For about a minute today I found myself feeling sorry for President Donald Trump. The poor man is now “battling” COVID-19 (the pugilistic verb is showing up all over the news). He was hospitalized. He’s out of shape. He’s 74 years old. His chief of staff called his symptoms “very concerning.”
Joe Biden is praying for him. Kamala Harris sends him heartfelt wishes. Former President Barack Obama reminds us we’re all in this together, and we want to make sure everyone is healthy.
But hold on: Why should we feel empathy for one of the least empathetic people in the world?
Out of respect. He’s a human being. And he’s our president.
Yet there’s an asymmetry here. While the Biden campaign has taken down all negative television advertising, the Trump campaign’s negative ads continue nonstop.
And at almost the same time that Biden, Harris and Obama offered prayers and consoling words, the Trump campaign blasted “Lyin’ Obama and Phony Kamala Harris” in a fundraising email and charged that “Sleepy Joe isn’t fit to be YOUR President.”
Can you imagine if Biden had contracted COVID-19 rather than Trump? Trump would be all over him. He’d attack Biden as weak, feeble and old. He’d mock Biden’s mask-wearing — “See, masks don’t work!” — and lampoon his unwillingness to hold live rallies: “Guess he got COVID-19 in his basement!”
How can we even be sure Trump has the disease? He’s lied about everything else. He’ll claim he took hydroxychloroquine, and it cured him. He’ll boast that he won the battle with the virus because he’s strong and powerful.
Meanwhile, his battle has distracted the nation from revelations that he’s a tax cheat who paid only $750 in taxes his first year in office and barely anything for 15 years before that, and that he’s a failed businessman who’s still losing money. And from his vicious, cringeworthy debate performance last week, in which he didn’t want to condemn white supremacists.
It even takes our minds off the major reason COVID-19 is out of control in America: because Trump blew it. He downplayed it, pushed responsibility onto governors and then demanded they allow businesses to reopen — too early — in order to make the economy look good before the election.
He has muzzled and disputed experts at the CDC, promoted crank cures, held maskless campaign events and encouraged followers not to wear masks. All of this has contributed to tens of thousands of unnecessary American deaths.
Trump’s battle with the virus also diverts attention from his and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s perversions of American democracy.
This is where the asymmetry runs deeper. McConnell is now moving to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, after having prevented Obama’s nominee from getting a Senate vote for almost a year on the basis of a concocted “rule” that the next president should decide.
Yet Biden won’t talk about increasing the size of the court in order to balance it, and Democratic leaders have shot down the idea.
Nor do Biden and top Democrats want to suggest making Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico states — a step that would remedy the bizarre inequities in the Senate, where a bare majority of Republicans representing 11 million fewer Americans than their Democratic counterparts are able to confirm a Supreme Court justice.
It would also help rebalance the Electoral College, which made Trump president in 2016 despite losing the popular vote by 3 million.
Democrats worry this would strike the public as unfair.
Unfair — when Trump won’t even commit to a peaceful transition of power and refuses to be bound by the results of the election?
Unfair — when he’s already claiming the election is rigged against him and will be fraudulent unless he wins? When he’s been readying slates of Trump electors to be certified in states he’ll allege he lost because of fraud? When he’s urging his followers to intimidate Biden voters at the polls?
Whether responding to Trump’s hospitalization or to Trump’s larger political maneuvers, Democrats want to act decently and fairly. They want to protect democratic norms, values and institutions.
This is admirable. It’s also what Democrats say they stand for.
But the other side isn’t playing the same game. Trump and his enablers will do anything to retain and enlarge their power.
It’s possible to be sympathetic toward Trump during his battle with COVID-19 while acknowledging that he is subjecting America to a profound moral test in the weeks and perhaps months ahead.
What kind of society do we want: one based on decency and democracy, or on viciousness and raw power?
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It.”