Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In a presidential election with more shocking moments than any other, the news of October 2 has rattled the nation and the world. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have been diagnosed with Covid-19. With only a few weeks left until Election Day, the President of the United States must now recover from a virus that has ravaged the world in 2020 and upended our lives.
The President’s diagnosis comes after many months when Trump has conducted his presidency and reelection campaign in a way that denied the realities of what we face in our daily lives. As recently as the first presidential debate, the President decided to spend some of his valuable time mocking his opponent Joe Biden for wearing face masks too much. “I don’t wear masks like him,” Trump said in mocking tone. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask.”
The brief comment reflected how the President has been treating this crisis from the start. In a time of crisis, Trump has called criticism of his pandemic response a “hoax,” dismissed the directives of scientists, ridiculed basic public health guidelines and pushed for re-openings that – it soon became obvious – were happening too quickly and without the proper precautions in place.
He has failed to invest sufficient resources in everything from a national testing program to financial aid for states grappling with the wreckage of this moment. Despite the pleading of experts, his campaign rallies have filled spaces with supporters who don’t wear face masks or social distance, many as a point of principle. And the president has offered misleading claims about the timing of a vaccine that has prompted pharmaceutical companies to make statements to reassure people about the integrity of the process.
The President’s public events, including the formal announcement of his Supreme Court pick of Amy Coney Barrett, have been surreal ceremonies where he and most of his supporters would sit before the cameras without wearing masks or taking basic social distancing precautions.
During much of his reelection campaign, Trump has gone to great lengths to downplay the fact that this pandemic is the story of our times, one that is very much still happening, trying to suggest that the crisis was all over when it was not.
But Covid-19 doesn’t care about politics. This pandemic is one force in American life that won’t abide by the rules of political partisanship. The virus doesn’t care about red or blue.
With more than 208,000 Americans dead, it should be very clear that the reality of Covid-19 will always bite. We can’t wish the pandemic away. We can’t just go back to life as normal. Instead we must adjust to life with the virus, until we have treatment and a cure. As people in many states learned this summer, if you try to pretend otherwise, Covid-19 will move in anyway.
And now the President and first lady have the virus. He will be in quarantine for two weeks at a time he needs to be campaigning. Joe Biden – assuming he has not been exposed to the virus – can keep speaking to the nation while the President enters a period of recovery.
As jarring as this moment was, it was also predictable. If you keep exposing yourself to the virus, the odds increase that you will get it, whether you work in the Oval Office or rural Iowa. With so many stories about how the President has not acted carefully with his own staff, the chances were substantial that at some point he would be exposed. That’s what happened.
We don’t know how this news will impact the campaign or how the political dynamics will play out. We also don’t know the effect the virus will have on his health; given that he is 74 and overweight, Trump would fall into the at-risk category for serious symptoms.
But what we do know is that the pandemic is very real. We should wish the President and first lady a speedy recovery, understanding just how serious the virus can be.
This dramatic moment in the 2020 campaign should be a wake-up call to everyone in the country that until there is a vaccine and treatment we need to do everything that we can to mitigate the spread of this virus while trying to let society function in the process. Otherwise, the virus will get us.
Even the President of the United States isn’t safe.