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Donald Trump contracting COVID-19 is strange news to process.
It is not unprecedented. Boris Johnson was, of course, struck down at the height of the outbreak and a more direct comparison can be found in the Brazilian leader, Jair Bolsonaro. A figure of the populist right who has ripped his style straight from the Donald Trump playbook. He played down the virus in even firmer terms than Trump, encouraging his people to carry on and go to work, before becoming ill himself.
Trump’s illness feels different, for the obvious reason that it falls four weeks out from an election. But it may also be that Trump himself doesn’t quite seem human. In part because of the character he has successfully carved out for himself, and in part because he has been such an odd object of curiosity. Politically, he is as teflon as they come. He seems capable of batting away any challenge, just when you think he can’t possibly recover, he does. Personal and professional scandals seem incapable for moving the dial on how people think of him. But a health scare is uncharted territory.
The line of succession is fairly simple. Should the President become incapacitated, Vice President Mike Pence would step up. If he too is exposed to the virus and falls ill, House speaker Nanci Pelosi would be next in line. It would be an unimaginable turn of events, given how Trump and Pelosi have spent he last four years locked in an intense, often personal, war.
As for the election – there doesn’t seem to be much of a protocol. American democracy has a habit of ploughing on like a steam train. There are few situations that would see an election delayed or cancelled. And with the legitimacy of democracy being so central to this election, it’s hard to see how that changes.
The constitutional uncertainties aside, we are left with a bigger question – what will it do to the actual race?
It’s been said for some time that Trump needed a shift in momentum, a moment in this campaign that changed the narrative and changed the trajectory. It wasn’t coming. The more Trump spoke and campaigned, the more he seemed firmly routed in the Trump of 2016, the Trump some key parts of the electorate had begun to tire of. The idea of Biden – a quieter Presidency that people could have on in the background – was becoming more appealing to them.
Will this be the shift the Trump team were looking for?
That could be up to Trump. Assuming, as we are all hoping, his recovery is straight forward enough, his reaction to his illness will be key. Does he play the hard man, like Brazil’s Bolsonaro? What was all the fuss about? I smashed it into touch with my own bare antibodies, lads. America – f*ck yeah. Or do we see a more conciliatory Trump? A moment of revelation and reflection for him. It was suggested that Boris Johnson had softened after his time in an ICU. He became more personally determined to deal with the virus and its consequences and the swell of sympathy from the country fell neatly behind him. It didn’t last, of course, but a similar situation for Trump, just a few weeks out from the election, could win him a few undecideds.
It does feel a little crass to talk in these terms. To be making cold political calculations while a man is unwell. But you can’t underestimate how important it is in the minds of voters.
America has a strange relationship with the health of it’s leaders. Despite having one of the tightest constitutional protocols for what should happen if they become incapacitated, America still looks for an unshakable adonis like leader. Any wavering on ill health often becomes a defining concern. Even the prospect of their leader suffering menstrual cramps is enough for some Americans to air on the side of caution. Or was that just misogyny? I forget.
It leaves questions for Biden, too. Assuming he doesn’t become ill himself, after a nearly two hour face off with Trump on Tuesday that looked like it involved the exchange of rather a lot of spittle – he has to decide how to respond. With Trump off the road, does he suspend campaigning too? Carrying on would surely appear unfair and opportunistic. But there will no doubt be a temptation, given Trump’s reluctance to play by the rules himself. In 2016, Trump was quick to mock Hillary Clinton after she came down with a bout of pneumonia. It worked for him, and cemented a view that she wasn’t up to the job. You have to wonder, if the shoe were on the other foot, would Trump do a similar thing this time round? It would be a risky play, given how Trump has been successfully pegged as a contributing factor to the scale of the outbreak in the first place. To mock the consequences of something you are perceived to have had a hand in would probably be a stretch, even for Trump.
For Biden, the answer is fairly straight forward. He has built his image on being the anti-Trump. He is the calm to his storm. The steady hand to his erratic nature. The decency to his discourteousness. And he’ll be keen to not let that image slip. Biden must ask not how Trump would respond, but how Trump wouldn’t respond. And do that. To not really paraphrase JFK.
However, in the unlikely event that this does upset the process of the election – or lead to Trump withdrawing – there is a bigger problem for Trump’s opponents. This election isn’t about defeating Trump, it’s about defeating Trumpism. That can only happen with a win for Biden at the polls. Not Trump walking away, not Trump being carted out by impeachment and not, in this fresh hurdle, Trump becoming too ill to run. They need a solid, unequivocal, event to point at and say… ‘America rejected Trumpism’ – regardless of how hard Trump and his allies will kick and scream about the legitimacy of the result. Anything else makes it much harder for them to scrub the stain of Trumpism off the walls of the White House once he’s gone.
Thankfully, our Road to the White House series is in full swing – and we’ll try and answer a few of these questions tomorrow morning with Edward Hardy from The Hardy Report and Greg Swenson from Republicans Overseas.
See you in the morning.October 07, 2020 | No Comments