A President’s Positive Test and the Year That Won’t Let Up

Sure, 2020. Why not?

President Trump’s pre-election turn as the world’s most famous coronavirus case is at once stunning, startling and somehow spiritually consistent with the bleaker-than-fiction course of this endless, relentless year.

A campaign season that began with the relative quaintness of an impeachment inquiry has advanced to a level of crisis that threatens the health of America’s citizens, institutions and democratic processes. And that was before the health of its president became a matter of urgent concern early Friday morning.

The grim irony of this arc is impossible to avoid. At the start, Mr. Trump predicted the virus would disappear like a miracle. He shared epidemiologically indefensible visions of packed churches on Easter. He pushed dubious remedies for a disease that has now killed more than 200,000 of his constituents.

“What do you have to lose?” he asked this spring, promoting an unproven treatment, hydroxychloroquine, that he said he had taken himself, just because.

But then, this has generally been Mr. Trump’s approach to risk, subsuming those around him — in business and in politics — who have historically shouldered most of it.

Pining for the glow of insta-feedback from supporters, Mr. Trump resumed campaign rallies against the advice of public health experts. Guests who registered on his website were asked to acknowledge that they “voluntarily assume all risks.”

To the extent that the president has focused on his own health publicly, it has often been to swat away suggestions that he was concealing any maladies, given an unannounced and underexplained visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last year and widely shared footage of him walking gingerly down a ramp.

“They say there’s something wrong with our president!” Mr. Trump swaggered at his indoor Tulsa rally in June, litigating the ramp affair for some 15 minutes. “I’ll let you know if there’s something wrong.”

There’s something wrong. The man who repeatedly assured Americans that he had a plan — and whose administration repeatedly failed to demonstrate as much — now sits in the White House as a septuagenarian patient of high actuarial alarm.

As recently as Thursday night, he had said that “the end of the pandemic is in sight.” At the debate on Tuesday, he mocked Joe Biden for wearing “the biggest mask I’ve ever seen” and said his Democratic opponent had forgone large gatherings only because “nobody will show up” to see him.

“We’ve had no negative effect,” the president said of his own rallies.

There was no heap of wood to knock on. Perhaps Mr. Trump, by turns the superstitious type and a fatalistic dice-thrower, would not have bothered with such an exercise anyway.

Yet the iron rule of 2020 seems to be that every Chekhovian gun will be fired — and then a few more, scattershot into the night, lest anyone get too comfortable with a mere pandemic-cum-protest-cum-wildfire national epic that does not include a commander-in-chief-in-quarantine.

The Trump age has supplied no shortage of previous late-hour pronouncements from the president, though those have more often tended toward the comparatively banal: a television program he didn’t like, a Democrat he felt compelled to needle, the unveiling of the word “covfefe.”

For many on Friday, the response to his positive test was instead the kind of psychic doom-spiraling that has felt endemic to the era, kicking up questions that surely yield meager search engine traffic on happier days:

Are there emergency ballot rules if a candidate becomes incapacitated?

What is the blast radius of spittle on an unruly debate stage?

Has anyone checked on Mike Pence? On Nancy Pelosi?

“We will get through this TOGETHER!” Mr. Trump tweeted after midnight. If his speaking voice had struck some as a bit raspy on Thursday, his social media voice seemed unencumbered so far.

And maybe there was some collective comfort in that, just this once, and in the prospect that the expected can still happen occasionally. Given the rhythms of these four years, it was probably inevitable that Mr. Trump would find himself so personally, corporeally tethered to the signal news event of the times.

This is a president who stared into an eclipse, feuded with the pope, walked in front of the queen. He has a way of dominating his circumstances.

It’s just that usually, that’s the way he likes it.


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