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Op-Ed: A tell-tale Edgar Allan Poe story for Trumpian times

The crowd assembled in the White House Rose Garden to hear Judge Amy Coney Barrett
The mostly unmasked, packed-in crowd at the White House Rose Garden announcement of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
(Amy Rossetti / White House)

It’s almost too on the nose, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” When it was revealed early Friday that President Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus, and as the White House, and the Rose Garden in particular, emerged as a hot spot, I couldn’t help recalling Poe’s dark and trenchant work.

There’s not much to “The Masque of the Red Death,” which was published in 1842: The story runs just 15 paragraphs, barely 2,300 words. Yet in that narrow span, Poe offers a cautionary tale about humanity in a plague time, and the wages of inequity and denial.

In a country decimated by an epidemic known as the Red Death, a ruler named Prince Prospero seeks refuge for himself and his courtiers behind the walls of his compound. Amid other distractions, he throws a masked ball at which a stranger dressed in red appears. This figure is none other than the Death itself, and in its presence, first the prince and then his entourage “one by one dropped … in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.”

Please don’t read me wrong. I don’t wish ill on anybody, including the president. I don’t want to see more confirmed COVID-19 cases. I don’t want anybody to die. Too many have perished already, more than 200,000 in the United States alone, suffering not only from a highly contagious virus but also from an administration that has willfully chosen to turn its back on all of us.

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Throughout the epidemic, the president — and too many of his advisors — have belittled and minimized the health risks of the coronavirus at nearly every turn. They have politicized care and treatment, not least the effectiveness of masks.

Just last Tuesday, during the first presidential debate, the president mocked his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, for wearing “the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” Meanwhile, he fulminated and spewed all over the debate stage even as, it now seems likely, he was already infected with the virus, a superspreader event in human form.

On social media, there’s been a lot of chatter about schadenfreude, or karma. That’s too easy. We allow ourselves to be reduced to the president’s level if we wallow in the easy satisfactions.

A more accurate word is arrogance, which is the tragic flaw that drives “The Masque of the Red Death.”

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Like the president, Prince Prospero neglects the suffering of the people. “When his dominions were half depopulated,” Poe writes, “he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his crenellated abbeys.”

A similar heedlessness sits at the center of the Rose Garden event for Judge Amy Coney Barrett at which unmasked guests — including the president, members of the Cabinet and congressional leaders — hugged and otherwise ignored social distancing. As of Saturday morning, eight attendees, including the president, have tested positive, including the first lady and two U.S. senators.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t hugged anyone besides my wife since July, when our daughter left home to return to school. When I see my son, it is at a distance, and both of us are masked. As for my 83-year-old mother, who lives on the East Coast, the last time I saw her in person was New Year’s Eve. In a time of pandemic, this is how responsible people behave.

The president might understand something about this if he could be bothered to read once in a while. He might start with “The Masque of the Red Death,” which is short, and in its way, so eerily prescient about the situation in which we find ourselves.

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“The abbey,” Poe explains, describing the space where Prince Prospero and his companions are sequestered, “was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve or think.”

It was folly to grieve or think. Could any sentence better express the way the Trump administration has faced — or failed to face — the crisis of COVID-19?

And yet, as “The Masque of the Red Death” reminds us, the real folly is exactly the opposite. The plague is not a hoax and no one is immune, even in the Rose Garden.

Perhaps it’s quixotic to hope that the president’s diagnosis might serve as a wakeup call for his followers and himself. Like Prince Prospero, after all, he has dismissed the pandemic “with barbaric lustre” — leading to catastrophic results.

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“The red death had long devastated the country,” Poe begins his story. It’s a simple statement, clear and unadorned. What we need is for the president to address the pandemic in language this precise and direct. Especially now, is that too much to ask?

David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.


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