Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
A veil of solemnity descends upon the land at times like this, when elected officials or public figures get sick or die.
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We wish them speedy recovery, or extend sympathies, as we should. We ignore their faults and failings, as we would want our own ignored.
These are the norms of politics and public life. Established norms, like behaving with dignity and self-restraint in a presidential debate, or condemning racist terrorists and murderers.
For the record, we should all wish Donald and Melania Trump a full and speedy recovery. But that does not answer the fundamental question this president will leave behind when he leaves office. What norms survive a man who takes pleasure in destroying norms?
First, let’s place the current norms in context. Concern for a person’s health – or respect for their death – should not suppress an honest discussion about their own conduct.
You can’t ignore a smoker’s choices as you lament their lung cancer. And we can’t ignore the president’s choices in a pandemic, even as we wish for his recovery from Covid-19.
From the beginning, Trump has been wrong about almost everything to do with the coronavirus. Even as he knew about the pandemic’s dangers, his policy choices were recklessly, dumbfoundingly, disastrously wrong. At every turn.
The pandemic didn’t disappear like a miracle, or with the summer. It couldn’t be treated with an injection of disinfectant or bright light. It wasn’t halted by banning some air passengers (but not all) from China. Testing, tracing and mask-wearing has never been established on a national basis to stop the national spread of the disease.
For months, Trump claimed that cases were only rising because testing was rising. So now he knows, as he has all along, that his own case exists regardless of testing.
Which brings us to the most damaging impact of all, beyond the physical damage to the body of a 74-year-old man who makes mysterious trips to hospital.
Trump’s infection with Covid-19 destroys what’s left of his credibility as someone who can lead a nation through the pandemic. If he can’t protect himself, how on earth can he protect American citizens?
This is essentially the same question that destroyed what was left of George W Bush’s credibility when Hurricane Katrina submerged New Orleans. If you can’t protect an American city, how can you protect American forces in Iraq or the American people against terrorists?
Looking back at what may well be the first and last presidential debate in this election, it’s hard to see Trump’s argument about mask-wearing as anything but suicidal – both personally and politically.
“I put a mask on when I think I need it,” said our now-infected president. “Tonight, as an example, everybody’s had a test and you’ve had social distancing and all of the things that you have to. But I wear masks when needed. When needed, I wear masks. I don’t wear a mask like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from me and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
Trump was speaking in a room that included his family who, naturally, were not wearing masks, despite the entreaties of a physician from the Cleveland Clinic. There’s a chance he was already infected at the time he was explaining why he didn’t need to wear a mask.
“Masks make a big difference,” said Biden. “His own head of the CDC said if we just wore masks between now, if everybody wore a mask and social distanced between now and January, we’d probably save up to 100,000 lives. It matters. It matters.”
One of those lives may, or may not, include his debate opponent, who disputed that idea on Tuesday.
“They’ve also said the opposite,” Trump heckled.
“No serious person has said the opposite,” replied Biden. “No serious person.”
Trump could emerge as a changed man. Pigs could also grow wings and begin service from New York to London
Trump is not a serious person. Not for the last four years, and especially not now. His entire re-election campaign hinged on his promise that he could rebuild the economy – his economy, he claims.
But his own infection means that promise looks even less serious than it did before his Covid test. When asked why voters should trust him to handle the pandemic at Tuesday’s debate, Trump blamed China, attacked Biden, and said: “We’ve done a great job.”
Quite possibly a heckuvajob.
There are moments in almost every presidential cycle when you know the die is cast: a point of no return where the momentum pushes the contest beyond anything the candidates – or external events – can influence in time for the election.
In 2008 it was the combination of the financial crisis and the first debate, when the McCain campaign self-immolated and Barack Obama sailed through his final test unscathed. In 2016, it was a final weekend bookended by James Comey’s unprecedented opening and closing of an email investigation into Hillary Clinton.
This 2020 contest was already mostly baked. Early voting has begun across the nation. Trump’s disastrous first debate served to dig a deeper hole for a president who has lagged far behind Biden all year.
The most recent polling averages give Biden an eight-point lead nationally, and similar leads in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – three states that Trump narrowly won to give him an electoral college majority four years ago.
Now, with Trump’s infection, you can stick a fork in it. There are unlikely to be any more presidential debates, even if the veep candidates meet next week. There are no more Trump rallies worthy of the name. Nothing to change the dynamic of a blowout Trump defeat.
Trump himself could emerge from his bout of Covid as a changed man, ready to take the pandemic seriously and scientifically. Pigs could also grow wings and begin passenger service from New York to London.
Alternatively, he could emerge as an entirely unchanged man, dismissing it as a case of the sniffles. That’s if he can escape the intensive care experience that his young friend Boris Johnson suffered.
With so many septuagenarian and octogenarian members of Congress within a hug’s distance of a White House official, it’s entirely possible that Capitol Hill shuts down for the remainder of this election.
Related: Scramble under way in Washington to trace spread of Covid among US leadership
Despite Mitch McConnell’s insistence, Trump’s Covid infection could effectively suspend his own supreme court nomination. McConnell will then be forced to make this confirmation a life or death issue for those who say they support the right to life.
For a political party that has proudly undermined any reasonable policy response to the pandemic, this turn of events is as ironic as it is irresponsible.
In the words of the classic bumper sticker, their karma has finally run over their dogma.