President Donald Trump is now part of a terrible troika of populist leaders who tried to wish COVID-19 away but caught it themselves.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had a severe case in March, while Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, had a mild case in July.
Like Trump, both had downplayed the severity of the virus while disdaining vital precautions such as masks and social distancing. Like Trump, both are showmen, not serious political leaders, more interested in florid rhetoric and demagoguery than managing a crisis. As the Financial Times' Martin Wolf put it well: “They don’t care about government. They are more interested in politics as performance.”
Like Trump, these two right-wing nationalists failed miserably at curbing the virus in their countries. The United States, with 208,000 deaths, and Brazil, with 145,000, have the dishonor of ranking first and second in the world in their coronavirus death toll. The United Kingdom’s 42,000 death toll is the worst in Europe, and fifth worst in the world.
So, if anyone hopes Trump might be sufficiently sobered by sickness to start listening to scientists, a look at the post-virus performance of Johnson and Bolsonaro should cure that illusion. It should remind us that our only escape from our current COVID-19 trap is via the polls on Nov. 3.
Let’s start with Bolsonaro, a far-right nationalist whom Trump has praised and welcomed to Mar a-Lago. He called the virus “a measly cold.” As cases soared, he got rid of two health ministers who urged quarantines and distancing rules. After they rejected his demand that they endorse – you guessed it – hydroxychloroquine, he installed military men in their place.
Even as his country was hit hard Bolsonaro attended political rallies unmasked and went around shaking hands. Sound familiar?
But here’s the worst part. After recovering from a mild case of the coronavirus, Bolsonaro continued to promote fake cures and downplay the rampaging disease. “His illness was not even able to teach him how to fight the disease,” Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a fired health minister, told the Financial Times. “His quick recovery strengthened his claim that the pandemic was not that bad and strengthened his image as a superman messiah.” At least it did among his followers, who, according to polls, number around 37% of Brazilians (with a slight uptick after he got sick).
And then we come to Boris Johnson, a political performance artist who rose to power playing an entertaining rogue (and who lied through his teeth about the benefits Brexit would bring to Britain). Johnson also dithered as virus casualties mounted, even proposing at one point that Britons just “take it on the chin” and let the disease rip until they achieved herd immunity.
In early March, he boasted about shaking hands with people - while unmasked — at a hospital filled with coronavirus patients. He was reluctant to order any lockdown — while failing to upgrade the creaking British health system.
When he was rushed to a London hospital on April 6, he initially hid the extent of his illness (and the government confusion over how to handle his absence), while later admitting he had been fighting for his life.
Yet after he returned, the British government remained mired in confusion over masks and lockdowns, with Johnson seeming unable to devise a policy as COVID-19 resurges. At one point, the reliably conservative Daily Mail newspaper labeled the prime minister a “breathless bulls—er.” Johnson’s continued mistruths and half-truths on Brexit don’t work when it comes to a coronavirus that has its own truth, irrespective of what he says.
Which brings us to Trump, the third member of this terrible troika, who on Tuesday, at the presidential debate, mocked Joe Biden for wearing a face mask.
“Somehow I don’t see it for myself. I just don’t,” he said about masking, at the White House on April 3.
“I don’t wear a mask like him,” Trump said of Biden at the debate. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask.” And then Trump got sick.
Having made his career as a showman, Trump has played the poseur with COVID-19, downplaying it since the get-go, promoting fake cures and pressing scientists to churn out a vaccine before the election.
As with Bolsonaro and Johnson, the virus has been part of a performance, his macho rhetoric calculated for political effect, not effective science.
If Trump recovers soon, one can expect him to use that fact to bolster his image, as did Bolsonaro. It won’t move him to listen to the scientists he’s insulted. And, like Johnson, he isn’t capable of devising a national strategy to curb disease.
If the president’s case worsens, all bets are off.
But one can hope that Trump’s illness will finally unmask the man who refuses to wear one. That it will move some of his base to recognize the irresponsibility of a national leader who risks his life and theirs so recklessly and carelessly.
I second the University of Pennsylvania’s noted expert on medical ethics, Ezekiel Emanuel, who told MSNBC: "I do hope the part of the country that has been skeptical does wake up and that their behavior will change. This is a learning moment.
“I do hope we don’t make fun of people who wear masks,” Emanuel continued. That alone would be one gratifying outcome of Trump’s infection.
The most gratifying would be if it drives the public to make a change at the polls.