President Trump’s COVID infection is causing havoc – to him and his family, numerous recent contacts, three U.S. senators now infected, the nation’s confidence and orderly processes, and our national and international security.
We can never know for sure who is culpable. It doesn’t matter. With all the possible “what if”s and “if only”s, we must be clear that, to paraphrase James Carville, “it’s the virus.” Still, sound estimates place in the tens of thousands those whose lives our national inaction has sacrificed.
We and many other mental health professionals and behavioral scientists have written much about the personality and resulting dangerousness of President Trump’s behavior. Pollsters have observed that even among those who support and intend to vote for Trump, many see his personality and character as substantially flawed.
His denial, false reassurances, incompetence, and hucksterism instead of sober attention to the profound challenges facing us have led to a fifth of the world’s COVID-19 deaths with just 1/24th of the world’s population and, as noted above, an enormous number of avoidable deaths. Indeed, denial and suppression of facts from the president and his team, including those providing his care, now exacerbate the political, governance and security impacts of his illness.
With the president’s illness, the cruel bite of the pandemic has turned on one who thought he might ignore it. Many have noted that pandemics respect no individual or group, including leaders in the UK and Brazil before President Trump. So it has now engulfed one who thought it might just go away, “like a miracle.”
But this too is an expression of the president’s dangerousness. The scorn for protections, wearing masks and distancing, manifest in the willful convening of enormous, maskless and crowded rallies or the mocking of former Vice President Biden for wearing a mask, have had their impacts.
Polls show a close relationship between the approval of President Trump’s handling of the pandemic and individuals declining to wear masks and saying they would refuse a vaccine. In addition to those who may have been directly affected by spreader events, these all have contributed to the huge number of cases and proliferation of virus that increase opportunities for infection in all our lives, and the willful dismissal of precautions in his coterie that likely led to his own.
The cruel indifference to others, noted in countless examples over the past four years, was manifest in maskless mingling with donors in Bedminster, Thursday, even after the clear indication of the need to avoid contacts conveyed by Hope Hicks’ positive test. Persistent questions about the timeline of his exposure, knowledge that he had been exposed, positive test, and the emergence of symptoms raise even the possibility of malfeasance in his possible exposure of former Vice President Biden on Tuesday night’s debate. The ability to deny or purposely distort reality – from inaugural crowds to “it will just go away” to current obfuscation of his clinical status and this morning’s reports of anger over reports of details of his condition, the absence of concern for the harm he causes, and his ruthlessness all raise alarms about how he might threaten Vice President Pence or others should his medical condition dictate a transfer of power.
President Trump has put millions of lives in danger, including his own; but we can mitigate that. Individually, we can save tens of thousands of lives incrementally, despite his recklessness. Our tools are simple, universally available, and of proven potency: masks, hand washing, and social distancing.
Edwin B. Fisher, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Robert M. Kaplan, Ph.D., is a professor at the Stanford Clinical Excellence Research Center, and, previously, an associate director of the National Institutes of Health. Leonard L. Glass, M.D., M.P.H., is a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School.