Frank Bruni: Defiant, now infected: Trump is a morality tale

(Julio Cortez | AP file photo) President Donald Trump holds out his face mask during the first presidential debate Tuesday at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump have tested positive for the coronavirus, the president tweeted early Friday.

It’s a measure of the cynicism that has infected American politics — and, yes, me — that among my initial reactions to the news that President Donald Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus was: Are we sure? Can we trust that? A man who so frequently and flamboyantly plays the victim, and who has been prophylactically compiling ways to explain away or dispute a projected election loss to Joe Biden, is now being forced off the campaign trail, which will be a monster of an excuse.

I couldn’t help thinking that.

I couldn’t help thinking, too, about karma, and I immediately felt and still feel petty for that. Trump has spent much of the past six months, during which more than 200,000 Americans died of causes related to the coronavirus, downplaying the pandemic, flinging out false reassurances and refusing to abide by the very public health guidelines that officials in his own government were fervently promoting.

He didn’t wear a mask. He encouraged large gatherings — including the Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally that Herman Cain attended before falling sick with the coronavirus and dying, including his big convention speech, at which hundreds and even thousands of people, many without any facial covering, packed in tight. At the first presidential debate on Tuesday night, he mocked Biden for so often wearing a mask, suggesting that it was a sign of … what? Timidity? Weakness? Vogueishness? Moral vanity?

With Trump it can be hard to know, and it’s hard to know whether his own defiance was a kind of wishful thinking about the coronavirus' true prevalence, a reflection of his belief in his own physical invincibility, some combination of the two or none of the above.

But it’s easy to identify the morals of this story.

The most obvious is that the coronavirus has not gone away and there is no guarantee, contrary to the president’s sunny prophecies, that it’s going away anytime soon, certainly not if we’re cavalier about it.

Which brings up another moral, also obvious but apparently necessary to articulate: There is real risk in being cavalier. The president is now the embodiment of that. The first lady, too. Also Hope Hicks, one of his closest advisers, and who knows how many others in his immediate circle? That question exists because, from the start, there has been a culture of cavalier attitudes and behavior at the White House when it comes to the coronavirus.

That culture was on flabbergasting display during those evening briefings the president used to do, the ones that he used primarily to congratulate himself and his administration on their fantabulous job battling the pandemic. They battled it all the way to America’s exceptional status as the world leader in recorded cases of, and deaths associated with, the coronavirus.

That culture was evident in the rallies that the president arranged and insisted on doing over recent weeks. That culture persisted on Thursday, when, according to an article by Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman in The Times, Kayleigh McEnany, maskless, held a briefing with reporters after Hicks' infection with the virus was confirmed and after McEnany was on a plane with her and exposed to her.

I read that and I winced and I gasped and then I wondered why in the world I was wincing and gasping when it was par for the course. When it was business as usual. When it was an explanation for why we are where we are as a country and why Trump is where he is as a president and patient.

It is time, at long last, to learn. To be smarter. To be safer. To be more responsible, to others as well as to ourselves. We cannot erase the mistakes made in America’s response to the coronavirus but we can vow not to continue making them. The way to treat Trump’s diagnosis is as a turning point and a new start. This is when we woke up.

The presidency and the president are always national mirrors, in many different ways at once, and that’s another moral. Trump has shown America its resentments. He has modeled its rage. Now he personifies its recklessness. How extraordinary and helpful it would be if, when he talks to the country about this, whether on television or in tweets, he reflects on that in a civic-minded way.

I’m certainly not counting on that: He may wind up having a mild experience with the coronavirus and feeling somehow vindicated. But I’m rooting for a more mature tack.

Because I don’t want us to be cynical, no matter how much cause we’ve been given. I want us to be better.

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.