Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Covidfefe: Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis won’t decide the election

The President’s illness could actually help him

“I want him to die,” tweeted a former Obama administration official who served as a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign. The tweet was later deleted, but the sentiment about Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis in the very early hours of 2 October endured as America confronted this much expected “October surprise,” a bombshell revelation that can swing a presidential election in its final weeks. First Lady Melania Trump, Trump’s presidential campaign manager Bill Stepien, presidential aide Hope Hicks, former aide Kellyanne Conway, and Republican Senators Thom Tillis, Ron Johnson, and Mike Lee have also tested positive for the virus.

Historically, recovery from serious illness or incapacity has only ever helped incumbent presidents.

Predictably, social media and a fair amount of print news disintegrated into a psychotic mess of ill wishes, moralising invective, and biting sarcasm as Trump’s condition worsened from asymptomatic diagnosis to reported cold symptoms to hospitalization and treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center. After years of complaining about Trump’s incivility, according to one opinion poll some 40 percent of Democrats reported that they are “happy” that the leader of the free world is afflicted by a potentially fatal illness. Others have qualified their positive feelings about his condition with the more abstract but only marginally less vindictive reasoning that America and the world would be better off without Trump, regardless of how he disappears from the scene. The New York Times soberly intoned that the U.S. president’s health is vital for national security. But rather than just wish for country’s best interests, it chided him for not taking it seriously enough as a national security concern and, in a separate article, suggested that his illness should compel him to withdraw from the election. Others are engaging in a macabre carnival-like guessing game, trying to divine how Trump’s weight and age will influence the course of his illness.

Widespread coverage has dwelled on Trump’s perceived hubris, mocking him for having downplayed the virus and, just one day before his diagnosis, declaring to an excited crowd that the pandemic is nearly over. In the idiom of Greek tragedy, Trump would seem to have triggered the cue for the Furies to descend and punish him like an ancient anti-hero, destined to be driven to madness and death. The traditional modern version softened the ancient message, merely consigning the offender to disappointed hopes and unfulfilled dreams or, if extended to Trump as many now hope, defeat in a reelection bid.

We now live in an ironic age, post-modern if you will, in which reliable certainties and conventional wisdom are gone or on the way out, and in which there are no longer any absolutes, even in the simplest areas of life. Trump is probably the greatest living symbol of that in American politics, if not in the entire world. To the absolute astonishment and immense frustration of virtually the entire technical-managerial caste that administers our society, in 2016 he triumphed over a long-established party system and code of political conduct that were practically designed to exclude people of his manner and temperament from elected office. He ably survived RussiaGate, which had the markings of a “silent coup,” as well as one of only three presidential impeachments in American history, among dozens of other scandals for offences real and imagined and all sorts of denunciations, ranging from the most eloquent of pleas to the most insane diatribes. There is simply no reason to believe that catching Covid-19, no matter how ironic given his previous words and postures, will defeat the greatest of irony of all, that Donald Trump became and for years to come may very well remain President of the United States.

The left is predictably discouraged after so many unfulfilled “this-is-it!” moments foretelling Trump’s end. For those not drinking in the news like medieval peasants dancing with glee over some Plantagenet king’s sad reversal of fortune, the conspiracy theories are already at work. Did Trump contrive “fake news” about a diagnosis to win sympathy, or, as some of the more abstract formulations suggest, plan a quick recovery to show the world that the virus is not as bad as we have been told or that his powers are superhuman? Was it a stunt to drive off last week’s unflattering headlines about tax avoidance, which have now vanished? As the story of his illness developed, “anonymous sources” emerged to suggest that Trump’s prognosis may be worse than rosier reports given by his doctors, while opinion writers held their breath for the first round of post-diagnosis polls.

Will it matter in the election? Assuming Trump survives, as the vast majority of Covid patients do, signs point to no. Trump retains an unshakable grip on about forty percent of the electorate and virtually the entire Republican Party establishment. If his supporters did not abandon him over allegations of racism, sexual assault, Russian collusion, tax cheating, Ukrainian meddling, or anything else in the litany of misdeeds his critics have accused him of, they certainly will not break with him for falling sick. Historically, recovery from serious illness or incapacity has only ever helped incumbent presidents. Dwight Eisenhower had a boost in popularity after a heart attack, as did Ronald Reagan after being shot in an assassination attempt. Both of those Republican presidents went on to win reelection. Trump’s approval rating reached a relatively high 46 percent the before his diagnosis, and sympathy demonstrations have already assembled in front of Walter Reed hospital and Trump’s main New York property.

Democratic challenger Joe Biden seems well aware of the possible benefits to Trump. Just three days after telling the president to “shut up” and twice calling him a “clown” in the shambolic first presidential debate, he tweeted Trump his good wishes and, to the consternation of the radical left, proceeded to cease all negative campaign ads. This old fashioned high-mindedness could ultimately backfire on Biden and help Trump. As much as people disparage negative campaigning, the sad truth is that it works, while in the universe of American politics, and in much of American society, taking the “high road” is now seen as precisely the type of weakness that Trump argues would make Biden an ineffectual president. A test of strength will certainly be on agenda at the next presidential debate on October 15, when this story is all but forgotten.

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