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Maybe Donald Trump got Covid-19 at the Rose Garden ceremony announcing his nomination of Amy Coney Barret to the supreme court. On Saturday 26 September, Donald Trump gathered major Republican party leaders at the White House to celebrate his nomination of the rabidly anti-choice judge, along with national leaders in the anti-choice movement. At the event, onlookers were seated uncomfortably close together, and virtually none of them are wore masks. Barrett and her pointedly large family huddled around Trump both indoors and outdoors, without a thought of social distancing. Later, videos emerged from the event of Republicans hugging. In one, the attorney general, William Barr, wipes snot from his nose on to his hand, and then goes on to shake hands with many others – a metaphor for his time at the justice department that is perhaps a bit too on the nose. As numerous national Republicans sicken, at least eight cases of the virus have now been linked to that event.
Or maybe Trump got it the night before, on Friday 25 September, when he mingled, again unmasked and indoors, at a campaign fundraiser at the Trump International hotel in Washington. He rubbed elbows there with members of the Republican National Committee, including Ronna McDaniel, the committee chairwoman. McDaniel flew home to Michigan the next day, and began exhibiting symptoms of the virus a few days after. She has since tested positive.
Or maybe he got it at the presidential debate in Cleveland the following Tuesday, 29 September. Trump and his entourage were supposed to be tested upon their arrival at the venue, as the Biden camp was. Instead, the Republicans showed up late, and refused both testing and masks. Trump proceeded to scream, unmasked and nearly uninterrupted, for 90 minutes. Viewers watching on high-definition screens could see droplets of spittle flinging from his mouth. Among other things, at the debate he disparaged his opponent, Joe Biden, for wearing masks in public. Eleven cases have now been traced to that event.
It’s not clear when Trump last tested negative for the virus, and the White House has been elusive at best and deceptive at worst in their public accounts of when the administration became aware that the virus was circulating in the president’s inner circle and just how bad his condition has gotten. This past Friday, 2 October, Trump was airlifted to the hospital – but not until after financial markets had closed for the weekend. When a team of doctors gave a rosy depiction of his condition to assembled news cameras on Saturday, saying his prognosis was good, his chief of staff promptly contradicted them in an attempted off-the-record conversation with pool reporters, in which he said that the president was doing much worse than the doctors had made it seem.
The administration’s handling of the president’s illness has had the shambolic quality of Wile E Coyote attempting to catch Road Runner. They are caught in such absurdly transparent lies that one almost expects their noses to grow long as they speak, or a cartoon anvil to drop on their heads in divine retribution. It would be funny, if only these people did not also possess such terrifying power along with their ostentatious incompetence.
But even the Trump camp have not been able to deny that the president knew he had been exposed by Thursday, when Hope Hicks, the senior White House aide to whom the president is usually in breathingly close proximity, tested positive for the virus. Hicks had begun feeling ill while traveling with Trump on Wednesday night, but accompanied him on flights both before and after the onset of her symptoms. Despite Hicks’s positive test, Trump departed on Thursday for a campaign fundraiser at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he schmoozed with guests both indoors and outdoors, did not wear a mask and welcomed donors to a buffet dinner.
Why would Trump endanger his own supporters like that? It has long been clear, both from their own statements and from reporting done by outlets such as Vanity Fair, that the Trump administration considers deaths and illness from the virus in blue states to be insignificant, acceptable casualties. But the choice in Bedminster to endanger his own supporters defies that logic. Unless of course, you are Donald Trump, who views every interaction as transactional and every human being as a number. The Bedminster event, remember, was a campaign fundraiser – it ultimately raised more than $5m for his re-election bid. To Trump, even those who fulfill his own need for constant adulation are less valuable as human beings than they are as sources of revenue. And Trump certainly does not care about the workers whose labor is necessary to put on such events – the security and janitors and caterers and tech staff whose health, lives and families are threatened by his carelessness. The reason Trump continued on to the Bedminster fundraiser even after knowing he had been exposed is simple: he cares less about even his supporters’ safety than he does about getting their money.
There is something poetic, even perversely satisfying, about seeing Trump’s delusions about his own power and imperviousness defied by his infection. Here is a man who has wielded money, privilege and deception to evade consequence in every manmade system. He is not capable of being shamed, and he is seemingly invulnerable to the law, with prosecution of his crimes suspended until he leaves office and civil lawsuits impacting him with all the effectiveness of spitballs launched at a tank. Bad things don’t usually happen to Donald Trump, no matter how much recklessness he exhibits or how much suffering he inflicts, because he is usually able to lie, buy or cheat his way out of his comeuppance. Not so with the virus, which has infected him even though he has treated the disease more as an inconvenient nuisance rather than a national emergency.
Donald the Super-Spreader is an insult to those Americans who have altered their own lives beyond recognition in order to fight the coronavirus
But more than anything, Donald the Super-Spreader is an insult to those Americans who have altered their own lives beyond recognition in order to fight the coronavirus. As lockdowns began in March, the Americans who retreated to their homes were told that the extreme measures were temporary ways to slow the speed of the disease and buy time for the government to come up with a viable response. But the Trump government did not respond, and instead our lives warped and narrowed. Millions have lost their jobs. Children’s educations have suffered as schools have been forced to close. Women who must supervise their children’s online learning have been forced from the workforce at a disproportionate rate, and many of those women’s careers will never recover, their dreams dashed permanently by the incompetence of the federal response. Meanwhile, many of us have not seen our parents in months, for fear of infecting them. More than 210,000 Americans have now died from the virus, most of them alone and all of them needlessly.
Meanwhile, nothing about national Republicans’ lives seem to have changed. They go on hugging and gathering in close together, wiping their noses on their hands and then shaking them, yelling wide-mouthed about the ineffectiveness of masks. Watching the videos of the Rose Garden ceremony, I couldn’t help but think of the funerals I have attended over the past year over Zoom. Trump and the national Republicans have been living in a different world from the rest of America. Now that the virus has reached them, maybe they will have to know what our world feels like.
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist