With the election less than four weeks away President Donald Trump continues to trail in the polls nationally as well as in most battleground states; his Democratic Party rival Joe Biden is moving ahead. To make matters worse he caught the coronavirus infection last week and had to be hospitalised, interrupting his election campaign. While American political commentators were trying to assess the impact of Trump’s illness on the election the President himself decided to try to turn his medical condition into an opportunity knowing that his infection would vastly raise the scrutiny of how he has handled the COVID-19 pandemic. His controversial personal actions were aimed to show his supporters and the electorate that he was unafraid of the virus and remained vigorous and strong.
While remaining infected Trump went against the protocol that doctors, all over the world, have prescribed for those who have caught the disease. Not only that, he also flouted the advice that doctors have given to those who are exposed to a coronavirus positive person. As the occupant of the most powerful political office in the world, he should have set an example not only his own countrymen but for peoples across the world. Instead, what America and the world saw was a person so blinded by his obsession to win the election that he put his health, that of his security personnel and the staff who serve him in danger. Should a true leader ever do that?
That a leader has to, at times, take personal risks and has to possess the courage to do so is indisputable but what are these occasions? These are where the security and welfare of his people and country are at stake. Certainly, they are never where only his personal interest is involved. Those times are long gone when a leader can say like Louis XIV, King of France from 1643 to 1715 asserted “The state? I am the state”. Now, a country’s leader should have the humility to distinguish between his personal interest and the public interest. In this context, all leaders, civil and military, cannot do better than follow the advice given by Field Marshal Philip Chetwode in an address to the Indian Military Academy in 1932. He told trainee-officers “The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time”.
Trump did not observe the isolation protocol that is mandated by doctors for persons infected with the virus. He decided to leave his hospital for a brief while to drive in his motor-vehicle waving at his followers who were outside the building. He was driven by and also accompanied by secret service personnel. As he was infectious, he put all these persons at risk. The motor ride was only for his personal political purposes. A day later and while still infected Trump returned to the White House from the hospital. On reaching the building he stood on a balcony to show his supporters that he was in control. At one point he took of his mask. This was simply inexcusable behaviour. All doctors are firm in their view that a mask is indispensable to combat the disease’s spread. Instead of remaining isolated as needed Trump within two days of returning to the White House began to work from the Oval Office. By exposing his staff directly to the disease by his reckless behaviour and all this for his personal political interest Trump simply failed the Chetwode test.
All persons in the service of a state take risks of various kinds when their functions so require. Some who pursue private callings take risks which may even endanger their lives because of their jobs. Thus, doctors in these times of the coronavirus pandemic are working with great dedication and commitment and many of them have paid the supreme sacrifice. Such are the demands of professionalism. But professionalism also requires that all those who take risks to their health and lives take all precautions and do not act carelessly. Courage does not imply that no attention be paid to one’s safety and security.
If all this is true for oneself it is all the more for those under the command in inherently dangerous callings. There, for the commanders, the Chetwode test is a good guide. Thus, American secret service personnel are expected to protect a President at all times, if necessary, by offering their own bodies as protection. Indeed, a secret service agent protected President Reagan thus when he was shot at in 1981. But this is vastly different from a secret service person being exposed to a major health risk through the conduct of a President who is motivated by person interest. This also applies to all the White House personnel whom Trump has put in health jeopardy by refusing to remain in isolation in the hospital.
Trump’s bizarre conduct would not have offended his fanatical supporters and the die-hard Republican base. This is because American society and polity are completely polarised. Trump is both a creature and has greatly contributed to this polarisation. How many voters still sitting on the fence will decisively move away from him especially in the battle ground states will only become clear when the votes get counted. America’s immediate future and to an extent of the world will be influenced by this election.