“Is there something funny, Mr. Harris? Do you have something to share with the rest of the class?”
“No, ma’am. Beg your pardon. All good.”
We all know the teacher is right: People who find something amusing in news that the president of the United States has coronavirus — or that any citizen of any land has contracted the potentially deadly virus — must in their own way be pretty sick.
And yet: I know from a barrage of emails and texts and conversations with all manner of friends and sources, including some Donald Trump backers, that I was not the only one biting hard on the inside of my cheeks Friday morning in order to treat the news that Covid-19 has infected the commander in chief with the proper solemnity.
In my case, I honestly was not laughing at the reality that Trump and first lady Melania Trump have a dangerous disease, or that the pandemic is derailing presidential politics with just 32 days to the Nov. 3 election. I am more just punch-drunk at the cumulative impact of events in 2020 — a year that seems to be vindicating the notion of “American exceptionalism” in ways that no one would wish.
A virus, and riots, and wild fires, and a Supreme Court vacancy timed for the precise moment to push American politics to the breaking point, and the most rancorous and degrading presidential debate in history, featuring Trump mocking Democrat Joe Biden for wearing “the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” And now, 48 hours later, this.
Does it not seem a little like the cosmos is toying with the U.S. of A, like a cat’s paw swatting a frightened mouse? At a minimum, a tragic year is taking on slapstick dimensions. The natural human reaction to slapstick is to laugh.
So, is it OK to laugh at Trump’s news?
My recommendation: Nope, not OK.
One reason is: Come on, get a grip. Even in a raucously irreverent age, the acids of modern politics haven’t corroded decency entirely. Surely you aren’t that far gone?
An even better reason is prudential. The morning did offer new evidence that the gods have a sense of humor. But mortals err if we think we know who the real target of their humor is. Perhaps they haven’t yet decided themselves, and want to judge the reactions before writing the next act in the comedy.
In fact, it was a common theme of Trump foes I heard from this morning that they weren’t sure the coronavirus announcement was on the level. Might this be some kind of cynical election gambit? He’s faking it to divert attention from the debate or to help craft a comeback narrative. The people spinning these scenarios were not entirely serious, but also not entirely not serious. That’s how disoriented and disbelieving many Americans have become when outlandish assertions are regularly made from the White House podium by Trump and surrogates.
If taunting laughter is out of bounds, however, the moment doesn’t necessarily require the opposite reaction. If people aren’t feeling the gravity of this twist of fate there doesn’t seem to be any reason they should feign that they are. Yes, a sensitivity to basic good manners and an awareness that political adversaries and their families are human has been a norm of politics. Was Trump respecting that norm at Tuesday’s debate when he sneeringly mentioned, in an irrelevant aside, Hunter Biden’s drug problems?
It also seems entirely fair to ponder the nature of fairness and fate, as it applies both to political leaders and the country they aspire to lead. “Karma’s a bitch,” goes the cliché, a phrase which even produced its own reality television show in which victims seek revenge against bullies, ex-lovers, and con artists who have done them wrong.
Karma, of course, is a mystical concept. But we don’t need to take flight into supernatural notions to properly reckon what has happened to Trump and the country during coronavirus. For all of us our choices are the result of our characters, and over time those choices will have consequences that play out in rational ways.
Trump’s politics both reflects and exploits a highly individualistic streak in national character. His statements of disdain for masks and his refusal most of the time to wear one surely stimulated the defiant, don’t-tread-on-me side of American character, but he hardly invented it. There are some contexts in which those historic values are highly appealing, and other contexts in which they are dangerous and depressing.
It’s not a mystery why the United States is at the lower end of advanced industrial societies in containing the pandemic. Our culture and structures of government both are impediments to the kind of coordinated community responses that have been effective. Nor is it a mystery why Trump, by encouraging a maskless culture in the West Wing and on Air Force One and holding crowded rallies, came down with the bug.
Around the world some voices are sharing in the reaction of anti-Trump voices here: Ha-ha.
According to The Associated Press, the editor of the Chinese state-owned Global Times newspaper, Hu Xijin, tweeted in English that “President Trump and the first lady have paid the price for his gamble to play down the Covid-19.”
The Betoota Advocate, a satirical site in Australia, posted a story with the headline. “Trump Family Records More Cases Of Community Transmission Than Entire State Of Queensland.”
My word, how insensitive. One suspects Trump can take it. If it’s no mystery how we got here, it is what happens next — whether he’s in the majority of patients who bounce back fairly fast or — with his multiple risk factors — is part of the unlucky minority who get seriously ill.
Once done with the wisecracks and punch-drunk delirium of this year of warped national destiny, decent-minded people should hope he gets better soon — and that a troubled country does so, too.
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