Why isn’t the germaphobe President afraid of coronavirus?

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

The weird thing about Donald Trump’s handling of Covid-19, alongside all the other weird things, is that he has always been a near-pathological germaphobe. He likes fast food, we’ve been told, in part because it is barely touched by human hands; he prefers not to press the lowest button on an elevator; he asks Oval Office visitors to wash their hands in a nearby bathroom; he routinely has a bottle of Purell sanitiser available whenever he has to touch hoi polloi; he lost some real estate deals in the past because he wouldn’t shake hands. Last year, Politico called him ‘the most germ-conscious man to ever lead the free world’. The same magazine quoted a Trump campaign official saying: ‘If you’re the perpetrator of a cough or of a sneeze or any kind of thing that makes you look sick, you get that look. You get the scowl. You get the response of — he’ll put a hand up in a gesture of, you should be backing away.’ He once told the radio star Howard Stern that he washes his hands every day ‘as many times as possible’. One of his old cronies, Anthony Scaramucci, saw it up close: ‘If you’re standing by him, and you’re going to look at something on his desk, and you lick your index finger to open the thing to try to catch an edge on the paper, he’ll smack your hand and be like “What are you, disgusting?”’

So why, why, why did Trump not go nuclear on Covid-19? Why on earth did he deny it, lie about it, undermine basic public health guidelines on it, refuse to wear a mask, mock those who did, market quack cures, and allow his own White House to host a superspreader event that led to more Covid cases than the rest of Washington combined? For that matter, why didn’t this instinctually authoritarian man react to Covid by shutting down all US borders, and subject US citizens returning home — including from Europe — to the kind of hygienic ordeal he routinely demands of anyone who comes close to him? I don’t really have an answer. My best bet is simply that Trump is such a narcissist that his concern about germs is only ever about him. You can talk to him about the collective good for days on end and all you’ll get back are blank, uncomprehending eyes. And when you see his past attitude toward sickness, you see that he regards it as a sign of failure and weakness, which is why he is now touting his great genes in recovering so quickly.

All he worried about as the virus approached was the damage a lockdown could do to his re-election chances by causing a recession, apparently unable to understand that the disease itself — and its largely uncontrolled spread — might be a greater threat to the economy. The polling now shows that even with the Covid recession, a majority approves of Trump’s handling of the economy and say they’re better off than four years ago. But they’re voting Biden because of the virus.

Seeing Biden’s polling margin over Trump in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and even Wisconsin, one conclusion from this election could be a damningly simple one: Hillary Clinton was the worst candidate ever. If the blue wall in the upper Midwest comes roaring back, it will be clear that only one person is truly responsible for the Trump administration and that is Hillary. Biden is winning precisely by reversing her campaign’s deepest conviction: that merely by turning out a non-white base and women, she could win. The strategy assumed a polarised country where mobilisation of your own supporters is all that matters. Actually persuading others to switch their vote wasn’t her focus. She wrote off the older, deplorable white voters in the Midwest.

But if Biden wins, it will be because of those elderly deplorables who have rushed back to the Democrats because they’re scared of Covid. Among the over-65s, the older, frailer Biden now leads Trump by around 27 points nationally. In 2016, Trump won those voters by eight points. That’s one hell of a swing. The first debate, where Trump went even more bananas than usual, seems to have revolted the oldies. The flip side is that Trump — the allegedly monstrous white supremacist and xenophobe — looks set to increase his share of the vote among Latinos and African-Americans. Many prospering Hispanics yearn for mainstream integration, and bristle at woke condescension. Many black voters know better than anyone that ‘defunding the police’ would turn their neighbourhoods into a hellscape. Think of it as the ultimate rebuke for the wokesters: a Democratic landslide led by an old white man, thanks to the white and the old.

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