by Michael C. Dorf
The late great Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously quipped that Palestinians "never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Whether that was fair and whether it might also apply to Israelis as well are questions about which I express no opinion. However, I would like to borrow the line to adapt it to the Trump administration. In just the last week, we have seen Donald Trump and the sycophants who surround him repeatedly take the opportunity to miss an opportunity.
The first Presidential debate--which was less than a week ago!--presented Trump with a softball for the ages when moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump to denounce white supremacy. Trump not only whiffed but appeared to compound the problem by encouraging the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by," as though readying them for further action. Even so, the very next day, Trump could have done himself a huge favor by saying something like the following:
Mr. Wallace asked me to denounce white supremacists and I said "sure," meaning I denounced them. He asked that I instruct them to stand down and I did so using the phrase "stand back and stand by." Apparently, some people misunderstood the words "stand by" to be an instruction to prepare to take action. That is not what I meant. Just in case there's any confusion, I'll clear it up now. I unequivocally condemn white supremacists and any violent actions they might take or threaten.
Trump could have done that. Indeed, he still can. But he almost certainly won't, and not simply because the news cycle has moved on. Why won't Trump make a statement like the foregoing? Here are three non-exclusive possibilities: (1) Trump is a racist/white supremacist himself; (2) Trump is an egomaniac who never wants to disavow anyone's support because he so enjoys bathing in admiration; and/or (3) Any kind of backtracking would feel to Trump like weakness, which is off brand.
Without discounting (1) and (2), I want to explore (3) as an explanation for why Trump has also been grossly mishandling the public relations aspects of his COVID-19 diagnosis.
Let's begin with just a few of the truly awful things Trump and his team of enablers have done in the last ten days:
Trump and those who have sold their soul to him for control of the courts held a super-spreader party at the White House for soon-to-be-confirmed-come-hell-or-high-fever Amy Coney Barrett.
Trump mocked Joe Biden for wearing a big mask.
Trump went to a fundraiser in New Jersey at a point at which he and his inner circle had reason to believe he was contagious, based on the condition of Hope Hicks. And that's the best one can say. It appears that Trump himself had tested positive (and failed to warn anyone) substantially earlier.
Trump definitively tested positive, quickly developed what one can only assume were serious symptoms, and was taken to Walter Reed Hospital, from which, despite obviously still being contagious, he insisted on taking a ride in an enclosed car, endangering its other occupants and their respective close contacts.
Trump induced others, including his medical team, to lie, mislead, and/or withhold key information on various of the foregoing points.
Trump decided he looked weak by remaining in the hospital, so he announced he was checking himself out and tweeted the following: "Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge."
The insensitivity of that Tweet is breathtaking when one considers that the US is currently averaging roughly two 9/11's worth of COVID-19 deaths per week. Although the case fatality rate has dropped a little since the pandemic first started raging in the US in the spring, the "great drugs & knowledge" developed during (though not necessarily under) the Trump administration obviously are not sufficient to arrest the progression of the disease for the over two hundred thousand Americans who have already succumbed and the thousands who will succumb.
How many of those future thousands of tragedies will result from the fact that the vast majority of Americans lack access to the sort of medical care Trump received? How many additional deaths will occur if the GOP-packed Supreme Court accepts the absurd argument that Trump's Justice Department is now pushing in order to strip millions of Americans of the health insurance they have through the Affordable Care Act? How many people will die because they share living space with someone who must show up to work with a Trump-believing stooge who, but for the President's grotesque boast, might have had a healthy fear of COVID-19? How many people who do not die of this disease will nonetheless suffer long-term effects, as so-called long-haulers already do, and how many of those suffering such long-term impacts will have been infected because either they or the person who transmitted the disease to them (or someone further up the chain of infection) took Trump's advice and chose to ignore the risk of COVID-19 infection?
That Trump's response to his own infection was appalling might seem now like a foregone conclusion, but just a few days ago, his infection was an opportunity. Commentators were noting how Boris Johnson, who also downplayed the pandemic's severity at the cost of thousands of lives to the country he leads, nonetheless saw a popularity bounce upon his diagnosis. As recently as this past weekend, there was speculation that the sympathy Trump might garner from his illness would boost his popularity enough to affect the polls and the election. (Johnson's bounce wore off but it took about six weeks to do so.) It now appears highly unlikely that Trump's infection will help and quite likely that it will undercut his already-low approval rating.
And yet, like the softball that Trump batted into his own foot at the debate, his infection could have been an opportunity for him. Had he made a great show of feigning empathy for the millions of people affected by the pandemic, the news media and a sizable chunk of a public desperate for something resembling a silver lining would have been all too willing to give Trump a pass. Chasing away headlines about his tax cheating, debate bullying, and white-supremacist-coddling, Trump could have flipped the script had he said something like the following from his hospital bed:
My fellow Americans. Like millions of you and your loved ones, I was recently diagnosed with COVID-19. I am touched by the outpouring of concern for me and my family. I am fortunate that, as President, I have the finest medical care in the world. Thanks to the great doctors and staff who serve our country, I hope and expect to make a full recovery. But I know that not everyone who has this disease will be so lucky. That's why I want to repeat something I've said before but that people may have not heard clearly enough: Please follow the guidelines to wear a mask, practice social distancing, and avoid crowded spaces, especially indoors. Together we can beat this virus. Thank you and God bless America.
A statement like that would have been dishonest, of course, because Trump wasn't misunderstood to be not forcefully encouraging public health measures. He was correctly understood to be actively discouraging adoption of and compliance with public health measures. But if Trump had made even the minimal gesture that a statement like the foregoing entails, he would have done a lot of good for the country and some good for his own political fortunes. Even now, were he to adopt a minimally humble and empathetic tone, he could undo some of the self-inflicted harm of the last four and a half days.
But he almost certainly won't. Just as he didn't try to walk back his shout out to the Proud Boys for fear of showing weakness, so too now, Trump's prime--his only--imperative is to project strength. That trait is one of the worst of Trump's numerous weaknesses.