The rich, of course, would take care of themselves, and reap a windfall from disaster as they always do. As for everyone else, the loyal followers of the man who described himself as not merely elected but “chosen,” his personal magic would protect them.
There has always been a cultlike quality to Trump’s supporters. They have been a cordon to protect him, as he has been the savior who would restore their lost world. What took that world from them, the good jobs and the secure pensions, the basic decency even in a hardscrabble life, had always been a mystery. Now added to that was the virus, arisen as if from the pits of hell. Of course Trump’s legions would double down on him.
And, of course, Donald Trump would not wear a mask.
A mask was fear, concealment, weakness. A mask was a confession of powerlessness in the face of attack.
A mask was silencing oneself, denying oneself the power not only to speak and be heard, but to be seen, fearless and bold, immune from harm and therefore able to immunize others.
Donald Trump promised us a vaccine against Covid-19, for sure by the end of the year. Then he told us we would be all right, fine, great again, even without a vaccine. How?
Because, for those putting their trust in him, Trump himself would be the vaccine.
Trump hasn’t made that as an actual claim, no more than he has literally claimed to have been sent by higher powers. As usual, he leaves you to draw the inference. We need a vaccine; we’ll have a vaccine; we don’t need one after all. Why? Because Donald says so.
When Trump finally acquiesced to numbers of the dead and dying even he could not deny, he declared war against the virus. But he was a general who gave no coherent orders. He had no strategy; he hoarded scarce resources. He lied about losses. And, when unemployment skyrocketed to Great Depression levels in a matter of weeks, he abruptly quit the field. You can’t run very well on 100,000 dead bodies. But you can’t run on forty million pink slips either.
Trump chose the lesser number. The dead couldn’t be brought back, but jobs could, or at least the demand that workers return to them, safely or not. If Trump couldn’t run on prosperity, he could, with luck, run on recovery, or at least the promise of it. Having made the absurd claim that he could reopen the economy by fiat from the White House, he made the happy discovery that this was in fact the responsibility of governors and state health departments. All he would need to be was the cheerleader of recovery. If it worked, he would take the credit for whatever profit might result; if it failed—if tens, or hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths resulted—it would be the failure of others.
As ever, Donald Trump was betting the house. As always, the house he was betting was yours.
That would not be the only card Trump could play. He had violence on his side as well. From his inaugural address on, he had deliberately polarized an already divided country until, under the stress of a deadly pandemic, a devastated economy, and prolonged social isolation, the slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis broke it at its most vulnerable point, race. Trump’s last gamble would be a descent into social chaos, real or fancied, that would justify a law and order campaign, based if need be on military occupation under the Insurrection Act, passed by the Ninth Congress in 1807. This act, which requires the request of state governments, was invoked by George H. W. Bush during the Los Angeles riots of 1992. George W. Bush attempted to remove the request requirement, only to be halted by the united opposition of all fifty states. Regardless, Trump has already threatened to impose the Act by presidential decree alone.
Depend only on one thing: Donald Trump will do anything to stay in power. And he is willing to sacrifice the health and the lives of as many people as he needs to do so.
I’ve seen and heard many things about Trump, and said them too. But I can’t put the present state of things any better than a letter writer from Sun City, Arizona did in The New York Times of May 28: “Donald Trump is killing our country, figuratively and literally.”
It’s as simple as that.