WASHINGTON – As an unseen President Donald Trump battled the coronavirus at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, hundreds of maskless supporters gathered shoulder to shoulder for rallies on Staten Island and on the National Mall. In Iowa, a bright red “Team Trump on Tour” bus traversed the state for events, including at last one indoor stop where few were masked.
On a weekend when it felt like so much had changed, Trump’s most fervid supporters across the country reacted to his illness with a fatalistic shrug about what that meant for him and for them.
“If the leader of the free world can get this, I think it’s kind of silly for the rest of us to pretend a $3 handkerchief from Walmart is going to protect us,” said Brian Westrate, the Wisconsin Republican Party treasurer who believes the coronavirus is a real threat and complies with a statewide mask mandate but is a “skeptic of the societal response.”
“To some extent, our society is going to have to acknowledge that covid isn’t going to go away and be solved,” he said.
The president’s diagnosis, announced early Friday morning, prompted some changes, like White House staffers suddenly wearing masks and the Trump campaign turning some events into virtual ones. As a rush of senators tested positive, the Republican-led Senate canceled its votes for the next two weeks.
But there was no sweeping transformation in the way many of the president’s most devoted supporters view the virus – and no sense of urgency to alter their behavior to better protect themselves. The president’s many arguments about the coronavirus – that it was mild for all but those with preexisting conditions, that it was overblown by Democrats, that it would fade away on its own – seemed to inoculate many in the Trump camp against rethinking their approach to the virus.
On Saturday, several Republican lawmakers continued to question the effectiveness of masks – which even Trump administration health officials view as essential – and need for mask mandates, including Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who tested positive for the virus. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, whose state has faced an explosion of cases in recent weeks, appeared maskless at an indoor Sioux City event on the Trump bus tour.
Meanwhile, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, opted to not get tested despite attending a meeting with an infected person, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., pointed to Trump’s illness as reason for the country to continue to reopen schools and businesses.
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, launched “Operation MAGA” on Saturday with plans to send Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s children and other top surrogates out across the country to campaign for the president.
“If this virus can get into the Oval, into the body of the president, there’s no place where it could not possibly infect one of our fellow Americans,” Gaetz said on Fox News on Friday night, calling on the country to fully open as it protects those most vulnerable. “There is no lockdown that can be a panacea to save everyone from everything, and this is proof positive that’s the case.”
Among the president’s base of support, there was a widespread sense of optimism that Trump will quickly recover from a virus many of them view as not nearly as deadly as scientists warn. The person they trust most, Trump, has yet to have a public change of heart about safety measures, so many of his supporters see little reason to do so themselves.
Just before checking into Walter Reed on Friday evening, Trump posted a short video thanking Americans for their support and assuring them that he thinks he is doing well. He did not wear a mask, mention the pandemic that has killed more than 208,000 Americans or share any tips for avoiding infection.
“I think it’s just kind of in the air, you know – you’re going to get it or you ain’t,” said Dwayne Hartwell, 57, a former grocery store worker who is on disability benefits and lives in Charleston, W.Va.
Hartwell said there was nothing Trump could have done to avoid catching the coronavirus and thus nothing anyone else could do either. He wears a mask when he goes to the store but only because it’s mandated in West Virginia. Other than that, the pandemic has not changed much about his daily life – and Trump’s diagnosis doesn’t change much about his thinking.
“He’s pretty strong and . . . he’s got the best doctors you can get in the world, so I think he should be all right,” he said.
He still plans to vote for Trump on Nov. 3 – “if he’s still living,” he said jokingly, in a way that made clear he did not think the president could die of the coronavirus.
When Trump first announced his diagnosis in a tweet, some Trump supporters didn’t want to believe their leaderwas capable of becoming sick. In pro-Trump Facebook groups, some wondered if the president’s test result was a false one, while others emphasized early reports that Trump’s symptoms were mild. Others circulated baseless conspiracy theories that they seemed to find more believable than the president falling ill.
Trump has long presented himself as invincible, and his supporters often describe his stamina and strength in terms otherwise reserved for Greek gods. Vendors outside his rallies sell T-shirts and banners depicting the president shirtless, ripped and muscled. Trump often brags about his health and genes, and he has gleefully mocked the health of his political rivals, ridiculing Joe Biden for taking precautions to protect himself against the coronavirus and imitating how Hillary Clinton collapsed while fighting pneumonia in 2016.
Trump’s slow walk to Marine One to be transported to the hospital Friday was a reminder of his mortality. But his supporters have continued to focus on his strength.
“President Trump is a fighter – through and through,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted. A Trump campaign fundraising appeal sent Saturday morning opened with this declaration: “President Trump is a warrior.” The campaign’s Facebook page was filled with comments like: “Having contracted the virus will make him stronger and wiser!” “Superman!!!” “Trump is stronger than the CHINA-19.” “That man never stops working!!! Lionheart.”
David Samadi, a contributor to the conservative media outlet Newsmax, tweeted that the federal government’s estimated survival rate for those over age 70 is 94.6 percent but he would “put POTUS in the 20-49 category due to his strength and stamina.” That age group has a 99.98 percent survival rate, he said.
The White House’s confused response has meant there is little clarity about when Trump might have been infected, when his symptoms started or when he first received a positive test – making it difficult for experts to precisely explain how the president could have avoided contracting the coronavirus. While Democrats have been hyperfocused on these details, some Trump supporters instead describe the president’s infection as inevitable.
“I mean, he is the president. It’s campaign time. He’s got to do what he should do, and that’s what he was doing instead of hiding out in the basement,” said Burton LaPayne, 64, a retired welder and veteran who lives in Wyoming, Ill., taking a dig at Biden’s virtual campaign events.
“In my book, he’s tough and he’s not gonna live in fear,” LaPayne added. “And every day in life is a risk.”
That was the sentiment Saturday in Staten Island, where hundreds of Trump supporters showed up at a previously scheduled rally, standing shoulder to shoulder behind barricades and shouting, “Get well soon, Mr. President!”
Though organizers said they would “encourage people to wear masks” in the wake of the president’s diagnosis, many in the crowd did not.
More than a thousand Trump supporters gathered on the Mall on Saturday for an “Unsilent Majority” rally. People packed closely in front of a large stage to hear speakers organized by the #WalkAway Campaign, which encourages Democrats to leave the party and support the president.
While a few in the crowd wore masks, most did not, and a handful of them said the president’s hospitalization did not alter their views of the coronavirus. It is contagious, they said, but not as deadly as many make it out to be.
“Yes, it’s highly contagious. So are the measles,” said Kaye Savage, 63, who lives in Georgia and flew to Washington for the rally. “But I’m a firm believer that if you get it, it’s not a death sentence.”
She said media coverage of the virus has overlooked the high rate of survival for those who catch it. Savage said Democratic governors have taken advantage of the coronavirus to shut down their states to make Trump look bad and the results – lost jobs, lost homes – are a bigger problem. If anything, Savage said, Democrats’ reactions to Trump getting sick, including the notion that “karma” had exacted its punishment on him, only reinforced her belief that his opponents are unreasonable.
Savage said she practices social distancing, and she sat by herself more than 30 feet from the outer edge of the crowd. She knows three people who became seriously ill after catching the coronavirus, including a 75-year-old woman with underlying health conditions who died – so the president getting sick won’t influence her views any more than those personal experiences did.
“It doesn’t change my opinion of the virus,” she said.