A super-spreader—a term we didn’t much use nine months ago—is a person with a contagious disease who gives it to a lot of other people. In the coronavirus pandemic, super-spreaders have played an outsize role. Scientists have identified super-spreaders who have infected dozens of people with the virus, while others with the illness haven’t infected anyone at all. Super-spreaders may explain why the coronavirus seems to take over so quickly in some places, but not in others.
We don’t know yet whether President Donald Trump was a super-spreader of the coronavirus or the victim of one, perhaps at the Rose Garden event for the Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, where few wore masks and many shook hands, perhaps while he was preparing to debate. But Trump has been a super-spreader in a different sense for many, many years—a super-spreader of disinformation. As a businessman, he was a congenital liar who phoned in fake stories about himself to New York tabloids, who lied about his net worth, who exaggerated the height of Trump Tower. As a candidate, he lied about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, he declared falsely that Ted Cruz’s father had helped assassinate John F. Kennedy, he invented a story about “thousands” of New Jersey Muslims celebrating on 9/11. As president, he has lied about so many things that even the nation’s most assiduous fact-checkers have had trouble keeping up.
When the pandemic began, I did hope that the virus would provide a dose of hard reality to American public discourse, one strong enough to break through the fog of disinformation that Trump has created around himself and his administration. The virus, after all, doesn’t care whether you distrust Anthony Fauci, or whether you think the whole thing is a hoax. I hoped that a real illness would persuade Americans to seek real information from reliable sources, though I also feared that it might not. On March 2—I was then in northern Italy, where the European pandemic began—I wrote that “epidemics, like disasters, have a way of revealing underlying truths about the societies they impact.” Specifically, I feared we would learn that Americans trusted neither their public-health system nor their political system, more broadly defined.
My fears were well founded. While the leaders of democracies as varied as Germany, Slovakia, Taiwan, and South Korea fought the virus with the best science and the best public-health information they could muster—always acknowledging that this was a new virus and that the science was constantly evolving—the American president kept lying, kept dissembling, kept dodging reality. At the very beginning, Trump didn’t tell Americans what he knew about COVID-19: “I wanted to play it down,” he told Bob Woodward. He lied about what was in his briefings, lied about what he had been told by the Chinese government, lied about his efforts to block travel from China, kept lying all through the spring and the summer. As recently as Tuesday’s debate, he was lying about a vaccine, falsely declaring that the U.S. military would soon be delivering hundreds of thousands of doses.
So profound and fundamental is the president’s dishonesty that my gut reaction to the news of Trump’s illness was … doubt. He has lied about so much—why not this too? I am not proud of this reaction, because it shows how much I have changed: Once, I would have been inclined to believe news about the president’s health when published by the White House. Now—especially in light of the president’s mysterious past visits to the hospital and his use of dubious doctors—I instinctively distrusted it. Even now, I don’t know whether Trump’s doctors have moved him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center out of “an abundance of caution” or whether it means that he is much sicker than they want us to know.
Will the president’s illness change the way he speaks about this disease? Will it therefore change the way Americans cope with it too? To judge from the experience of other countries, not necessarily. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro got the virus. But he had a relatively mild version, was sick for only a few weeks, and has since used his experience to double down on his claims that COVID-19 is exaggerated and that social distancing is useless. Oliver Stuenkel, a Brazilian analyst, told me that Bolsonaro’s recovery has even raised his status, allowing him to portray himself as “superhuman,” a “real man” who cannot be felled by a virus. Maybe Trump’s illness will inspire him to double down on his previous lies, and maybe it will raise his status too.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also got the coronavirus, but the story played out differently. Johnson was hospitalized. Afterward, he did seem to take the pandemic more seriously than before. He gave an emotional address, thanking the doctors and nurses who had cared for him. He adopted a more somber tone. At least temporarily, he too seemed to win some sympathy, and people were more willing to listen to his government’s rules about lockdown and quarantine. Maybe Trump’s illness will persuade him to treat the disease more seriously, and maybe it will persuade people to view him more sympathetically too.
I don’t know what direction Trump’s illness will take, I don’t know whether it will persuade him to take the disease more or less seriously, and I don’t know how it will affect his political fortunes. But in one sense, it is too late to matter, because Trump’s super-spreading of disinformation has already changed America. Just a few days ago, Cornell University published a study showing that 38 percent of media stories containing misinformation about the virus refer to the president: Trump is literally, not metaphorically, the single most important reason so many Americans distrust information they receive about the disease. He is literally, not metaphorically, the reason so many Americans distrust our electoral system too. He is literally, not metaphorically, the reason so many Americans distrust one another.
The president and everyone around him will spin and manipulate his illness too; indeed they are already doing it. During a strangely evasive press conference today, the head of Trump’s medical team, Sean Conley, declared that the president was in “exceptionally good spirits” but also implied that Trump might have been diagnosed and received treatment before the public was informed, that he might have been put on oxygen, even that he might have attended public events knowing he was ill. Minutes later, an “anonymous administration source,” who might have been the White House chief of staff, informed pool reporters that the “president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning” and that “the next 48 hours will be critical,” a message far more serious than the one delivered in public. Another anonymous official then sought to clarify the timeline, contradicting Conley and other doctors.
And we are all … unsurprised. This kind of obfuscation, this level of confusion, is exactly what we have come to expect from our national leader. Trump has destroyed our trust with wanton abandon—trust in our political system, trust in our institutions, trust in science, trust in America itself—simply because it benefits him, personally, to do so. Whatever happens to Trump over the next few weeks, that is the legacy that will outlast his presidency. It has already distorted and changed and altered the country just as profoundly as the coronavirus itself.