Until recently, Donald Trump was one of the luckiest men in the world.
Trump has spent the last three years of his presidency doing stupid things. He withdrew from the Paris Agreement. He called Nazis “very fine people.” He escalated conflict with Iran, bringing the U.S. to the brink of war. And so on.
Despite all the stupid and immoral things Trump has done, he has until recently avoided responsibility for civilization-level calamity. The Paris Agreement did not collapse. Most everyone denounced the Nazis among us. The conflict with Iran fizzled.
Yet Trump avoided responsibility only because he was extremely lucky. Trump was sort of like a drunk driver who swerves into the oncoming lane on an empty street: blameworthy for driving drunk, of course, but luckily not for killing anyone.
Things changed with the pandemic.
Trump did not cause the COVID-19 outbreak. But his actions have affected the way it has spread in the US. In 2018, Trump dissolved the White House office charged with preparing for the next pandemic. He apparently ignored intelligence reports about the virus for months, squandering valuable time. And he bungled early messaging about the disease, encouraging misinformation, skepticism, and a sluggish response in some state and local governments. All this contributed to the situation we in the U.S. find ourselves in now. Hospitals are overwhelmed or on the brink. Over 500,000 people have fallen ill. Over 18,000 people have died. Probably, many tens or hundreds of thousands more will follow.
Trump’s moral luck has run out. Trump is partly to blame for the civilization-level calamity we are now experiencing, because he contributed to it through his negligence and stupidity. Had he acted differently, he might have avoided blameworthiness or even merited praise. He might have made a very different mark on history. But he didn’t.
There’s a lesson in this for all of us. Whenever we ignore social distancing prescriptions, we take a moral risk. COVID-19 can spread to others from someone who is asymptomatic, and so no matter how good we feel, whenever we leave the house, we risk infecting others. When we leave the house unnecessarily, we risk being to blame for the continued spread of this terrible disease.
I don’t want that on my conscience, and I’m sure you don’t either. Let’s stay vigilant as the temptation to leave the house and gather with our friends grows and not test our moral luck like Trump did.