Just in case you were about to feel an unfamiliar spasm of sympathy for Donald Trump following his contraction of coronavirus, this week has provided a helpful reminder not only of his morally repugnant character but also of the danger he poses to the United States and the wider world.
Firmly in the first category is his attempt to blame his infection on the grieving relatives of slain soldiers, citing Gold Star families’ tendency to “come within an inch of my face”. Speaking to Fox Business on Thursday, Trump said, “They want to hug me and they want to kiss me”, and so perhaps it was them who had made him sick. Clearly keen not to keep all that viral load to himself, Trump later told Fox News – in between coughing bouts – that he plans to host a rally in Florida on Saturday and another in Pennsylvania. He’ll doubtless repeat the gesture he premiered in his bargain-bin Mussolini performance on the White House balcony on Monday night, ripping off his mask with a flourish – as if to prove that nothing and nobody will stop him shrouding his devotees in a cloud of his contaminated breath.
More serious are his assaults on democracy, which become ever more explicit. Lashing out at his own henchmen, he channelled Elton John to warn that the slavishly loyal attorney general, William Barr, would find himself in a “sad, sad situation” if he did not indict Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden for “the greatest political crime in the history of our country”, namely the federal inquiry into the 2016 Trump campaign’s links to Russia. Like strutting on a balcony, threatening to jail your predecessor along with your former and current opponents for political crimes tends to be a feature of darkly authoritarian states rather than democratic ones.
As if to confirm that Trump’s threats to democracy are not empty, that the signals he transmits are received, 13 men were arrested in Michigan on Thursday over a violent plot to kidnap the state’s governor and try her for treason. You’ll recall that in April, Trump urged his followers, angry about the state’s lockdown, to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”. Trump’s chief response to the revelation of this episode of domestic terrorism was not contrition, but rather a rebuke to the governor for failing to say thank you to “my justice department” for uncovering the conspiracy. That “my” is telling: it is the grammar of the authoritarian strongman.
Most Republicans continue, like Trump’s doctors, to act as enablers in all this. Especially eye-catching was a tweet from infected senator Mike Lee of Utah, arguing that democracy was less important than liberty, peace and prosperity – and that sometimes “Rank democracy can thwart” those goals. Few Republicans dare echo the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who rather generously described Trump’s increasingly unhinged ramblings as evidence that “he’s in an altered state”.
And yet, the admission by the Republican leader in the senate, Mitch McConnell, that he had not gone near the White House since 6 August because of the administration’s lax approach to masks and social distancing, was striking. Now, McConnell is not a man to speak without prior thought: unencumbered by scruples, he is a political calculating machine. And what that remark suggests is the calculation that Republicans need to distance themselves from a president they suspect is heading towards defeat.
They’ve seen the polls, same as everyone else. Those show Biden’s lead growing when the race should be tightening, the Democrat consistently ahead in every battleground state bar Florida, and breathing down Trump’s neck in states that should be reliably Republican, including must-win Ohio. What’s more, Biden’s lead has increased since Trump’s diagnosis a week ago. Hard-headed Republicans are beginning to suspect that the pandemic will be the president’s undoing.
If that’s right, there would be a compelling, even karmic, logic to it. For Covid-19 could almost have been designed to expose the essence, and failings, of Trumpism.
Consider that one of Trumpism’s defining traits is its contempt for truth, facts and science. It was during Trump’s first weekend in office that he had his officials lie about the size of his inaugural crowd and speak of “alternative facts”. Opponents railed against this epistemic vandalism, but “truth” always seemed an abstract, even elitist concern. And then came coronavirus, accompanied by Trump’s insistence that it would just disappear “like a miracle”, or that it could be chased away with an injection of bleach, as if to demonstrate in the starkest possible terms where a disdain for facts and for science leads: namely, to the graves of more than 200,000 Americans.
Similarly, Trumpism adapts the traditional Republican attachment to individual freedom and mutates it into a darker, Darwinian belief that the strong individual can and should do whatever they like, and to hell with the “suckers and losers” who might suffer as a result. In normal times, plenty of Trump supporters saw that as an exhilarating libertinism, one that allowed Trump to cheat on his wives and pay no taxes, all without consequences. They’d have lived like that if they could. But coronavirus doesn’t work that way. Suddenly the “suckers and losers” included Trump supporters, or their loved ones. The virus even caught up with Trump himself – along with everyone who got near him.
And, of course, Trumpism is defined by its toxic brand of masculinity, mocking Biden for wearing a mask – “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe,” quipped one Fox host – forgetting that covering your face is mainly to protect others, not yourself. Trump is still bragging that he is a “perfect physical specimen”, that he’s seen off Covid, but he says it while wheezing. This virus has done to Trumpian machismo what it’s done to Trumpian disrespect for rules and science: it’s exposed it as hollow and a failure.
We don’t know what further twists await in this long, melancholy drama; we don’t know who will win next month. But if Donald Trump is ejected from office, Americans will still have to wrestle with a tough question: what does it say about the US if it took a pandemic to do it?
• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist