Editorial: President Trump’s learn-by-doing approach to COVID-19

President Trump leaves the White House for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 2.
President Trump leaves the White House for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 2. He reportedly tested positive for the novel coronavirus the previous day.
(Getty Images)

Don’t let it dominate your life”? Seriously? This is the lesson the president of the United States learned after the first few days of his infection with COVID-19?

The disease has not merely dominated many Americans’ lives, it has ended 210,000 of them — and counting. It has infected more than 7 million people in the United States, leaving many survivors with continuing and, for all we know, lifelong impairment. In just the last week, President Trump, his wife, his campaign manager, his press secretary, several of his top aides and advisors, three U.S. senators and a still unknown number of supporters contracted the disease after flouting the most basic standards of prevention and protection during this worldwide pandemic: Keep at least six feet away from others. Wear a face mask. Don’t take heedless risks.

Medical protocol calls for all of them to be isolated, with symptoms carefully monitored, for at least 10 days. Their carelessness endangered themselves, their families and, because of the positions they hold, the entire nation. Losing any of them to this disease would be tragic for their loved ones. Losing the president would be a constitutional crisis.


And yet those were Trump’s words Monday after a long weekend at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he received a level of care unmatched on the planet. “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!” the president tweeted.

A few days earlier, on arriving at Walter Reed, he had left a sliver of hope that maybe, just maybe, his unfortunate experience had given him some insight into the virulent and potentially deadly disease that he has managed so poorly as president in the nine months since it first appeared in the U.S.

“It’s been a very interesting journey,” he said in a statement videotaped at the hospital. “I learned a lot about COVID. I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school, this isn’t the let’s-read-a-book school. And I get it and I understand it and it’s a very interesting thing and I’m gonna be letting you know about it.”

For a few moments, it was possible to think that this man of so little feeling for others had finally been clued in. That’s the Hollywood script, the Dickens story updated for modern times, and in this case the liberal fantasy: After years spent mistreating others, the antihero gets a taste of his own medicine, is transformed by the redemptive power of suffering, learns charity and compassion, and becomes a blessing to others.

But as his tweet Monday showed, that’s not the insight Trump has taken away from his coronavirus infection. Instead, his focus remained inward and his tone triumphant, oblivious to his unique circumstances and the vast resources he alone has to fight off the disease.

It’s a sorry commentary on his inability to know or learn anything outside himself, and a sad reminder that he has not experienced, and therefore cannot understand, most of the troubles that a person in his position must understand in order to lead the nation toward solutions.


The “real school” of learning by doing is an extremely harsh road to understanding serious illness, and so unnecessary when so many “let’s-read-a-book” experts have done so much to advance real knowledge of COVID-19 and real treatment of patients. Americans shouldn’t wish that kind of hardship on anyone, including their president.

Yet if that’s the best way to teach this president — if Trump really could learn from taking on the suffering of others — he should have his bout with COVID without Walter Reed, without health benefits at work and without subsidized coverage from the Affordable Care Act.

Beyond COVID, perhaps he needs to spend some time as a Black man and get stopped and questioned by police. Perhaps he should be a child separated from his parents at the border and put on a concrete floor in a warehouse for weeks without adequate medical care. He might need to be a woman who gets grabbed, well, somewhere she does not want to be grabbed. Or be a pregnant woman who does not want to be pregnant. Or, heck, just be a woman. He might benefit from being a soldier ready to sacrifice his life for his nation while being called a “sucker” and a “loser” for doing it.

Because that kind of empathy is not naturally in Trump’s wheelhouse.

To be sure, he does have a streak of empathic genius. He can sniff out resentment, take it on himself, amplify it and ride it to power. Although he can’t touch its underlying causes, he can give it teeth.

But real empathy? Trump showed little when supporter, businessman and former presidential candidate Herman Cain, sick with cancer, contracted a fatal case of COVID-19 after attending an indoor Trump rally without a mask. Trump asserted then, and continued to claim, that his rallies have no effect on the spread of the virus. Let’s just hope the president treats his family, his staff and his friends better.

And himself, too. We want Trump to recover and to be healthy. We just don’t want him to be president.