There has never been, nor will there ever be again, a timeline quite like this in the annals of U.S. presidential history:
On September 9, Bob Woodward’s new book Rage revealed that Donald Trump knew back in February how lethal COVID-19 was, and deliberately chose to play down the threat. “It goes through the air,” Trump told Woodward on February 7. “That’s always tougher than the touch. You don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed…. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” At the time of this revelation, the U.S. was knocking on the door of 200,000 COVID deaths.
That bombshell barely had time to pour itself a drink before The New York Times exposed the shabby truth behind Trump’s long-concealed tax records on September 27. “The resulting product,” I wrote, “is a thunderclap of venality and greed astride a form of grasping self-interest unseen in the White House since the epic corruption of Warren Harding.”
The next day, Trump defenestrated himself in a debate performance that made Godzilla look like Gene Kelly, and his already-bad poll numbers began to actively crater. For four years, most people had only heard about what Trump had said or done, choosing not to subject themselves to the raw voltage of his ghastly personality. That night, a Super Bowl-sized audience grabbed the live wire, saw it for themselves, and their hair stood on end like one of Tim Burton’s movie characters.
Two days later, Trump himself was diagnosed with COVID and raced to the hospital, where he was dosed and injected with everything (presumably) short of bleach and the blood of the Wendigo to keep him from getting killed by the same disease he’d spent eight months ignoring, dismissing or openly mocking.
Among the medications given to Trump was the Regeneron cocktail, which was “developed using cells derived from aborted fetal tissue,” according to CBS News. His anti-abortion base didn’t so much as blink. Meanwhile, COVID took a nice long burn through the White House, infecting staffers and senators along with donors from all points on the compass.
Suddenly, a year that had already bent “strange” into bold and terrifying new shapes just… stopped. Is Trump going to die? What if Pence has it, too? Did Biden catch it at the debate? What happens if…? Who would…? What can we…? The markets shuddered, and a nation struck to silence by ceaseless lethal crisis became quieter still.
Of course, Trump survived. Despite squatting in a number of comorbidity categories that drastically increased his risk, the best doctors and medicine government can provide prevailed. Those doctors were aided by the combined scientific data collected after more than 215,000 COVID deaths and 7 million infections in the U.S. showed them how to better fight this thing.
Put another way, Trump’s chaotically poor response to the pandemic probably saved his own life. The overwhelming death and suffering caused by COVID has been distilled by medical science into practical data that saves far more people than we could have in the spring. In the end, it’s battlefield knowledge — the practice of surgery always makes great leaps forward after wars give the surgeons piles of casualties to work on — and it is no different here. Like as not, Trump is still breathing because of the medical data gathered from people he allowed to die.
What did he learn from this astonishing privilege?
“I went through it,” Trump crowed at a packed, virtually mask-free campaign rally in Florida yesterday. “Now they say I’m immune. I feel so powerful, I’ll walk into that audience. I’ll walk in there, I’ll kiss everyone in that audience. I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women and the — I’ll just give you a big fat kiss.”
Nothing. He learned nothing because he already knows everything he will ever know, and will never know anything else, ever.
A few days earlier, Vice President Mike Pence peddled his pale milk before a huge shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of senior citizens in The Villages, Florida. On Friday, Trump will return to the Sunshine State for another crowded, maskless rally. Any or all of these could easily become super-spreader events, and Florida has spent the entire pandemic on very shaky ground.
Trump’s top COVID doctor, Anthony Fauci, dared to criticize these rallies before demanding the Trump campaign stop using his image in their commercials. Trump responded by declaring that Fauci knows nothing about COVID. “Tony’s pitching arm is far more accurate than his prognostications,” he tweeted. “Trump was right.”
“Trump was right.” That will be his campaign theme until the deal goes down. No regrets, no self-examination, sure as hell no apologies, and full speed ahead doing all the wrong things — like these rallies — because to do otherwise by even half an inch would be to admit error. As bad as 2020 has been, the next three weeks will be a crucible the likes of which this nation has seldom seen.