Donald Trump has made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims since he entered office. He has thrown temper tantrums, launched verbal assaults and spewed hateful words. Most recently Trump has called veterans losers, egged on white supremacist organizations and blatantly lied to the public about the dangers of COVID-19.
And yet, there still exists this block of hard-line, unwavering, enthusiastic Trump supporters who hang on his every word. There still exists a broad coalition of Republicans who refuse to challenge the president on his reckless and dangerous words, content to let him erode the fabric of our democracy.
Now, Trump, who has constantly flouted health precautions, hosted rallies that turned into superspreader events and criticized his political opponent for wearing a mask, has COVID-19.
It seems the emperor has no clothes.
Trump’s COVID-19 case is just one among many in a White House that has quickly turned into a hotspot for the disease. With the majority of positive tests among Washington politicians coming from Republicans, the spread of this disease brings into question the reckless right-wing stance on COVID precautions.
However, each time Trump has pushed the boundaries of legality, political etiquette and presidential power, Republicans have engaged in linguistic acrobatics in an attempt to explain away his actions. When Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power, Republicans reaffirmed their belief in the election tradition, careful not to directly call out the president for his actions. When Trump undermined infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci as COVID-19 cases soared across the country, Republicans helped bolster anti-Fauci sentiment. When Trump avoided condemning white supremacy during the last presidential debate, Republicans launched soft critiques and claimed the president misspoke.
Right-wing media organizations have consistently assisted with this political spin by presenting alternative sets of facts and drawing outlandish conclusions. This culture of misinformation and partisan propaganda forms the foundation of Trump’s coalition, which is seemingly impervious to facts. And this time, it has cost us over 200,000 lives.
But if things take a turn for the worse for Trump, whether through bad health or an unfavorable election outcome, what will happen to his supporters?
Trump’s illness may be enough to shake people loose from the echo chamber of lies and deceit his administration has carefully constructed. It might be enough for people to realize that the man they support is a con artist who has damaged American society, perhaps irreparably. This might be the end of Trump’s reign of terror, as his facade of competence collapses under the weight of his lies.
If so, there is an opportunity for the U.S. to move past the Trump presidency, framing it as an unfortunate misstep in the ultimate pursuit of a more perfect union. A commitment to objective truth and facts will reemerge, and our society will once again uphold compassion, empathy and compromise as its core tenets –– but only if we remain committed to avoiding the mistakes that allowed Trump’s rule to come to pass.
However, there is much reason to believe that Trump contracting the coronavirus will be spun once again to make the president look bold, tough and strong. The president has already begun to downplay his infection, claiming that he has beaten the virus. But the nature of this disease and the nature of the president’s preexisting health conditions are enough to reasonably predict that the long-term effects of the virus will not go away so soon, and it is hard to project a strongman persona if you are on your deathbed. Still, Trump’s potential defeat at the hands of COVID-19 may turn him into a martyr, giving rise to a new extremist leader.
There is a plethora of political opportunists waiting in the wings, like Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, ready to take up the mantle of Trumpism. If this happens, the integrity of our government will continue to be under constant threat. Demagoguery, polarization and hate will become mainstays in American politics, and truth will become nothing more than a symbol of our nation’s past values. Our country will be estranged with peace, and open hostility will seep into every aspect of American life. The only people whose voices will matter will be those who can back their sentiments up with force and violence.
In the last few months, Trump’s political career has felt eerily akin to the final days at the People’s Temple, Waco or Heaven’s Gate. As the rest of the country watches in horror, his devotees have seemingly turned away from all logic and reason and willfully ignored threats to their safety to pledge their unyielding devotion to a false god.
One night, as we sat up late discussing politics, my suitemate said to me, “It feels like we are witnessing the final days of democracy.” On that point, I’d have to agree –– and yet, I wonder if we will find the resolve to save our nation.
CALEB DUNSON is a first year in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.