The lesson of Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis is not that he deserved it — it is that you cannot ignore reality forever. The basic laws — of science, of medicine, of the economy, of humanity — always eventually express their will, whether we like it or not.
This, of course, is a truism for all of us who live ordinary lives out here in the actual, real world — but it is a revelation for a Republican Party whose entire political identity is defined by scoffing at and mocking what GOP Karl Rove infamously called “the reality-based community.” Indeed, for decades, Republican leaders have operated as if you are a fool to think reality even matters — because in their view, nothing matters and new realities can just be manufactured.
Trump is the avatar of that attitude — he has spent the last seven months trying to defy the basic axioms of biology: during the pandemic, he downplayed the disease, refused to wear a mask, insisted on holding crowded campaign rallies, and demanded the economy open back up as the virus spread. He ignored science, but ultimately science caught up with his reckless behavior — and he became one of the millions who have been infected.
Trump suggested to Bob Woodward that he tried to downplay the virus because he wanted to avoid creating panic. But there’s been something deeper than political calculation at work — something more innate. Trump is a guy who has been taught his entire life that he does not have to play by the rules — and that gravity will never bring him back down to earth.
Trump is a guy who made absurdly inadvisable bets on real estate and casino properties — and when those wagers inevitably went bad, he used bankruptcy laws and created a new legal precedent in court to shield himself from the financial consequences. Despite his business failures, he ultimately managed to rebrand himself as a genius worthy of his own business-themed reality TV show.
Trump is the guy who broke every established norm of politics — he is a stream-of-consciousness liar who makes ever-more outrageous declarations that often ruin political candidacies, but his pathological lying ended up helping him defeat the Bush and Clinton dynasties and win the presidency.
Trump is the guy who has run around denying climate science, even as hurricanes and floods and fire tornadoes have laid waste to the country — and he’s seen those disasters and doubled down on policies boosting the fossil fuel development that’s creating the emergency.
Trump is the guy who refused to publish his tax returns while evading tax laws to the point where he was only paying $750 in taxes.
Throughout his life, Trump has learned the lesson that no matter how perilous the situation is, no matter how blatantly dishonest and ridiculous the self-image you are creating, if you keep doubling down on your own fantastical stories, you can keep getting ahead.
And unfortunately, so much of our politics and media have followed that formula that Trump perfected.
Wild lies were told about Iraq, and we went to war anyway. There was a white-collar crime spree, and the political class that allowed a financial crisis to unfold then just reinflated the same corrupt system as if nothing had happened. The climate crisis threatens the survival of the human species, and it is still rarely covered on TV news and never taken seriously by Washington policymakers.
The problem, though, is that reality always eventually gets the last word. A million people died in the war, millions of lives were ruined in the financial crisis, and millions more will be ruined by the climate disaster.
As any casino owner like Trump should well understand: you can win a few games of chance against the house, but the odds always eventually kick in — and they are even now kicking in against Trump.
He may have manufactured the notion that he’s a business guru, but his tax returns show a man deeply in debt.
He may deny climate science and pretend everything is just going to get cooler, but communities destroyed by climate disasters have debunked those fictions — and now the climate crisis even imperils his own real estate properties.
He may have paid almost nothing in taxes, but he’s under audit and now may face a criminal investigation over allegations of tax fraud.
He may have lied his way into the presidency; he may have bullshitted about how supposedly great the economy is and how well he has handled the pandemic; and he may have a right-wing media machine echoing all that nonsense. But polls show that out here in the real world, fewer and fewer voters are buying it.
And yes, he may have insisted that the coronavirus is no big deal and tried to carry on as if nothing needed to change, but the virus inevitably caught up with him, just like it overtook the entire country as we refused to put in place the policies that scientific experts said were needed to stop its spread.
In that sense, the virus is the polar opposite of Trump. As much as he personifies the belief that reality doesn’t matter, a virus is the embodiment of the idea that reality will always have the last word — because a virus can’t be spun or lied to or negotiated with or emotionally manipulated. It is a ruthless biological machine that abides by ironclad scientific laws that perhaps you can get away with defying for a while — but not over the long run.
Obviously, we shouldn’t celebrate Trump (or anyone else) getting sick — the disease is horrible and shouldn’t be wished upon anyone. But we can learn from this important parable.
If anything good comes out of all the disasters in this terrible year, maybe it is that our society will finally stop pretending we can ignore reality.
Maybe we can start rejecting the fantasies that have led us to this awful moment.
Maybe we can create a new reality-based community — before more unfolding cataclysms make things even worse.