This is what we have come to.
The president of the United States contracts a deadly virus and the reaction in far too many quarters is one of glee, with the unseemly trending of social media comments expressing hope the president will die, trends that continued through the weekend.
The president’s discharge from Walter Reed Medical Center Monday afternoon produced more of the same, a palpable disappointment in some circles.
Yes, Donald Trump is a narcissist, a racist, and a misogynist. He is a demagogue and a bully whose performance in last week’s presidential debate was an appalling show of intemperance and intolerance. He plays on fear and seeds discord in ways that sabotage our democratic systems.
If the structures of civil discourse have been damaged in the last four years, we must credit Trump as the chief architect.
But was it only four years ago when Michelle Obama declared “When they go low, we go high?”
Obama’s declaration to the 2016 Democratic national convention was profound then and remains so today. It is far too easy to substitute fear for reason in pursuit of political persuasion. Going high, as Obama expressed it, is about holding to a moral compass even as the opposition does the opposite.
Yet too many of Trump’s opponents seem to have forgotten her lesson.
For all his evils – and do not misunderstand me here, I believe he is the embodiment of political evil and an existential threat to our democracy – he is still a person and he is still the president.
There are some hard political realities to consider. The serious illness of the president – any president – injects uncertainty into the world order and has potentially disastrous economic implications in the U.S. and abroad.
No matter who holds the office, it is important they remain healthy enough to discharge their duties or in Trump’s case, at least seem to do so.
More importantly, no moral, ethical person should wish death by deadly disease on anyone. When can that ever be morally defensible?
After last week’s debate debacle, the president’s standing took an enormous hit. Quick polls showed him trailing by double digits nationally and by statistically valid margins in some swing states. More reliable polling will come this week.
In any event, Joe Biden’s campaign was on the ascendancy, raising record amounts of money and gaining unprecedented endorsements from establishment Republicans.
Trump’s push for quick approval of his Supreme Court nominee seemed to be backfiring politically even though it also appeared inevitable. By a wide margin, Americans want the appointment to wait until after the inauguration of whoever wins.
The president’s COVID-19 diagnosis likely delivers the final blow to his re-election hopes notwithstanding his rapid discharge from the hospital.
His comment on Twitter early Monday, that people should no longer be afraid of COVID, will not help his cause, not with the U.S. death toll now topping 210,000 in just eight months. His post-discharge posturing and refusal to wear a mask inside the White House will not help his cause. Trump can no longer succeed in diverting attention from his weak response to the pandemic.
But Trump’s incapacitation or death does nothing to help Biden’s campaign and would hurt it as Vice President Mike Pence may seem more palatable to swing voters.
Aside from the morally correct position that we should not wish death on anyone, there is a far more significant reason to hope the president survives and resumes his campaign and even that he debates again.
This country is due a reckoning. Overdue actually. The last four years have seen the president contribute to the ascendancy of white supremacy and contribute to retreats in civil rights rules and laws that protect racial minorities, the LGBT community, and immigrants. Changes in tax laws have benefitted the superrich and have led to the biggest national debt increase in history. And the president’s assault on the Affordable Care Act may soon deprive millions of Americans their health insurance in the midst of a pandemic he has badly mismanaged. His proposal to end the payroll tax could damage, perhaps fatally, the Social Security system.
A majority of Americans, by a wide margin, oppose some or all of the president’s actions. All signs indicated those positions would be solidly rejected at the polls. Democrats will almost certainly keep control of the House and have a shot at gaining control of the Senate. The polling specialist Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gives Biden an 89 percent chance of winning the Electoral College, and that was before the events of last weekend.
A sound rejection of Trump and Trumpism, and at the polls, is what needs to happen.
The president’s incapacitation or death would deprive this country of the only meaningful way an electorate can speak – by its vote – and would delay that most-necessary reckoning with the damage sustained in the last four years.
A worst-case scenario for the president is a worst-case scenario for the country.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020.
Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms with a staff ranging from more than 140 in 2002 to 104 at the time of his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at The Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette, a Freedom Communications newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an MA in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a BS in journalism from the University of Oregon.
Smith serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board.