Trump's illness is reinforcing his central political problem
President Trump was released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Monday night, just over 72 hours after he was admitted on Friday to be treated for COVID-19. The whole episode, from the reckless Rose Garden superspreader ceremony to the president's unseemly Sunday night joyride and now his obviously rushed discharge, is a case study in why Trump is unpopular and dangerous and careening toward a comprehensive repudiation. Just weeks before an election in which he was already trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden badly, the president and his team have inadvertently reinforced his most endemic problems by showcasing his very worst behavior.
The president announced his impending release on Twitter (where else?) Monday afternoon, and it is representative of the omnishambles of his reign that he couldn't even get this simple announcement right. "Don't be afraid of Covid," he said, adding "I feel better than I did 20 years ago!" It was a mix of the patently absurd — what 74-year-old man feels better physically than he did at 54 after days of being stuffed full of experimental drugs to fight off a deadly virus? — and the needlessly damaging. Has anyone in Trumpworld read a poll about how the public regards his coronavirus response? Nearly everyone in this country knows someone who has gotten sick or died from this disease and only people who have lost all contact with reality think there's nothing to be afraid of.
Shortly thereafter he bragged obscenely about the stock market. Not content with merely a terrible news day, the president then returned the White House, gruffly took off his mask and stood on the balcony, appearing to gasp for breath, clearly uncomfortable, caked in what appeared to be multiple levels of ineffective concealer, looking very much like someone who should get back to the hospital on the quick or else get his affairs in order. His COVID-positive press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, one of at least 18 people to get the virus while dancing on Ruth Bader Ginsburg's grave, claimed hilariously that he "stood strongly on the balcony." Right.
The man is hopeless and so is everyone who works for him.
It wasn't just yesterday. All of last week, starting with his self-destructive decision to act like an over-caffeinated heckler at his first debate with Biden, and concluding with the eerie, days-long lack of transparency about his condition, was perhaps the most politically damaging of his presidency. It was definitive proof that even after months of watching his political standing steadily erode, the president and his team simply do not comprehend the nature of his political struggles. The moment did not call for a combination of empty bravado and reckless disregard for the lives of everyone in his orbit. It called for qualities that Trump simply does not possess: humility, decency, and care. A nation that has been through the worst ordeal of anyone's lifetime is yearning for steady leaders that understand the scale of the challenges ahead. Instead, millions of Americans watched, riveted, as the president revealed himself once again to be a sad little narcissist with a crater where his soul should be, willing to say or do anything to avoid a reckoning with reality. It's not a look that will help him in November.
What President Trump and his advisers truly seem not to understand is that the public is exhausted with years of his erratic, off-putting behavior. The sense that he puts his personal political interests above the lives of American people is widely shared and palpable. The weird, staged pictures of the sickly president "working" from Walter Reed, the sociopathic decision to force Secret Service agents to drive him around for a wave-by on Sunday night to please a handful of MAGA weirdos as if we're all just paparazzi waiting for a glimpse of our favorite celebrity, the way the cagey doctors seemed like they were being held hostage by their dyspeptic patient, the conflicting and irreconcilable information about the president's COVID timeline and underlying condition — all of it did nothing but remind voters of the Trump administration's abject failure to steward this country through a crisis, and the whole team's unsettling penchant for lying shamelessly about matters large and small.
Contracting the virus after spending eight months mostly shrugging off its seriousness and convincing millions of his followers that they need not take any precautions against it was never going to be good for him politically. But it would have been hard to script a more calamitous sequence of events. Even before the White House outbreak became public knowledge, the maskless pageantry for judge Amy Coney Barrett's nomination was a thoughtless affront to the more than 210,000 Americans who have died of this terrible disease, to those enduring its lingering effects, and to the millions of Americans who have gone more than half a year since hugging their parents, living a normal social life, seeing their colleagues in person, or feeling real joy. All of this suffering, and these preposterous, selfish people want to throw themselves a party?
As always, Trump was barreling headfirst into gale-force political winds. A decisive majority of voters wants the Supreme Court vacancy to remain open until after the election. The 2/3 majority that disapprove of the president's coronavirus policies could not have been pleased to see a coterie of B-list Republican political talent hugging and shaking hands and breathing on each other like they didn't have a single care in the world. And then, to see this public display of heedlessness turn the White House into what has to be, per capita, one of the worst COVID clusters in the world, is nothing short of political suicide. The president of the United States lives for the foreseeable future in a wretched plague house, and he himself might be the superspreader.
The public also has the right to be concerned about the course of his treatment and his capacity to do his job. The president was put on a combination of drugs — the antiviral Remdesivir, the heavy-duty steroid Dexamethosone, and an experimental antibody cocktail called Regeneron — that few if any COVID patients have ever received at the same time. Doctors were evasive about the state of the president's lungs, as well as the timeline of when he was first diagnosed and treated. At one point, Dr. Sean Conley suggested that the comparatively rosy assessments conveyed to the public were designed to cheer Trump up rather than communicate the truth of his condition.
All of this is unacceptable, more characteristic of the soap opera theatrics of failed states and authoritarian dystopias than a functioning democracy. It needs to end. Thankfully, despite Republican voter suppression efforts and Trump's own ceaseless efforts to delegitimize mail balloting, the American people will have a chance to issue their verdict on this circus in just a few weeks. Polls now suggest that they are poised to deliver a thoroughgoing shellacking to President Trump and his Republican allies, and most of those devastating surveys were taken before Trump disgraced himself anew with his absurd hospital antics.
Whether he will be alive to realize the fruits of his political malpractice and callous indifference remains an open question. What is not in doubt is that even in the throes of a terrible disease, the president will make it all as unpleasant as possible for everyone.
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