Trump is finally doubling down on COVID skepticism
Near the end of The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke points to the crowd saying, "You hear them? This is where I belong." Then he brushes past his girlfriend, who is concerned about his health, and jumps into the ring for what may or may not be his last fight, amid the strains of "Sweet Child O' Mine." Rourke's character should know better; he has assured those who love him, including his daughter, that he does know better. But he is going in anyway for reasons as inexplicable to others as they are obvious, if ineffable, to him.
If the testimony of his former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is any indication, President Trump might have selected a different Guns N' Roses anthem as his entrance music. Otherwise, though, the last 72 or so hours remind me of the closing minutes of Darren Arenofsky's 2008 film.
After being diagnosed with COVID-19 last Thursday and spending two days at Walter Reed Hospital, the president treated his followers to an impromptu parade and a string of 15 all-caps tweets before returning to the White House on Monday against the advice of public health officials, and, apparently, members of his own family. Since then he has released a dramatic video montage of his re-appearance on the porch of the White House and given a speech in which he appeals directly to the American people: "Don't let [the virus] dominate. Don't let it take over your lives. Don't let that happen. We're the greatest country in the world." At one point he even seemed to suggest that he had contracted COVID deliberately: "As your leader I had to do that. I knew there's danger to that, but I had to do it. I stood out front. I led. Nobody that's a leader would not do what I did. And I know there's a risk, there's a danger, but that's okay. And now I'm better. Maybe I'm immune."
So much for all the commercials and debate quips about preparedness and competence. But it's hard not to think that it was always going to be this way. Sooner or later Trump was bound to abandon even the pretense of caring about this virus. The middle of the Venn diagram of Trump supporters and Americans who are still concerned about what Chinese language media initially called "Wuhan pneumonia" is probably not empty, but it is insufficiently occupied to prevent him from doing what he has wanted to do for months anyway.
What does this mean going forward? Probably the president's return to the campaign trail and the almost total disappearance of his opponent from headlines and television screens during the last month before the election. Like Hillary Clinton before him, Joe Biden is a cipher, a stand-in who is (apparently) the least unacceptable alternative for Democrats and wealthy suburban independents. This is how Trump wants it.
The only real question is why he didn't do this long ago. Pushing back against the closure of schools (and the absurd post-9/11-style security theater that has allowed some of them to open) and nonsense like the fining of NFL coaches who refuse to wear masks on the sidelines was his single best pitch to ordinary Americans this fall. It is probably too late now to make a difference.
Does that matter, though? It is not entirely clear to me that this is about winning anymore. What we are seeing is Trump unbound, determined "Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent," a politician who is trying, perhaps hopelessly, to make support for him some kind of life-affirming existential gesture.
He can't help himself. He might alienate his Republican colleagues and his own campaign staff. He might appear to wheeze and gasp for air on the steps of the White House. But he needs the crowds and he needs this campaign and all the shrieking it will inspire. He needs the affection of his most enthusiastic supporters, who love him in a way that we have not seen a president loved in this country perhaps since John F. Kennedy. Above all, I think, he needs a sense of transcendent purpose in his life, a feeling that all the long wasted years of hucksterism add up to something noble and even beautiful.
And so, with his odds of success as dubious as they have ever been (including in 2016), Trump is leaping recklessly into the final stage of the most bizarre re-election campaign in modern American history with the same lunatic energy that he began his political career on that escalator in New York five years ago.
As Randy the Ram put it: "People say he's washed up. He's finished. He's a loser. He's all through. You know what? The only ones who are gonna tell me when I'm through doing my thing is you people here."
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