The desperation that has driven Donald Trump to leave hospital prematurely and theatrically pull off his mask on the White House balcony while in the throes of coronavirus infection gives some measure of how dangerous the next four weeks will be.
Many students of Trump’s life and career have warned that he would be prepared to sacrifice anyone – even those closest to him – to spare himself the humiliation of a one-term presidency, but even they surely could not have anticipated how literal that sacrifice would be.
It involved creating a culture in the White House in which the wearing of masks was scoffed at, and seen as a sign of disloyalty, the worst sin in the Trump court. Trump drove home the message on Monday night, staging a spectacle of his return to the White House maskless, with photographers forced to be in attendance. He has produced a toxic workplace to the point of potential lethality.
A super-spreader event was held there to make the most out of Trump’s nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court – exploiting the opportunity of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, and then the president and his considerable entourage fanned out around the country in pursuit of campaign funds.
It included Trump’s insistence on leaving hospital on Sunday night and driving around the block to drink in the adoration of the small crowd of faithful that had gathered at the gate. In so doing he obliged secret service agents to get into a hermetically sealed armoured car with a patient showing full-on symptomatic coronavirus.
The bodyguards are there to take a bullet for the president, not to take one from him, but that was in effect what Trump was demanding they do for a photo-op.
Amid the ensuing outrage over his insouciance, Trump appeared not to appreciate the point: that he had shown no heed of the safety of others, even loyal public servants. His reaction only served to prove that same point. He did not grasp that these people had significance.
“It is reported that the Media is upset because I got into a secure vehicle to say thank you to the many fans and supporters who were standing outside of the hospital for many hours, and even days, to pay their respect to their President. If I didn’t do it, Media would say RUDE!!!”, Trump tweeted.
What stands out is the president’s sense that he was the victim once again – and the only other people who mattered were those who had shown their personal allegiance to him.
No one really thought that Trump would emerge chastened from his brush with the virus (if the encounter is truly over – his doctor has stressed he is not “out of the woods”). But not only was he unrepentant about the White House’s cavalier approach to masks and social distancing, he has reinforced it.
“Don’t be afraid of Covid,” he tweeted. “Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge.”
Entirely absent was any acknowledgement of the more than 200,000 dead, the many more suffering serious and long lasting symptoms – and the reality that some of the “really great drugs” he was given at Walter Reed hospital were experimental and way beyond the reach of ordinary patients.
These facts are evident to most Americans. In a new survey commissioned by CNN from the polling organisation SSRS, two-thirds of them said Trump acted irresponsibly in handling the risk of infection to himself and those around him. Joe Biden’s nationwide lead has widened further.
There is now a very real danger of a vicious cycle. Desperation fuels Trump’s unpopularity, which triggers more desperation. Americans are already exhausted by October surprises, and the nation is only five days into the month. The calendar is unfurling towards the 3 November vote with a president who has little to lose from gambling.
The principal victims of his lack of empathy so far have been the concentric circles of supporters around him. In the coming weeks the collateral damage from his panic is likely to spread further afield. The president is already openly calling his supporters to gather at the polls as “watchers” on election day, and primed them to expect a vote rigged against their leader.
No one doubts now that he would take chaos and bloodshed over defeat, and the implications may not stop at the nation’s shore, with the greatest fear being a combination of a foreign adversary seeking to exploit a weakened administration, and a commander in chief ready to do anything to avoid looking weak.