Sean Patterson is not worried that Donald Trump has been hospitalized with coronavirus because he believes what the president tells him.
“It’s a hoax. There’s no pandemic. As Trump said, how many millions die of flu?” said the 56-year-old truck driver outside the early voting station in St Joseph, Missouri – a stronghold for the president.
But then Patterson pauses and contemplates the possibility that Trump really does have Covid-19.
“If he’s sick, then they planted it when they tested him. It’s what they did to me when I went to hospital for my heart beating too fast. Two weeks later I got a cold,” he said. “It’s political. I don’t trust the US government at all. Who are they to mandate personal safety? I listen to Trump.”
At the end of a tumultuous week even by the standards of one of the most turbulent presidencies of modern times, the disturbing if not entirely unpredictable news that the president has contracted coronavirus prompted alarm, confusion and schadenfreude in the heart of Trumpland.
Watch: Trump supporters gather outside Walter Reed Hospital during President's COVID recovery
St Joseph, a former frontier city where the outlaw Jesse James met his bloody end, voted overwhelmingly for the president four years ago. The polls say Missouri will go his way again next month. But with Trump struggling in key swing states, the news he has fallen sick to Covid-19 jolted an election already battered days earlier by the most undignified presidential election debate in history.
Trump’s persistent interruptions and disruptions, including mocking Biden for wearing a mask in other situations, tested the faith of more than a few of his supporters. Now his contraction of coronavirus has raised further doubts after Trump repeatedly undermined medical advice as the Covid-19 death toll surged past 200,000.
He made things worse and now I have to wonder if he would even have it if he had just listened to what his own advisers were saying.
His family openly defied regulations requiring masks at the debate. The president attended an election rally in Wisconsin the next day and failed to wear a mask. Several of his officials, including advisor Hope Hicks and former top aide Kellyanne Conway, have also tested positive.
Even some Trump supporters despaired at his cavalier attitude to the pandemic and his ability to turn a medical emergency into a political fight and loyalty test.
“I agreed with the president that it was wrong to shut down the country because of coronavirus,” said Karen White, an office manager who voted for him in 2016. “The damage to our economy was just too great. But he was wrong to question masks. I wish he hadn’t done it. He made things worse and now I have to wonder if he would even have it if he had just listened to what his own advisers were saying.”
Others were more sanguine. “It doesn’t worry me that he’s infected because I’m not surprised,” said Martin Rucker, a 63-year-old African American public servant on his way to vote early at the county courthouse in central St Joseph. “He didn’t take precautions to stop getting it and now he has it. It was predictable.”
Some of the more conspiratorially minded were, like Patterson, suspicious of whether the president actually has coronavirus but for different reasons.
“When I first heard, I did wonder if he made it up to get out of the next debate or win sympathy,” said Amy Grant, a 26 year-old shopworker. “Before it would have been impossible to think a president would make up getting ill but now anything seems possible. He probably didn’t but I’m not completely sure.”
Some Democrats were fearful at the prospect of Trump dying or being forced out of the race because they view the president as Biden’s best hope of election. Without Trump, a more measured and reasoned Republican candidate might prove a stronger challenge to Biden, a lacklustre campaigner who would probably not be so far ahead in the polls if not for the pandemic.
Other critics of the president privately wished the president ill, saying he has a lot of blood on his hands for playing politics with the pandemic and encouraging Republican governors, with the power to impose social distancing and mask orders, to do the same even as the virus ravaged the midwest.
Trump set the tone for Missouri’s governor, Mike Parson, who consistently resisted making masks obligatory in public spaces on the grounds that the government shouldn’t tell people what to do. Parson refused to wear one in shops because he said “there was a lot of information on both sides” about whether they are effective.
Parson tested positive for coronavirus last month and has been in quarantine.
Coronavirus may well cost Trump the election as his approval ratings plunged over the past few months, but some those who have stuck with him this far are not ready to abandon him now he is sick.
“I will vote for him again,” said White. “I still think he’s better for the country. If Biden becomes president he will be under the control of the socialists.”
Patterson too will remain loyal even though, while he defends Trump on coronavirus, he was horrified by Tuesday’s debate.
“It’s a crying shame what we’ve reduced ourselves to. Gone are the days when two men could have a civilised debate about their policies,” he said.
The Democratic candidate’s campaign said it will suspend attack adverts against Trump after he was taken to the Walter Reed Medical Center.
Jan, a bookkeeper who declined to give her last name, would like to think that Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and what she called his childish behaviour at the debate, will cost him power.
“Trump thinks he’s better than everyone else. It was a matter of time before he got coronavirus because he doesn’t believe in masks and he doesn’t understand the function of masks,” she said. “But I think he could win again. There’s a lot of stupid people in this country. Maybe they want a despot to rule them.”
Rucker, the public servant, said Trump’s behaviour at the debate will have shocked a lot of Americans, but he doubts it will have any real impact on the election.
“It was very unprofessional but again I’m not surprised,” he said.
Rucker is not worried though. He thinks Trump’s handling of coronavirus, if it doesn’t cost him his life, will lose him the election and that even if he then refuses to accept defeat and tries to stir up violence, it won’t go anywhere.
“I don’t think he’ll win again. He’s so divisive. I believe in the US to endure,” he said.