Two weeks ago, as he ate lunch outside a cafe in Holly, Mich., Greg Vanlandeghem said he saw the presidential race as a choice between two bad options.
“We’ve got a guy trying not to die,” he said, “and we’ve got Trump.”
The candidate Vanlandeghem described as “trying not to die” back then was Joe Biden, the 77-year old former Vice President who has been dogged by right-wing attacks on his age and mental acuity. But two weeks later, after President Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 and hospitalized, the tables have turned. Biden is healthy and campaigning in Pennsylvania, while the 74-year-old President is in a hospital suite after spiking a fever and receiving oxygen.
And now that it’s Trump dealing with a serious medical situation, physical fitness seems to have faded from the list of priorities for some Republican voters who cast Biden as doddering or senile.
“I think it’s unfortunate, but it’s something that a vast majority of the population is going to come down with at one point or another,” Vanlandeghem, a 37-year-old homebuilder, said when I called him back to ask about the President’s diagnosis. “I wish him well.”
Some of the President’s more fervent supporters have interpreted his diagnosis as a reinforcement of what they already believe about Trump and the coronavirus. Many of his devotees are attracted to what they see as Trump’s strength, and believe him when he compares COVID-19 to the flu or suggests there’s little reason to be alarmed. Where medical experts see a 74-year-old overweight man as vulnerable to a highly dangerous virus, these supporters see a tough leader with a minor affliction.
When I first met Eddie Kabacinski, a city council member in Warren, Mich., he was waving a Trump flag outside a Biden event in mid-September, bemoaning Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders to curb the spread of COVID-19. “I’m not in favor of wearing a mask,” he said, gesturing at mine.
When I called Kabacinski back Saturday to ask him about the President’s diagnosis, he was in the middle of a “MAGA Drag” on I-75—a public show of support for the President. “I’m concerned about it just as much as I would be if it’s the flu or the cold or anything else,” he said.
Should the President have been more disciplined about wearing a mask? “Masks are not going to do anything for this whatsoever,” he said. “It’s just an infringement on people’s civil liberties, it’s not mandated in our Constitution.” (Public health experts are in near-uniform agreement that wearing masks helps to stop the spread of COVID-19.)
I asked him if he thought the President could have done more to protect himself and the people around him. “The President is the Commander in Chief. He is the person that everybody else looks to as the leader of the free world. It does no good for our Commander in Chief [to be] showing cowardice and wearing a mask,” he said. “He’s the President of the United States. Nobody has the right to question him.”
When I first met Karen Darga, 57, in September, the former teacher was loading Halloween decorations into the back of her car in a parking lot in Sterling Heights, Mich. She said she was leaning towards voting for Trump in 2020. “I truly feel that he’s done his best” to stop the spread of the pandemic, she said. When I asked Darga about his taped comments to journalist Bob Woodward about his plan to “play it down,” she was understanding. “He didn’t want to have mass hysteria,” she said.
Now that Trump has the coronavirus himself, Darga is sad but not surprised. “I know that he chose not to wear his mask when he went to different events, and that was his choice,” she said. “I feel like he didn’t want to alarm anybody.” She now plans to vote for the President again.
“I’m optimistic,” she said. “It isn’t going to change much.”
But even if the President’s illness hasn’t dissuaded his supporters, some of them may still be having second thoughts about him. Vanlandeghem, who didn’t vote in 2016, said he had been planning to vote for Trump until he saw the President’s behavior in the debate against Biden last week. He was so disgusted, he says, that now he won’t vote at all this year. “I don’t think I’ll waste my time.”