Thanks to President Trump, a portion of the Republican Party's leadership has been infected with a dangerous virus. That's pretty on the nose as far as metaphors go, but 2020 hasn't offered us much in the way of subtlety.
In the first days after Trump announced he had contracted COVID-19 — and then was taken to the Walter Reed military hospital for treatment — a succession of his associates revealed that they, too, had tested positive for the virus. They included Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor; Bill Stepien, Trump's campaign manager; Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee; and Kellyanne Conway, until recently a senior presidential adviser. Three U.S. senators — including two on the Judiciary Committee — were also on the list of at least a dozen people in Trump's orbit who acknowledged being infected.
What most of those Republicans had in common, of course, is that they attended Trump's nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court — a packed and largely unmasked occasion that now has all the hallmarks of a superspreader event.
"The White House has been flouting the basic rules of public health for a very long time," a doctor told The New York Times. "There are no surprises here."
A White House that never really pulled its act together to mitigate the pandemic's spread across America turned out, unsurprisingly, not to be able to get its act together when the president himself got sick. Trump's doctors presented vague and conflicting accounts about the course of Trump's illness, shredding their credibility almost from the first moment they stepped before the cameras. (Sean Spicer can relate.) The administration presented one story publicly — "He's in good spirits!" — while Chief of Staff Mark Meadows fumbled an attempt to anonymously give reporters the scarier "real" facts of Trump's condition. And attempts to depict Trump as unwaveringly vigorous, even in illness, turned out to have a Potemkin quality.
Instead of clarity in a dangerous moment, the Trump administration offered confusion and misdirection.
Even worse, the president's dysfunctions are shared by his party. Trump's own disdain for face coverings is well known, but there is no good reason that hundreds of supposedly smart people should be going mask-free and rubbing elbows in a pandemic, as many leading Republicans did at the Barrett announcement. (A reminder: A person can spread the virus even when they're not showing symptoms.) Did they think they were impervious? Did they think they were smarter than the experts? Or did they fear Trump's judgment so much they were willing to risk their lives and health? None of those possibilities are comforting. For years now, critics have charged Trump-era GOP leaders with being unable to put the country before their party. It turns out they can't even put their own self-preservation before Trump and his desires.
That is a choice — White House reporters have faced down Trump's bullying on masks — and a chilling one at that. If Republican leaders can't prioritize their own well-being, how can they possibly prioritize yours?
Indeed, the weekend's events also highlight once again how Trump's party prizes ideological victories over helping the American people through difficult times. The GOP-controlled Senate had already brought dishonor upon itself for failing to pass a stimulus bill to supplement unemployment checks and rent payments, while managing to put Barrett's nomination on the fast track. The new coronavirus outbreak among his members forced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to suspend most of the chamber's business until October 19 — but committee hearings to confirm Barrett will continue anyway on October 12.
It is understandable that the Senate might slow its work to preserve the health and safety of its members during an outbreak. It is less understandable, though, that the only work being done by senators in the next few weeks is to ensure conservative dominance of the Supreme Court. Desperate Americans trying to survive a pandemic recession aren't as high a priority.
There is little sign that Republicans and their conservative allies will learn a good lesson from all of this. The party's establishment, including its allies in the conservative media, seems determined to spin the president's bad choices as a tale of virtue.
"Maybe it's a flaw of Trump ... he didn't hide from the virus. The reason he didn't hide from the virus is he didn't want America to hide from the virus. If he was going to ask America to get back to work, right?" Fox News' Greg Gutfield said over the weekend, later adding: "So he took the risk, he got the virus, but he was doing it for us."
This is absurd nonsense. Donald Trump did not heroically take up the cross of COVID-19 in order to ennoble or inspire the masses to reclaim their lives. That's not who he is. He defied good sense in his personal decisions — probably believing himself invulnerable to the virus — while mocking, bullying, and undermining those who took steps to protect themselves, even though more than 200,000 people have died. On Sunday, he risked the health of his Secret Service agents by taking a joyride around Walter Reed so he could soak up the adulation of his supporters. That is who Trump is. As the weekend's events make clear, Republicans are embracing every bit of it.
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