Early Friday morning, karma called on the White House: Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump were struck by the most implacable enemy stalking his presidency—COVID-19.
It is too early to understand much of what this means for the presidential campaign season and the election one month away. But—absent tragedy striking one of the candidates or the arrival some other grave ‘unknown unknown’—some things are already clear.
While Trump will posture as too hearty for a mere pandemic to subdue, the virus has mercilessly illuminated his contempt for science, his macho pretensions, and his indifference to the safety of others. It has devalued whatever dubious claims he makes regarding an imminent vaccine. It has illuminated the economic realities that have driven a fresh round of layoffs.
No doubt mercifully, Melania’s illness will overshadow the release of the profanity-laced recording wherein she mocks those concerned about the cruelty of family separation and complains about decorating the White House for Christmas. But the Trumps’ COVID diagnosis elevates Joe Biden’s warnings about the persistence of the virus, and his insistence on protecting others and himself by honoring the public health measures Trump slights. And the first couple’s shared malady indelibly imprints Trump’s flailing campaign with the stamp of a deadly disease that has redefined life for Americans at large.
Among the remaining imponderables is the impact on three major stories where, nonetheless, it is hard to perceive an advantage for Trump.
First, Trump’s contagion largely obscures the welcome change of subject afforded him by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg—while creating some doubt about the timetable on which he proposes to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett. So far, Senate Democrats have wisely resisted calls to effectively alienate swing voters by showboating for the progressive left and attacking Barrett, instead focusing on Barrett’s potential to help Supreme Court conservatives abrogate the Affordable Care Act. Moreover, the revelation that Barrett, when she was a law professor in 2006, signed an advertisement decrying abortion elevates that issue among suburban women without requiring Democrats to raise the potentially incendiary issue of how the judge’s Catholic faith affects her judicial worldview.
Second, Trump’s health casts doubt on whether further presidential debates will actually occur. The next is scheduled for October 15—roughly the end of the fourteen-day period standard for COVID quarantine. No doubt Trump will now do everything he can to make it to the debate—displaying his indomitability will become a political and personal imperative.
But that complicates his initial insistence that he will resist changes in the debate rules caused by his obnoxious performance during the first encounter. It will be far more difficult for him not to show up—regardless of the format.
Biden surely will. The second debate, a town hall in which voters question the candidates, plays to his strengths and limits Trump’s ability to shout down his interrogators. Mercifully, actual issues may take center stage; while Trump excels at insults, he stints on substance. An extended discussion of healthcare—as but one example—is something Trump should want to avoid like, well, COVID-19.
Biden won the first debate, Trump’s best chance to diminish him. Biden’s job in further debates is the same as on the campaign trail and in advertising: to shake off the mud from that debate and present a positive vision of his presidency. That, for Biden, is congenial ground: to close the deal with voters, he must be his best self. Voters already know exactly who Trump is.
Finally, Trump’s illness will necessarily affect the conduct of the campaign. Because of his health and his prior irresponsibility in spurning public-health measures, he cannot now do what he likes most—stage raucous rallies that contrast with Biden’s restrained approach to campaigning during a pandemic. Whether or not Biden curtails his appearances, at least for a time the decorum of courtesy toward a sick opponent will cast him as the statesman while an increasingly desperate Trump indulges, as he inevitably will, in demagoguery and vilification.
With one month to go, certain fundamentals are pretty well baked into the race. Democrats harbor the superstitious fear that, as happened with Hillary Clinton, Trump will call upon hidden reservoirs of strength to squeak out an Electoral College win. But this is not 2016.
In September of that year, I wrote an extensive analysis for the Huffington Post outlining what would have to happen for Trump to defy conventional wisdom and defeat Clinton. The comparison is instructive.
First, Trump would have to harvest a massive turnout among whites without a college degree. Second, he would need to capitalize on an intensity of support that far outstripped Clinton’s. Third, Clinton’s relative weakness among the Obama coalition—particularly minorities and the young—must limit her vote.
Fourth, the tripwire of cultural condescension—captured by Clinton’s unfortunate remarks about “deplorables”—must galvanize voters who felt themselves demeaned. Fifth, third parties must leach more support in crucial states from Clinton than Trump. Finally, doubts about Clinton’s character—captured by the email issue—must outstrip aversion to Trump.
Should that all that happen, I concluded, Trump could carry Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, thereby carrying the Electoral College. All those things did happen, and more—fatally abetted by James Comey. But Biden is doing better than Clinton, in great measure because he is different—but also because too many Americans came to know Trump all too well.
Trump is no longer a human Powerball ticket—a gamble among voters desperate for change—but a president known to be devoid of competence or character. Nor is Joe Biden a caricature of elitism; he’s Middle Class Joe.
While Biden is polling slightly worse than Clinton among blacks and Hispanics, the vast majority who dislike Trump are more likely to turn out. And Biden has slashed Trump’s support among a much bigger portion of the electorate, non-college-educated whites, while winning the college-educated whites that Clinton lost. He’s buoyed by a unified party that despises Trump and he is not bedeviled by another Jill Stein. All of that accounts for the remarkable stability of Biden’s lead in battleground states.
In panic, Trump is marinating America in an increasingly overt racism that suburban voters find more and more distasteful. Trump’s perverse hope of racial disorder, his last chance of reclaiming nervous whites, bespeaks how debased his political prospects have become.
Absent such a cataclysm, Trump is left with hijacking democracy by throwing out mail-in ballots; frightening minority voters away from the polls, and enlisting the courts in shortcutting vote counts. But his refusal to honor a peaceful transition places him beyond the pale of those otherwise persuadable voters who still honor democracy.
In the end, Trump may preempt his own efforts to steal the election by inspiring a margin for Biden which is beyond theft. That is America’s ultimate hope. Absent the darkest of miracles and the blackest of swans, it may well come to fruition.