Was President Trump himself the coronavirus superspreader at the infamous Rose Garden event that likely infected more than a dozen people and counting with COVID-19? RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is known to have tested positive prior to the event, and traveled with Trump before the event. He is famously fussy and neurotic about medical procedures, and the White House has so far refused to disclose when his last negative test was — suggesting it may have been a long time ago, and that they have been testing everyone but him.
Whatever the case, this White House infection cluster is a perfect microcosm of Trump’s world-historical faceplant on the coronavirus response. The president did not even try to protect the country, talked himself and his party into believing that the virus was not a threat, and ultimately failed to protect himself, his wife, and half his top staff.
The first thing the Republican coronapalooza illustrates is the conservative movement’s utter lack of attention to science. The Washington Post learned from Fr. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame and another infectee present at the Barrett event, that “after guests tested negative that day they were instructed they no longer needed to cover their faces.” This was almost certainly a rapid saliva test, which can have a false negative rate of 15 percent or higher, depending on the course of the disease — that is, if someone is actually positive, their test may return a negative result more than one time out of ten (especially soon after they have been infected).
Now, there is an important role for tests like this one, routine temperature checks, and so on. The basic idea is that if you test as many people as possible as often as possible, you will statistically find lots of true positives even if any individual test is not very reliable. If the positives are then isolated (and re-tested with more accurate methods), you can get the overall transmission rate down. It’s just one of many pandemic control tools, akin to reconnaissance scouting.
But because they don’t have any interest in understanding public health concepts so basic they can be explained in a paragraph, or much more thoroughly in a 3-minute YouTube video, these cretins just thought a test was a way they could have a big old party. “If it says negative, it must mean negative, right?” was as far as they got. They did this because the American conservative movement cannot think about any consequential scientific issue rationally. Everything is warped beyond recognition through the lens of right-wing ressentiment and culture war grievance. Climate change, heavy metal pollution, the worst pandemic in a century, you name it, if the libs are worried about it, it must be exaggerated or a hoax by definition. Trump and his party could not contain the pandemic because they could not believe in it.
The second illustration is of the bottomless dishonesty of the conservative movement in general and Trump in particular. His diagnosis was only acknowledged publicly after leaks to the press, and since he entered the hospital, his doctors have repeatedly contradicted themselves about when Trump tested positive, what his treatment has been, and who may have been exposed. They are clearly trying to either make him look good by denying or downplaying any bad news, or simply appeasing Trump’s demands for happy talk BS directly. In the process, they have completely discredited themselves. If everything coming out of your mouth is clumsily slanted or simply made up to appease the expectations of what a stupid person thinks will play well on television, anyone listening carefully will stop trusting you.
Trump has done the same thing with the pandemic response. Rather than validating the medical experts in his administration and allowing them to set a sensible tone of calm professionalism, Trump has alternately undercut their messaging, muzzled them or driven them out of office, or taken the lead himself with ridiculous exaggerations and lies about how everything is going to be fine. As a result, much of the conservative base has concluded the pandemic is no big deal, and most everyone else is newly skeptical of once-trusted government institutions. Consistent, careful messaging is one of the most important aspects of pandemic response, and Trump has botched it from top to bottom.
The third illustration we’ve seen is of Trump’s all-consuming, pathetic neediness. After just two days cooped up in Walter Reed — getting all the expensive treatments unavailable to the vast majority of the 215,000 people who have died thanks in large part to his malicious incompetence — he decided he wanted to appear before the “great patriots” (that is, a handful of Trump die-hards who were waiting outside the hospital). So he got in the presidential armored SUV and did a slow drive around the block, in the process subjecting the driver and several Secret Service agents to a hermetically-sealed coronavirus hotbox.
According to a New York Times report, it turns out the virus cruise happened because Trump was bored in the hospital “watching lots of television, even more than usual” — something that is scarcely possible to imagine — and upset that people were criticizing him, and he wanted to leave. That is ridiculously risky given how long this disease takes to clear up, but like some weak parent bargaining with a screaming toddler, the doctors reportedly settled on the drive as a compromise. (At time of writing, Trump had apparently talked his doctors into discharging him long before any normal patient with his risk factors would have, and his head physician gave yet another flagrantly evasive press conference justifying the decision.)
Again we see part of the reason why Trump has bungled the pandemic so horrendously: He can’t even begin to consider the welfare of other people. Not even the gun-toting people who are paid to protect him merit a single thought — Trump will casually risk their lives for a completely pointless five-minute excursion to see his fans waving at him. (As any Roman emperor could have told you, always make sure the Praetorian Guards are happy and satisfied.) A necessary precondition to doing something about a pandemic is thinking it is bad when others get sick or die, but Trump does not care about anyone but himself.
All these political pathologies mean that a rational, effective response to the pandemic was never in the cards. It requires a willingness to listen to scientific experts, honesty, and a concern for the lives of others. Trump has none of these, and neither does his party. So long as he remains in office, Americans will have to work around our national leader to fight this problem.