Clear and present failure: Donald Trump addresses the nation on COVID-19. Photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images
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Welcome to the coronavirus election

November will be a referendum on Trump’s handling of the present crisis

The physical symptoms of COVID-19 are well-documented. But when politicians come into contact with the imminent threat of pandemic, it reveals the core of their political convictions.

In his clumsy Oval Office address on Wednesday night, Donald Trump reached for a nationalist lever. To demonstrate the seriousness with which he takes this “foreign virus”, he announced a travel ban on all overseas visitors to the US who have been in Schengen-area European countries in the last two weeks. (He also announced a ban on cargo from Europe, before a White House statement corrected that misstatement.) “This started in China,” he reminded America, “and is now spreading throughout the world.”

For Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee and the man who hopes to replace Trump after November’s election, the pandemic underscores his central conviction that America needs a steady hand on the tiller, and that he can unite where the President has divided. In a televised address designed to draw sharp contrast with Trump yesterday, he said of the virus: “It will infect Republicans, independents and Democrats alike.” Laying out his plan to combat the pandemic, he said, “It will touch people in positions in power, as well as the most vulnerable in our society. The coronavirus does not discriminate based on national origin, race, gender, or zip code.”

A few hours later, it was the turn of Bernie Sanders — the democratic socialist desperate to find a way back into a Democratic primary that was his to lose only a few weeks ago — to act presidential. For Sanders, coronavirus only strengthens the case for Medicare for all, the overhaul of US healthcare that is the central pillar of his offering to voters. “Our country is at a severe disadvantage compared to every other major country on earth because we do not guarantee health care to all people as a right,” he said.

These statements underscore what has been true for some days: this will be the coronavirus election, and not just because the real-world campaign — the rallies, town halls and meet-and-greets that act as the stage for the grandest electoral contest in the world —is on hold.

The pandemic has changed the economic weather. That matters especially to the slice of moderate voters who are willing to tolerate Trump’s rhetorical and ethical excesses in exchange for the robust economic growth he has supervised. The coronavirus has also transformed the national mood and the political climate. Foremost in voters’ minds as they weigh up their options this autumn will be the biggest and most recent crisis of the Trump presidency.

So far in office, Trump has had a knack for narrowly clearing the low bar set for him by his critics, and his biggest missteps have been on things he can wave away as Washington confections or purely political hits. The case against the President is often undermined by the overblown, quasi-conspiratorial claims of those making it, or just our collective numbness to the extraordinary way in which he governs. Sometimes, however, real anger at the President isn’t just understandable, but needed.

Sometimes real anger at the President isn’t just understandable, but needed

As Trump flounders in response to a deadly threat, now is such an occasion. The President’s actions suggest he fails to grasp the scale of the danger. In his public statements, he misses opportunities to reassure the American people, instead complaining about fake news and how unfair all of this is on him. This morning, he indulged in a blame game on Twitter, whingeing about the shortcomings for the Center for Disease Control and, as he is fond of doing, pointing the finger at his predecessor. None of this will do anything to fix the chronic problem of under-testing for COVID-19 that is just one feature of the US government’s lacklustre response.

All of this reminds American voters of the worst of Donald Trump: his pettiness, his self-obsessive need to make himself the victim, his lack of compassion, his inability to rise to the occasion not just as the head of the government response, but as the head of state who should be a source of reassurance, not anxiety. Moments like this are what American presidents are for, and Trump’s suitability for the job is being tested. 

So far, the politics of the pandemic have broadly stayed inside the guardrails of American hyper-partisanship. Polling by YouGov for the Economist finds that 61 per cent of Democrats said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about contracting the virus, while the figure for Republicans was just 37 per cent. A similar party-political difference defines support for proposed policy responses, with Democrats more likely to back robust action than Republicans. These figures are certain to change, not least because the survey was conducted before Trump’s abrupt change of tone — on Wednesday the President finally deviated from his nothing-to-see-here insistence that “everything is going to be fine”.

Unless the government response improves drastically, an electoral reckoning seems likely. Partisanship means that most Republican voters will stand by the President no matter what, but it also means that small changes at the margin make a big difference to the result in November.

A little over a month ago, the Democrats flubbed the Iowa caucus and looked likely to choose a democratic socialist as their nominee. Fresh from his impeachment acquittal, Trump was understandably bullish about his reelection chances. Now he is in the midst of exactly the kind of crisis that many warned would be dangerous under his leadership. America is about to find out if these critics were right — and will vote accordingly in November.

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