Trump's Chernobyl moment: Phony patriotism can't defeat this virus

Those arrogant fools at the "Rose Garden Massacre" believed wealth and power made them immune. That's called hubris

Published October 6, 2020 8:00AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 05, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump spent three days hospitalized for coronavirus. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 05, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump spent three days hospitalized for coronavirus. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There are so many scenes in Craig Mazin's brilliant HBO miniseries "Chernobyl" that remind me of what's happened here and now, in the United States, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Obviously, there are myriad similarities between the Soviet Union's deceptive response to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the White House's deceptive response to COVID-19 — principally, Donald Trump's intrinsic compulsion to lie about literally everything, even when it harms him politically.

The scenes that keep circulating in my head are the ones in which Soviet emergency workers exposed themselves to the immense geyser of nuclear radiation erupting from the exploded reactor No. 4. Dozens of men exposed themselves to innumerable cesium-137 and strontium-90 isotopes, every particle rampaging through their DNA, irreparably mutating it. 

Specifically, I've been thinking a lot about the three workers who slosh through the facility's underground tunnels in total darkness, up to their waists in irradiated water. Same goes for the Soviet soldiers ordered onto the roof of the building to dispose of the contaminated graphite from the explosion. Watching humans knowingly expose themselves to invisible yet catastrophically toxic conditions can be both unnerving and, yeah, a little inspiring given the selflessness of such actions. In retrospect, the same can be said for 9/11 rescue personnel at Ground Zero.

The Chernobyl workers did all that, knowing they were taking deadly risks. But the crisis had to be mitigated before the core melted down, killing untold millions.

Now, whenever I watch the video of the Rose Garden ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination, I think about Chernobyl.

The White House staffers and other government officials who attended what we now know was a super-spreader event, were the furthest thing from being heroes — worlds away from those emergency workers at Chernobyl. It was yet another painful reminder that the executive branch of our federal government is being run by irredeemable nincompoops who behave more like the Three Stooges trying to fix the plumbing than competent leaders facing an unprecedented national crisis.

It turns out that the president and his guests were, themselves, the exploded Chernobyl reactor.

It's both haunting and confounding to watch that video, showing everyone from Trump himself to Barrett and her family to Kellyanne Conway and Bill Barr, back-slapping and close-talking through an invisible haze of coronavirus germs, each maskless imbecile falsely believing they were somehow immune to the pathogen. Some attendees were the spreaders while some were the recipients of the COVID germs. They were all acting recklessly, endangering themselves and everyone they know, while further manifesting both a pandemic and a national security nightmare.

Now that we know what transpired there, it's like watching a group of blindfolded children armed with loaded machine guns wandering around a backyard birthday party. 

It's not just that we can see precisely when many of the attendees absorbed the coronavirus into their bodies, which is shocking and creepy to witness. It's the hubris with which they handled themselves, refusing to wear masks and refusing to distance, as if the pandemic had never happened, or as if they're too hoity-toity to mess up their hair and makeup. These are supposed to be the no-nonsense generals on the battlefield, facing off against this virus, and instead of doing the bare minimum to keep themselves (and everyone they know) safe, they simply ignored the risks, basking in a Pyrrhic victory against the libs. Screw the hoax, we just secured a sixth right-winger on the Supreme Court! [Cough cough gasp!] 

Perhaps even the president and first lady, who both contracted COVID, were infected that day. We don't know for sure since Trump's suspiciously evasive doctors and White House staffers have refused to reveal when the president's last negative test was administered.

The behavior of White House staff, including Barrett's entourage, was a shameful example of a broader dynamic we've been witnessing here since the beginning of all this. Trump and his political cult, the Red Hats, have chosen to face the pandemic with a laughable if not tragic gambit. Instead of doing what's proven to be effective against contagious diseases — masks, distancing and so on — they instead chose to fall back on the old American standby: intimidating the "invisible enemy" as if it will eventually retreat in the face of American patriotism and resolve.

Sorry, Red Hats. The virus isn't al-Qaida. It can't be browbeaten into slinking back to a spider hole in Afghanistan. Your patriotic defiance is useless. 

Hubris didn't protect Trump, and it won't protect his Red Hat cult.

If you behave stupidly, no matter how many flags you wave and no matter how tough you talk, you will get sick. Likewise, deliberately exposing yourself will only worsen the thing. It's not a badge of honor to needlessly risk infection. Many of Trump's cultists seem to believe it's like getting cancer — it will only affect you personally. It's not. It affects everyone you know, putting them all at risk, while worsening the crisis for our entire society, sparking all kinds of negative ramifications.

Trump and his White House approached COVID as if they could defy the virus or outsmart it, while refusing to do the bare minimum to protect themselves and their families. Knowing this, it was only a matter of time before the Trump administration and the Republican Party outpaced the weekly infection rate in entire nations.

Even now, after being hospitalized for it, Trump continues to behave recklessly, insisting upon a drive-by to wave at his (maskless) supporters outside Walter Reed Medical Center, and, on Monday, insisting that he be released from the hospital and returned to the White House, where he is likely to infect more members of his West Wing staff, his Secret Service detail and the residence staff. After arriving at the White House on Monday evening, Trump removed his mask before entering the building, potentially infecting everyone in his immediate surroundings. No humility. No common sense. He. Will. Not. Learn. 

Anyone who thought he'd go through an Ebenezer Scrooge moment, suddenly realizing the seriousness of all this, once again got suckered by a professional con-man. I wouldn't be shocked if he went back to staging super-spreader campaign rallies by next week. Maybe sooner. I fully expect his Red Hats will follow his lead. They'll refuse to wear masks, they'll refuse to distance — after all, COVID didn't kill their cult leader so it's no biggie, right? The idiocratic hubris will grow even more reckless and even more insufferable in the coming weeks, all because Trump thinks he's invincible now — a side effect of his unstable personality enhanced by a heavy course of dexamethasone. 

If you thought Trump was an impetuous dingbat before having this disease, wait until you see him after he survives it. The nonsense, the lies, the propaganda and the ineffectual defiance will continue, perhaps turned up to 11. People will die due to his continued hubris, and he won't care. To date, the president hasn't attended a single memorial service or called for a moment of silence for any of the 210,000 Americans who've succumbed to this. I don't expect he ever will. 

Normal people learn from their mistakes, but Trump isn't normal people. The carelessness will worsen rather than improve. The bad example will spread to his cult members, who will endanger even more of us. It's already started. One thing's for sure, though: It's given a lot of Americans yet another reason to vote against Trump and his entire regime of nincompoops.

Meanwhile, as a result of his actions, Trump is as politically radioactive as he is a COVID vector. The brutal lessons of Chernobyl will continue to be ignored and the death toll from the "Rose Garden Massacre" remains to be seen. But there will be a death toll — either directly or by way of the president's foolishly hubristic leadership.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.