There is a lot we don’t know right now. We don’t know who won the presidency, and we don’t have clear data on how the vote ultimately broke down. And without a time machine and stock of alternate realities, it is impossible to tell if a coronavirus leaping from animals to humans late last year somehow ended up helping Donald Trump do better in this election than he would have otherwise. But the question remains: Given the pandemic is currently in a state of rapid, horrific, mismanaged spread, why wasn’t last night a blue landslide for the guy with actual interest in controlling it?
Before the results started trickling in, I agreed with my colleagues that the coronavirus was actually something of a political gift to Joe Biden, an otherwise average candidate whose ability to connect with voters over grief was tapped by this horrible pandemic. After last night, I don’t think it’s just that Trump’s fans are sticking with him through his proverbial shooting of Americans in the middle of Fifth Avenue. I think it’s that they have actually decided that Trump’s promises are a truly appealing way to deal with the coronavirus.
Trump’s imagination of COVID-19 obviously could not ring true for the staggering number of Americans who have died from COVID-19, or for their loved ones, or for the COVID-19 long-haulers with awful ongoing symptoms. But for all the people who have been killed and who have gotten very sick, it’s still possible to not know someone personally who has been biologically compromised because of the virus. What’s more likely, based on the fact that COVID kills a small percentage of people it infects, is that you know someone who tested positive and had no symptoms, or someone who got a little sick but was pretty much OK. You are less likely to know someone who has been badly affected by COVID if the people you know are mostly white; hospitalization rates for Black people are almost five times as high as those for white people, and death rates are double. And whether you interpret that disparity as a direct result of racism—as many, many health experts do—almost certainly correlates with whether you were predisposed to vote for Trump in the first place.
Meanwhile, you’ve almost certainly seen Trump himself, an objectively not-healthy elderly man, get what he later would describe as a bad case of COVID, and return to bopping around the campaign trail within less than two weeks. By his appearances, he seems like he’ll be unaffected in the long run, even if we don’t know if he’s experiencing any ongoing fatigue or other symptoms. For Trump, jeopardizing his own health seems to have had no personal consequences. The superspreader celebration for Amy Coney Barrett did not kill or (again, appear to) seriously injure anyone in attendance. Trump has spent the whole pandemic saying things were fine, and spent the weeks leading up to the election giving his own personal demonstration of fine-ness for the cameras, by campaigning in front of crowds.
And who doesn’t want things to be fine? Don’t you want to hug your parents without worrying about it, gather around a table and eat Thanksgiving dinner, check yes on a wedding invitation, send your kid to school without worrying about the ventilation situation, stop tending to your own personal PPE stash, fly to Hawaii and make a friend on the plane, go to the mall, a concert, the movies, anything? It is exhausting to take the virus seriously, and you do not get a reward (it is very hard for “not dying” to register as a reward). Wearing a mask all the time sucks. Looking after the health of others is effortful and exhausting, and rightfully no one wants to think that they have the power to kill people simply by leaving the house.
Your answer to all this, of course, might correctly be: We are in a pandemic, the reality is bad, but if we listen to scientists and do all the distancing and the canceling and the reimagining (outdoor dining in January!), things will be at least tolerable sooner. It is selfish and racist to paper over the facts about COVID, to take Trump’s imagining of it at face value—which also squares with it being appealing to his supporters. But in a demented way, the Trump view on COVID—in contrast to Biden’s “dark winter” where we will continue to adjust our lives and wear masks, and, yes, be afraid of a virus worth fearing—is appealing. Accepting COVID-19 as serious requires hard work, the acknowledgment of your mortality, the acceptance of a responsibility toward others. In Trump’s non-pandemic, he’s shilling the gold-plated-shit idea that you are fine, you are safe, right now. It is working because enough people actually are, and apparently it is easy for a vast number of Americans to turn away from those who are not.