With only a little over a month until the election, Donald Trump shocked the world by announcing that he and his wife had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. As The New York Times reports, the announcement threw “the nation’s leadership into uncertainty and escalat[ed] the crisis posed by a pandemic that has already killed more than 207,000 Americans and devastated the economy.”
The newspaper added that the very fate of the election was now uncertain:
Mr. Trump’s positive test result could pose immediate difficulties for the future of his campaign against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., his Democratic challenger, with just 33 days before the election on Nov. 3. Even if Mr. Trump, 74, remains asymptomatic, he will have to withdraw from the campaign trail and stay isolated in the White House for an unknown period of time. If he becomes sick, it could raise questions about whether he should remain on the ballot at all.
On CNN, Dr. Jonathan Reiner suggested that both Trump and Vice Pesident Mike Pence could become ill at the same time. For the sake of continuity of government, he recommended that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who would be third in the chain of command, be kept in isolation.
It’s likely that news of Trump’s medical condition (at this point, he is said to be mildly symptomatic) will force Democrats to confront a political conundrum as they get pressure not to politicize the news. There are already calls for Trump to be treated with sympathy. Conservative pontificator Ben Shapiro sarcastically tweeted, “Looking forward to all the kind-hearted expressions of sympathy to Trump and Melania from the blue-checkmark Left.”
Centrist pundit Jeff Greenfield asked, “Does Biden suspend his campaign as Trump is quarantined? Is the White House failure to observe protocols a reason for Biden to continue his campaigning?”
The obvious answer is no. Biden shouldn’t suspend his campaign. The president’s contracting Covid underscores a major policy difference between Trump and Biden. From the beginning of the crisis, Trump has downplayed dangers and minimized the need for health measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing. He’s done so out of the belief that extensive action on Covid was bad for the economy. Biden, by contrast, has consistently argued that the economy can recover only after Covid is brought under control, which means policies aimed at radically slowing down the spread of the disease.
On a human level, Trump deserves all sympathy, as does his wife, Melania, and his close aide Hope Hicks, who has also tested positive. Covid is a terrible wasting disease that kills many and also frequently inflicts chronic health problems on those who survive.
But empathy for Trump as a person shouldn’t be an excuse for ignoring his massive policy failures, which have made the United States a global hot spot for Covid.
Trump’s cavalier attitude toward Covid can be seen in the crowded rallies he often holds. As Hunter Walker of Yahoo News reported last week from a rally in Pennsylvania:
The massive, packed crowd at Trump’s rally was an apparent violation of Pennsylvania’s social distancing regulations designed to prevent the spread of the virus that prohibit outdoor events with audiences of more than 250 people. Many in the crowd were not wearing masks, which are also required in the state. After halting his signature rallies at the start of the pandemic, Trump returned to hosting large events in June. Many of the president’s recent rallies have appeared to be clear violations of local social distancing rules. While Tuesday night’s rally and some of Trump’s other recent events have taken place on airport tarmacs that are mostly outdoors, he has held some indoor events, which experts say are far riskier. Trump’s first indoor rally after the pandemic, which was held in Tulsa, Okla. in June, was later linked to a surge in new coronavirus cases there by local officials.
During the debate on Tuesday, Trump derided his rival Joe Biden for strenuous advocacy of the wearing of masks. “I don’t wear masks like him,” Trump said. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
On Thursday, hours before his own diagnosis but also after the White House learned that Hope Hicks had tested positive, Trump went to a political dinner in New Jersey and asserted that “the end of the pandemic is in sight.”
Sam Vinograd, a national security analyst for CNN, argues, “Trump’s irresponsibility has put himself, his family, his staff, the functioning of our government, and millions of Americans at unnecessary risk.” This assessment sounds harsh, but it is accurate. It is also the message that Democrats need to carry forward.
Now is not the time to be euphemistic about Trump’s recklessness. His disregard for basic health protocols has been bad not just for himself and his staff but also for countless Americans. He’s failed in his basic duty to convey accurate medical information in an emergency.
A president contracting a disease thanks in large part to his own rashness is a political fact as well as a personal one. We can express, if we are so inclined, sympathy on a human level for Trump, but his thoughtlessness has wider consequences that need to be called out. The Democrats would be derelict if they didn’t use this current crisis to highlight Trump’s failed policies on Covid and the need for a president who takes the pandemic seriously.