Network news producers never learn. Or maybe they do, and the implications of the lessons they’ve learned are just hard for me to stomach. A global pandemic ought to provide editors all the trending topics they could ever ask for. Nevertheless, the story continues to be reported through the frame of the 2020 elections, as if the virus is a poll indicator or a complicating factor in a political saga rather than a threat to my health and yours. The virus will seal the fate of Donald Trump, unless his supporters rally around him and sing him through in defiance of doctor’s orders, unless the elections are scrapped altogether, unless illness rips through the West Wing and settles this before we even get to the ballot box. Frankly, it’s beyond me why we’re supposed to care about Donald Trump at all in May 2020, as he has now spent weeks demonstrating his own irrelevance to the crisis. When he does talk about the virus, he has nothing of value to contribute to the discussion. In no way is this his story.
Should the President catch the virus and require medical intervention, that would change. That’d be a major global news item, as it was when Boris Johnson needed intensive care. I am pleased to see that Boris is doing better, even as nothing else about the guy makes me pleased in the slightest. Likewise, I don’t want to see anybody carried out of the White House in an ambulance. We can catalogue their misdeeds later; right now, we’ve got a foreign invader to stop. I cringed when I saw the pictures of an unmasked Vice President — not because of any love for a politician who’d consider me a deviant, but because he’d become a danger to the people around him, and thereby pushing humanity closer to a brink that is approaching with alarming speed. You may believe that that’s all he’s ever done. It shouldn’t matter. In the showdown between a man and a virus, we cannot ever afford to be rooting for the virus. We’ve got to be on the side of the men, and yes, that includes those men who are, through their own idiotic behavior, advancing the spread of the pathogen. No matter how dumb they seem, and how hostile they are, and how vigorously they wave their Confederate flags, we have to hope that they don’t become hosts and spreaders. Otherwise we further jeopardize those of us who aren’t behaving like clowns. Every new infection in every fresh pair of lungs makes it that much harder to suppress the virus and rebuild our society.
Yet the networks are preying, and hard, on our sense of poetic justice. The crows are out on the White House lawn, and they’re hunting for any scrap of news that suggests that people close to the President are infected. The West Wing outbreak has been a lead story for days, even as its saliency to the crisis is negligible. I can feel the tug, too. It would indeed be ironic if those who minimized the risks of the coronavirus were to become seriously sick. Punishment visited on those whose inaction and denialism deepened the crisis would be a satisfying cinematic twist, even if it’s too on-the-nose to be called literary. And that is exactly how this news item has been subtly pushed: we’re shown fresh evidence of the administration’s incoherence, asked again to review the death count, reminded of the President’s habitual suppression of facts, and invited to wonder whether he’s covering up an outbreak that’s happening right under his nose. Should it come for him, he’d have nobody to blame but himself, right? There is something Biblical about that. But this story is not in the Bible. It’s written on the pages of newspapers, and its author is, undeniably, the Devil.
For those of you who are resolutely secular, “the Devil” is a shorthand term that some religious people use to describe the voice that activates the blackest parts of our hearts. You may call it something else; I’m a poetry fan and a C.S. Lewis reader, and I find that “the Devil” does the job best. The Devil finds righteous vengeance an indispensable tool. If we can all agree (and we don’t, but enough of us do) that the President is responsible for a great measure of the suffering that Americans are currently feeling, then we might believe that our desire to see the President brought low by a microbe is justifiable. You might check your newsfeed and feel, on some not-very-deep level, disappointment at your discovery that the President and his various cronies remain uninfected by a virus that has killed tens of thousands. This is the latest version of the humiliation drive that sent everybody to the social networks to cheer on Robert Mueller, or, rather, the imaginary version of Mueller the Avenger that the networks planted in the minds of the gullible. As all retribution fantasies do, that ended badly. The difference now is that we’re not dealing with a metaphorical virus of criminal behavior. We’re dealing with an actual virus. And the more we cheer for it to afflict our enemies, whether perceived or actual, the harder it is going to be for us to act with the unity that is our only way out of the miasmal swamp.
You may see Donald Trump as the main propagator of the divisions that stand in the way of a national plan. Certainly he has been handy with the kerosene, and he’s thrown it around liberally. But with apologies to Billy Joel, he didn’t start the fire. If I have beef, it’s got to be with the sixty three million Americans who handed the President the power to do the things that he does, and who will almost certainly move in November to keep that power in his hands. I’m under no illusions about how those people would treat me if they could. But as a human being with a respiratory system, it gets me worse than nowhere to wish that the virus would mess up their towns, and their lives, instead of mine. Infectious disease doesn’t work like that. Right now, the species is facing a common threat, and in a way, that’s been clarifying — it’s made our moral choices a little starker, and a little easier to read. For years, we haven’t wanted to reduce our differences. A pathogenic exigency has done that social work for us. We just need to wake up and recognize: if you get it, that means it’s more likely that I get it, no matter who you are. Even if you’re a militiaman. Even if you’re the President of the United States.