There was a school of thought that Donald Trump might be humbled by becoming infected himself with the coronavirus, see the light and encourage Americans to stay safe. It lasted about as long as the hope that he would “pivot” to a traditional presidency after his inauguration.
Instead Trump has sought to project the strongman image, flying to the White House by helicopter at sunset, standing on the balcony and taking off his face mask while still contagious, bragging that he feels better than he did 20 years ago and urging the public to neither fear the virus nor let it dominate their lives.
His campaign has sent out fundraising emails preaching a similar if-I-can-beat-it-so-can-you-message, hoping to turn personal and political disaster to their electoral advantage against the cautious Joe Biden. It is very on-brand for a president who views illness as a weakness and seeks each day to make himself the hero of his own reality TV show.
“He’s operated in kind of cartoon icons his entire career, with iconic images and symbols of being a magnate, owning a football team, an airline, casinos, Mar-a-Lago,” said Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer. “All these symbols of unbelievable riches were really powerful – that was a very successful manoeuvre and he’s kept it up. So now these photo ops that look ridiculous and dangerous have a certain resonance. Of course he’ll keep doing that.
He knows more about wars than the generals; he will now know more about the coronavirus than any doctors
Gwenda Blair, Trump biographer
“Now he is going to be an ‘expert’: he’s had it so nobody can tell him anything. If he ever even paused for a second for any medical advice before, that’s over. He knows more about wars than the generals; he will now know more about the coronavirus than any doctors.”
Trump, a disciple of the book The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, seems determined to wish his own serious condition away even if it means endangering his staff, Blair added. “All the people that he’s exposing by this, the poor Secret Service, the medical personnel, the pilots on the helicopter, all the White House staff. It’s mind-boggling.”
After Trump was discharged from Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, on Monday night, his campaign sent fundraising emails with the subject headings, “I’M BACK!”, “Did you miss me?” and “Best I’ve felt in 20 years!” They told supporters: “I’m telling you: Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life!”
The messaging was, as so often, amplified by Republican allies and conservative media. Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida tweeted: “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump. #MAGA.”
Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia tweeted an old video clip of Trump body-slamming a man outside a wrestling ring, but with a Covid-19 image superimposed on the man’s head. She added later: “@realdonaldtrump has shown he’s a FIGHTER and a WINNER He fought the Russia hoax and WON. He fought the sham impeachment and WON. Now he’s fighting the virus and he’s still WINNING.”
And Sean Hannity, a Fox News host, even compared Trump to the wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, suggesting that the president was offering a new version of “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
Trump himself, still receiving treatment and with the potential to suffer a relapse, returned to old form on Tuesday with a barrage of tweets, from “FEELING GREAT!” to promising to take part in next week’s presidential debate to mocking “Mini Mike Bloomberg” to abruptly calling off negotiations with Democrats over Covid economic relief funding until after the election. Stocks plummeted.
As a public health example, it has been described as irresponsible to the point of criminal, the exact opposite of what a medical professional would advise.
Zac Petkanas, director of the coronavirus war room at the health pressure group Protect Our Care, said: “What’s so shocking to me is that not only are the signals that Donald Trump is sending by removing a mask and not engaging in social distancing clearly bad for public health, sending a terrible example to people, but it’s also bad politics.
“The American people overwhelmingly side with experts and science; they want their leaders to encourage them to make smart decisions to keep their families safe. And so Donald Trump is not only prolonging the pandemic by telling his supporters that wearing a mask is a political statement instead of a public health necessity, he is in fact hurting himself with voters he should be trying to woo right now in order to keep his job.”
Petkanas added: “It’s baffling on all fronts and I would chalk it up to the medication that he was given – except this is the way he has been behaving since he descended from the escalator in 2015. This is just who he is.”
Trump has spent much of the year downplaying the virus, holding campaign rallies with little physical distancing and mocking Biden for wearing a mask. But the former vice-president has a 16-point lead over Trump among likely voters nationwide, according to a CNN poll published on Tuesday.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: “You’re going to have potentially his supporters getting more energetic on account of this. One of his big problems is getting blue collar whites who support him out to the polls; they don’t have a high turnout record and that’s where his vote is.
“So maybe this helps with them but you don’t win votes on this basis. He has been so irresponsible and everyone sees it. The whole year has been of a piece. I think he is angry at the virus for ruining his re-election chances.”
Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Biden at the White House, added:
“It’s just another part of their divisive, hateful, them-versus-us mentality. But it alienates the rest and I have bad news for them: the rest is a lot larger number than his base.”