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In California Trump Country, supporters struggling to process the president having COVID-19

Dusk on Lincoln Way in downtown Auburn, Calif.
Dusk on Lincoln Way in downtown Auburn, Calif. Reactions to President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis in politically conservative Placer County fell along party lines: Conservatives said they wished the president a speedy recovery while liberals celebrated the diagnosis.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Mike Murray was lying on the couch late Thursday, scrolling through his Facebook feed on his phone when he saw the news that President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19.

Almost immediately, Murray started seeing people on social media celebrating the president’s illness and mocking him, and that stock market futures were tumbling.

“I did not sleep well because of it,” said Murray, a member of the Republican Central Committee in conservative Placer County. “It’s sad. I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody, and seeing some of the comments, people laughing and mocking — there’s an old man that just got COVID and you’re putting up smiling emojis.

“I’m a Trump supporter, but if Joe Biden came down with it, I would feel awful for him,” he added.

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Trump, whose coronavirus diagnosis was announced at 1 a.m. Friday EDT, was transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center later on Friday. The White House said he was expected to stay there “for the next few days” and was experiencing only mild, cold-like symptoms. His doctor released a letter saying the president was “fatigued but in good spirits.”

In Placer County, a slice of Trump Country in blue California, reactions to the president’s illness fell along party lines, just as they have all across this deeply divided nation in a year defined by the pandemic, economic despair, racial inequity and natural disasters.

Conservatives said they wished the president a speedy recovery and said he’s done the best he can with the pandemic, trying to keep people hopeful and the economy from tanking. Liberals openly celebrated the diagnosis — or thought the president was faking it.

Placer County stretches from the northeastern suburbs of Sacramento through gold rush towns to the Nevada border at Lake Tahoe. It is increasingly an outlier in California, represented in the state Legislature by five Republicans and in the U.S. House by Republicans Doug LaMalfa of Richvale and Tom McClintock of Elk Grove.

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It has voted for a GOP presidential candidate in every election since 1980. About 42% of the county’s voters are registered Republican; in California, 24% are.

Rosemary Dukelow, center, speaks with Chuck and Audrey Ehrlich, who picked up lawn signs for Democratic candidates.
Rosemary Dukelow, center, a longtime volunteer for Placer County Democrats, speaks with husband-and-wife volunteers Chuck and Audrey Ehrlich who picked up lawn signs in Roseville, Calif., for Democratic candidates.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Murray, 35, of Rocklin, said that as divided as the country is, both Republicans and Democrats are hurting and depressed by the pandemic. He wears a mask in public and said he has conservative friends who wear them everywhere and liberal friends who refuse.

Seeing the instant vitriol over the president’s illness was disheartening, he said. In real life, people want to be treated with respect and humanity, regardless of politics, he said.

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“This is the United States of America. … A few wackos on the fringe should not speak for us,” he said. “Our president getting COVID should bring us closer together, not further apart.”

For the most part, he said, people know that the coronavirus is both real and serious. Murray believes that Trump, early in the pandemic, did the best he could to keep people’s spirits up.

“He didn’t go full-on ‘sky-is-falling’ because he didn’t want the economy to crash,” Murray said. “He wanted to keep as many people employed as possible. He didn’t want the death by despair that we’ve seen the last several months. And many took that as, he doesn’t care about it [and] he doesn’t take it seriously.”

Landon Wolf, chairman of the Placer County Young Republicans, said that while he knows the president’s age and weight have been cited as potential risk factors for serious illness with COVID-19, he takes solace in knowing “the death rate is very low, and the recovery rate is very high.”

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“I don’t imagine him slowing down, even with COVID,” Wolf, 30, said. “He’ll just be working digitally like the rest of us … The man would literally have to be on his deathbed to get him to stop working for the country.”

Wolf said he learned the news through a cellphone alert from the BBC late Thursday. He’s been thinking a lot about the president’s family and how worried they must be.

“I know a lot of this gets lost in the politics,” he said. “Everybody is a caricature of themselves, or the public makes them a caricature. You forget that he’s a grandfather and a father.”

It’s a shame, he said, how divided people are, even over the virus.

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“I’m not going to blame social media,” Wolf said, “but I think that’s an element to it. We are all sitting behind our screens watching what’s fed to us through these algorithms telling you what you want to hear so you keep scrolling.

“Everything is very tribal,” he said. “With seemingly so much chaos going on, you come back to your tribe. Even if your guy isn’t the greatest guy in the world, he’s your guy, and both sides feel that way right now.”

Wolf said he thinks the president has done “a pretty good job” handling the pandemic and that it was appropriate for Trump to be optimistic because “if you become hopeless, all is lost.”

The Placer County Young Republicans group has posted Facebook memes in recent weeks mocking California’s lockdown orders and masks. In one, an obese woman wearing a mask and riding a motorized wheelchair while clutching a bag from McDonald’s says to an unmasked woman: “Put a mask on! You’re putting my health at risk!”

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“We are living in a clown world,” the group wrote in the caption.

Wolf said there is “banter on both sides” and that both his Republican mother and mother-in-law have sewn him numerous masks. The mask debate is now just the latest form of vitriol between conservatives and Democrats, he said.

“I disagree with anybody on the right scolding anybody on the left and vice versa,” he said.

Rosemary Dukelow, a volunteer for Placer County Democrats
Rosemary Dukelow, a volunteer for Placer County Democrats, is skeptical that President Trump tested positive for COVID-19.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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Rosemary Dukelow, a 64-year-old retired librarian from Roseville, is skeptical that Trump tested positive for COVID-19.

“He always lies to us,” she said. “His doctors always lie to us. There are a lot of good reasons for him to lie to us about this. He would get out the debates, he might get a sympathy vote, he could hide out in his bedroom for a while and have a miracle recovery and say it’s hydroxychloroquine.”

Dukelow is a longtime volunteer for Placer County Democrats. In recent weeks, she has helped people get yard signs for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and said several have been defaced or stolen.

She always figured that if Trump tested positive, he would hide it because he has not been forthcoming with other health issues, including a trip last fall to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

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He tweeted about that trip last month: “It never ends! Now they are trying to say that your favorite President, me, went to Walter Reed Medical Center, having suffered a series of mini-strokes. Never happened to THIS candidate — FAKE NEWS. Perhaps they are referring to another candidate from another Party!”

Dukelow gathered Friday morning in a park — masked and socially distanced in lawn chairs — with about 14 people, mostly retirees, who often walk together. As older people more at risk for COVID-19, she said, they have been vigilant.

They have varying political views, and Trump’s diagnosis was the main topic of conversation.

There wasn’t a lot of outright sympathy for him, she said. Some were “quietly pleased but openly empathetic” about his illness; others were delighted, saying that “it would be some really fine justice, proof there really is a God.”

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Asked how she thinks Trump has handled the pandemic, Dukelow laughed.

“He hasn’t.”


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