To be charitable, there is a glimmer of a political rationale behind Donald Trump’s decision to resume indoor political rallies.
So what if mask-wearing in Henderson, Nevada, on Sunday was as rare as donning Hermès ties for Zoom meetings? So what if the Republicans seem to have forgotten 2012 presidential contender Herman Cain, who died of COVID-19 about a month after attending a June indoor Trump rally in Tulsa?
The red-hatted, jam-packed Nevada rally presumably satisfied Trump’s ego needs for 2016-style adulation. It also attempted to foster the political illusion that the virus belonged to the Jurassic period of history when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Barack Obama was responsible for everything.
Exactly who is being gulled by Trump’s pandemic flimflam? Maybe the more credulous Trump supporters who get their medical advice from Dr. Pepper.
But not most voters. A national Fox News poll released Sunday found that 83 percent of likely voters were concerned “about the spread of coronavirus in the United States,” and 57 percent were “very concerned.”
This is not just an obsession in blue-state America where voters are sanguine about Trumpian claims that Joe Biden wants to abolish the suburbs and presumably sell the land to China. The virus is also a topic difficult to avoid in Iowa — a traditional swing state where GOP incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst is locked in a tight battle for reelection.
COVID-19 is ravaging Iowa with nearly 1,000 new cases a day. By some measures, you are about five times more likely to be stricken with the virus in Iowa than in New York. Even in Sioux City, in the most Republican portion of the state, high schools have canceled dances and homecoming parades because of health concerns.
Follow the leader
In theory, political self-interest should inspire Ernst and other vulnerable Republicans to do their utmost to encourage mask-wearing, social distancing and all other steps need to mitigate the pandemic.
Instead, Ernst just two weeks ago peddled the off-the-wall conspiracy theory that deaths from COVID-19 were being exaggerated by greedy doctors and health workers to get more funding. As Ernst put it in Waterloo, “They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19.”
In truth, more than 190,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. And by early October, the national death toll should be about equal to the population of Des Moines (217,000). Small wonder that Ernst — to use the favored damage-control cliché of the Trump years — walked back her remarks in a statement issued by her Senate office.
By any semblance of political logic, it remains baffling why Republicans like Ernst are serving as Trump’s enablers on pandemic denial.
The primaries are over, so there should be no fear of a Trumped-up electoral challenge. To act responsibly on COVID-19 does not require endorsing Biden like John Kasich did or becoming a semi-pariah like Mitt Romney.
All it takes is for Republicans to prudently run for cover on an issue that disproportionately favors Biden and the Democrats. Even the latest Fox News poll, which forecasts a closer race than most recent national surveys, found likely voters giving Biden the edge on handling the coronavirus, 52 percent to 44 percent.
Why haven’t Senate Republicans, for example, embarked on a crusade to prevent the politicization of the gold-standard health statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?
Politico revealed last week that Trump officials — led by Michael Caputo — had tried to rewrite weekly CDC scientific reports on COVID-19 to fit Trump’s fantasies about a disappearing pandemic.
Now The New York Times is reporting that Caputo, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, released a Facebook video claiming that government scientists are guilty of “sedition.” And Caputo warned that armed Biden forces would try to block the president from taking office for a second term: “And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin.”
This is beyond bizarre. This represents a form of conspiratorial thinking that makes the John Birch Society of the 1960s seem like the home of Aristotelian logic. And, remember, this is the Trump appointee who is meddling with government science.
A strange calculus
For all the duplicity of the Trump quotes in his interviews with Bob Woodward, that moment last winter when the virus could have been contained has long passed. But it remains possible for the government to do much more to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the weeks ahead.
In what strange world is not wearing a mask in the middle of a pandemic a sign of anything beyond a short life expectancy? How did the Republicans allow this denial of reality to be come equated with fealty to a GOP president running for reelection?
Even in the middle of the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th century, there was an awareness that social isolation offered a degree of safety. But Trump believes in magical thinking to a degree that would have embarrassed a medieval wizard.
Here’s a free medical tip: Political spin offers even less protection against a pandemic than wearing garlic cloves around your neck.
Life (or, at least, this column) is too short to review all the emotional pathologies that have led Trump to this desperate moment at the edge of the abyss. But prominent Republicans, who rightly fear a Democratic sweep in November, lack the excuse of having had Fred Trump for a father and Roy Cohn for a mentor.
With their timidity, these congressional Republicans will leave behind an epitaph that reads for all eternity: “I followed party loyalty in the middle of a pandemic.”
Walter Shapiro is covering his 11th presidential campaign. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.