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Letter from Washington: America’s pre-existing conditions

An unwell body politic must reckon with a sick president

The first question about any piece of news in an election year in this election-obsessed city is almost always the same: What does this mean for November? And so, after Donald Trump announced that he had tested positive for Covid-19 at 1 A.M. on Friday morning, it didn’t take long for Washingtonians to start prognosticating.

Some of the talking points: Will the remaining presidential debates happen? When will the president return to the campaign trail? How will Joe Biden handle the fact that his opponent is in isolation? Will Trump’s illness underscore his failed response to the president and ruin his chances of re-election or might it lead to a surge in sympathetic support?

I don’t want to dismiss these questions. The outcome of the coming election matters hugely, so it is of course worth considering the ways in which the outbreak of Covid-19 in the President’s inner circle might impact the race. And my strong suspicion is that, by refocusing the race on the coronavirus and denying the president the chance to campaign in person, the news is a big blow to the Trump’s chances.

But the hospitalisation of the president of the United States with a virus that has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans just over a month before the election is more than just an “October Surprise”, a campaign trail plot-twist that defines the home stretch of the presidential race.

Many see karmic justice in Trump’s illness. The president who refused to take the pandemic seriously is getting his comeuppance, they argue. “He had it coming” is obviously an ugly thought, and only the most depraved observer could wish for anything other than a full and speedy recovery for the president, the first lady and the members of Trump’s inner circle who have contracted the virus. But there is a causal relationship between Trumpworld’s lax attitude to Covid-19 and the fact that so many around the president have now tested positive. In that narrow sense, Trump’s positive test is more than just bad luck.

Andrew Sullivan, one of the most honest observers of the US political scene, is at least brave enough to say what others are thinking: “There is something salutary in the Trump era about reality reasserting itself in this last twist of the viral knife,” he writes. “The man has spent years at war with reality: living in delusions, perpetuating fantasies, imagining hoaxes, constructing conspiracies, accruing debt, rewriting history constantly as self-serving myth. At some point, reality was going to get personal in return.”

More important than any “salutary” silver linings are the ever-darkening storm clouds that hang over American democracy. For Trump’s hospitalisation is, first and foremost, a moment of acute national vulnerability — and therefore a test of national strength.

Before Friday’s news, there was hardly a shortage of reasons to worry about the stability of the United States. During Tuesday night’s debate, Trump yet again refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election, issued an instruction to his supporters to freelance as poll watchers and offered an ambiguous non-denunciation of the extremist group the Proud Boys.

Thinking about the US election has, for some time, meant contemplating all sorts of unnerving hypotheticals about what might happen between now and the inauguration ceremony next January. What if the result is unclear for weeks? What if Trump refuses to step down? What if there is violence on the streets? What if Democrats refuse to recognise a Trump victory as legitimate? 

Trump’s illness opens up yet more nightmarish possibilities. What if the president’s condition deteriorates? There’s a small but nonzero chance Americans could be voting in an election whilst one of the candidates is in critical condition. Then, of course, there’s the worst case scenario. There are carefully laid plans for the death of a president, but the election’s proximity makes an already fraught process even more difficult. 

The president’s battle with Covid-19 is complicated by his age and weight. As it contemplates its head of state’s mortality, America’s body politic has plenty of comorbidities of its own: chronic distrust, conspiratorial thinking, the growing acceptability of political violence on the far-left and far-right, and the way in which America’s two political tribes increasingly inhabit alternate universes, to name just a few. 

These are the pre-existing conditions with which America must navigate the next few months. Whether the country was capable of doing so with a healthy commander in chief was in doubt. Now we must find out it can manage it with a sick president. 

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