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The Virus Comes For Trump: Now What?

Pray for the president’s recovery. But hold him accountable.
October 2, 2020
The Virus Comes For Trump: Now What?
Two days before he tested positive for COVID-19, President Trump waved a face mask during the presidential debate on September 29, 2020. (Jim Watson / AFP / Getty)

Many days during the Trump presidency have felt like a year while some years have felt like a day. It’s disorienting, all-consuming. Then tonight came like a lightning flash. I had just finished running down the events for Brian Williams:

  • The president’s day was embroiled with fallout from his refusal to speak with any moral clarity about his white supremacist supporters (or staff, for that matter).
  • Audio of his wife talking callously about the border separation leaked from her own friend and top aide.
  • His adult son’s girlfriend and top campaign surrogate was revealed to have settled a massive sexual-harassment suit.
  • His former campaign manager confided in friends that he is under federal investigation and despondent.
  • His closest staffer contracted COVID-19 and was pictured mingling with the top White House aides without a mask, because after all in this White House looking strong is more important than being safe.

This all felt massive, chaotic. The historic tax-return leak and SCOTUS fight barely merited a mention in the day’s news as the cascading scandals unfolded.

Then, at just short of 10 p.m. Pacific time—right before I had planned to shut it down for the night—my phone began to buzz. All of this chaos was a mere preview to what is to come. The president of the United States had contracted COVID-19.

The virus that President Trump dismissed as “under control” in January.

Shut down” in February.

Stopped” in March.

Would go away “with the heat” in April.

Back to normal by Easter.

Really rocking” by July.

Dealing with it til August.

Mocking the safety protocols in September.

Quarantined, COVID-19 positive in October.

A president who has flirted with disaster, with bankruptcy, with humiliation his entire life but overcome it thanks to his privilege, his shamelessness, his otherworldly ability to bullshit met a virus that was not susceptible to his con.

For nine months the coronavirus has been ravaging the country, leaving death and destruction in its wake. But President Trump was congenitally incapable of acknowledging this reality. He refused to accept that this could be happening to him.

So he did the only thing he’s ever been good at. He tried to make it not true through spin and deceit. He tried to con the country the same way he conned the creditors in Atlantic City and the chumps who signed up for Trump University and the viewers of the Apprentice and the poor suckers who voted for him because they thought he was a guy who actually gave a fuck about them.

But a virus can’t be conned. It can only be managed. Donald Trump is no manager.

You would have thought this might have sunk in with him. When Dr. Birx or Dr. Fauci tried to tell him what was happening. When the virus didn’t go away with the heat. When the death count exceeded his lowball predictions. When we became the country with the most deaths in the world. When Herman Cain died after attending one of his rallies.

But it never did.

He went to a damn indoor fundraiser with his own supporters today after knowing that he was exposed to the virus. He didn’t accept the reality of the virus enough even to manage his own behavior, let alone the rest of the country.

Donald Trump didn’t care one particulate about the 200,000+ Americans we have lost to the virus. He never gave 99.9 percent of them a second thought.  It didn’t matter to him whether any of them lived or died.

All he cared about was whether in the face of the pandemic he could make himself look good. Such callous disregard meant that if people died but the stock market was going up and college kids were still playing football and the pictures of him at superspreader rallies made him seem strong then that was just fine with him.

Until October 1, Donald Trump thought he could beat the virus with bullshit just like he’d always done. Pull another one over on the marks.

Well now he has been made to care.

And to be honest, I’m not sure exactly what happens from here.

I guess I know one thing. I know that he will spend a lot of time in quarantine watching cable news and live-tweeting—so in that sense his “management” of this virus won’t be much different than it was before.

But beyond that we are in uncharted territory.

I’m not sure whether his pathological need to seem strong will make him pretend like this isn’t a big deal—as his former doctor-turned-hack-politician tried to spin this evening—or whether his germophobia will turn him into Howard Hughes. I’m not sure if there will be any more debates. (The next Trump-Biden debate was scheduled for October 15, and the recommended quarantine time for someone who tests positive for COVID-19 is fourteen days.) I’m not sure exactly what impact the wildest October surprise in history will have on the polls.

But here’s what I hope will happen.

I hope that the virus’s impact on the president and the first lady is mild and that they have a speedy recovery. And then I hope the American people hand him the debasing landslide defeat that he deserves.

Then we might all have a chance to heal.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.