By Nikhila Natarajan
New York, Oct 28 : October 28, 2020 marks exactly nine months to the day since Trump was told during a top secret briefing that the virus is exploding beyond China. When all this is over, just one question will remain: Why did Trump let it rip the way he did? Three explanations dominate the conversation in America’s neighbourhoods. They range from the almost philosophical (Trump is taking the high ground, we’re all going to die anyway), the evangelical vote (Trump is wooing the ‘When God can heal, why do we need masks’ vote bank ) to the culture wars (You keep your masks, we’ll keep our guns).
Trump has slammed China, state Governors, doctors, and “idiots” in his coronavirus task force when he is confronted with questions on a uniquely American catastrophe: More than 225,000 dead, more than 8.5 million sickened by the virus and hospitals running out of sick beds in the world’s wealthiest nation.
Trump’s chief of staff offered remarkable clarity, with barely a week to go before the US 2020 election: “We’re not going to control the pandemic”. A complex way to process that is to say Trump is pro-infection because he is pro-solution, which means he will deliver to Americans the ultimate gift of a vaccine, whenever that happens. There is no middle ground, only “beautiful” rallies to punctuate the space in between the arrival and departure of the virus.
No matter what happens on US election day 2020, a few moments will forever define the Trumpian response to the greatest public health emergency in a generation. Among hundreds from the last nine months, here are five that stand out as shorthand for a still-unfolding nightmare.
At 9 p.m. on Friday, February 7, Trump called Bob Woodward of the Washington Post and announced that “we’ve got a little bit of an interesting setback with the virus going in China.” Trump told Woodward, “it’s a very tricky situation”, before he stopped tiptoeing around the details. “It goes through air”, Trump said. “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. And so, that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu. Woodward’s latest book ‘Rage’ begins with this shocker.
On March 6, 2020, when coronavirus first entered the homeland, Trump held his nose and relented after a lot of fuss about letting passengers from the cruise ship Grand Princess entry into American soil. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.” The virus was as real then as it is now but Trump’s language was always intended to crush the medical with the political, urging us to believe it will go away, like a “miracle”.
Then, there’s this most awkward photo-op of the Trump presidency. It was June 1, a warm Sunday evening in Washington D.C. The plaza between St. John’s Church and Lafayette Park was packed with people wearing masks and holding up signs to protest police brutality. This was days after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed under a policeman’s knee. Suddenly, the US Park Police and National Guard troops, many of them on horseback, began spraying tear gas, chemical irritants, swinging batons and violently clearing the people from Lafayette Square, near the White House, to make way for Trump to carry on with a planned photo op holding up a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church. “We have the greatest country in the world,” Trump said. “Keep it nice and safe.” The visit came just after Trump declared himself “your president of law and order” and demanded that governors deploy National Guard units and “dominate the streets”. A Public health experts freaked out at the use of tear gas during an ongoing pandemic, civilians doubled over on the sidewalk and within hours, carpenters got busy with buzzsaws to build more walls around the White House.
At one of the arthouse movie length coronavirus task force briefings, Trump jumped off the deep end. In March, Trump touted anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, saying “we ought to give it a try”. Next, he took it up several notches. “So supposing we hit the body with a tremendous as whether it’s ultraviolet or just a very powerful light,” Trump said. “And then I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or some other way and I think you said you’re going to test that too,” he said glancing at his medical experts who were twitching uncomfortably in the packed James Brady briefing room. Trump was unstoppable. Next came bleach. “It knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning?”
The decision to not wear a mask in public became a political statement as soon as Trump teased it in that direction. People picked sides with their choice over masking up, the face covering quickly became the visual cue for political learnings. Its absence is now coming into the same league as the Trump “Make America Great Again” hat. Trump is rarely seen wearing a mask in public, putting him at odds with the medical community dealing with the terrible fallout in America’s hospitals. When the CDC recommended using a face covering in public areas, Trump delivered the news and added, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it. In the final week before the election, America has set records for new virus cases – as more than 70,000 in a single day. Trump’s response follows a familiar script: When a cancer patient gets COVID and dies, they add it to the COVID death toll, the “king of ventilators” complained to an adoring crowd. He claims he is immune, and could “run up and kiss all those people out there”.
Finally, few visuals come close to this for dramatic appeal; its social and political effects border on the visceral. Trump in the avatar of a COVID patient being lifted off in a Marine One chopper and deposited in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center capped nine months of unprecedented crisis. As always, two storylines collided. One was that Trump, based on the drug cocktail he was getting, was in real danger. The other, crafted by Trump’s Twitter handle, was that he was “feeling really good!” While in hospital and still contagious, Trump took a joy ride around the hospital, something that none of the 210,000 Americans who had died until that day would have been allowed to do. While doctors slammed it as reckless and dangerous, Trump was already planning his exit from hospital. “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!” he tweeted. Trump came back to the White House, where he posed, maskless, on a balcony overlooking the South Lawn, breathing heavily. The White House was a COVID hothouse and Trump was framing his own return from illness as a “blessing” and a “miracle”. Trump considered staging his own Clark Kent moment by ripping open a button-down to reveal a Superman T-shirt underneath, according to reporting by New York Times. He finally decided not to go along with the idea.
(Nikhila Natarajan is on Twitter @byniknat)
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