Just two days before Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, several of my New York Times colleagues published a story about the early days of the pandemic, and the strong global public health consensus at the time that open borders and free movement of people should not be suspended, even in the face of a swiftly spreading virus.
“The policy of unobstructed travel was never based on hard science,” the story notes. “It was a political decision, recast as health advice,” that for a public health community committed to cosmopolitan ideals had become “an article of faith.”
The story was a reminder of a point I’ve tried to make before: For all of our president’s conspicuous failures in combating the virus he is now battling himself, it’s not at all obvious that a different president, one who just listened to the science and followed the experts, would have taken the strong early steps that might have suppressed the virus and prevented it from becoming endemic on our shores. By the time the experts had caught up to the realities of COVID-19, by the time they were ready to endorse the travel restrictions that their faith catechized against and the mask-wearing that they initially dismissed, a certain scale of disaster was probably already guaranteed. But while Trump’s early failures weren’t necessarily worse than our hypothetical “just listen to the experts” president, they were arguably more culpable and tragic – precisely because Trump himself was not a believer in what one expert quoted in my colleagues’ story calls “the religion of global health.”
Instead, he had a worldview that the cosmopolitan community considered archaic and dangerous – a worldview that emphasized national borders, played up foreign threats and treated travel bans and immigration restrictions as essential tools of state. He also had certain personal tendencies, like his famous germaphobia, that would presumably have made him favorable to masking and social distancing at a time when Dr. Anthony Fauci was still dismissing mask wearing and telling healthy Americans that it was safe to take a cruise.
In other words, Trump, much more than a typical president, was well positioned to get ahead of the experts and to set an example of caution by taking steps that would have been denounced as authoritarianism in late February and then recognized as wisdom by late March. He did impose the travel ban on China that he now boasts about, at a time when the church of public health considered it a useless act of xenophobia. But the restrictions he imposed weren’t comprehensive and he was late to every other opportunity where draconian action might have made a difference.
Given a series of crucial choices, he consistently chose wrongly when he could have chosen wisely.
One of the tics of Twitter this year is a tendency to anthropomorphize the year itself (“Oh, 2020, what else do you have in store for us?”) or to make jokes about the TV writer’s room that’s supposedly responsible for our series of unfortunate events. Many of the people making those jokes don’t believe that history really has an author. But I do. And the aspects of our circumstances that seem ridiculously scripted to the atheist are, for religious believers, a reason to meditate on what is being revealed, how we’re being tested and what lessons and examples we can draw from watching tragedies unfold.
Our president has a bit in common with some of the flawed, arrogant, appetitive figures from the Hebrew Bible – figures who are given opportunities to do something important in spite of their flaws, who are placed at crucial turning points in history notwithstanding their weaknesses and sins and who have the capacity to achieve things that amaze the wise and powerful.
In Trump’s arc in 2020, it’s possible to see a more tragic version of these kind of narratives, in which Providence grants a flawed old sinner a unique chance at heroism, even greatness – and he chooses badly, and lets it pass him by.
The president’s coronavirus diagnosis bends that tragic arc a little further. The idea that an illness and speedy recovery might help him win re-election on a wave of sympathy seems – well, let’s just call it unlikely. Rather, his illness just seems to emphasize that we’re inside the falling action of the play, the working out of choices and themes that were established months ago. It is woven intimately into the larger story of 2020 and his administration’s rendezvous with pestilence – a story whose might-have-beens could have redeemed his vices, but whose realities have sealed his presidency’s transformation from dark farce into tragedy.
Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist.