Let’s cut to the chase. What’s the political fallout here?
Right now, we’re partly still in the “let’s put politics aside and wish the president well” phase of responding to his announcement early Friday morning that he’s tested positive for the coronavirus.
But let’s face it, we can’t not think about politics and the campaign. And at first blush, this does not seem a welcome development from the Trump perspective. I think to your average person, “guy refuses to wear mask, guy gets sick, this was waiting to happen” are the basic dots that are going to be connected here. First impressions stick, and for a lot of people, this will be the first impression, especially when the guy in question is 74 and overweight and has never been transparent about his health.
Beyond that, this will obviously affect the course of the campaign. Trump now presumably has to lay low for some number of days. No rallies. Maybe no more debates. So Trump will be, briefly, denied the visual he loves the most. Or of course he might say the hell with that and insist on continuing to hit the stump, but I think that would be very politically unwise in terms of general public opinion, which would likely be aghast at such behavior.
Beyond that, this will affect government in ways that none of us can even wrap our heads around right now. True, Trump mostly sits around watching television all day, and he can still do that. But who else in the White House might be infected? I saw some reporter tweet that Trump, Hope Hicks, Mark Meadows, Stephen Miller and several others spent hours in a small room doing debate prep. Chris Christie told ABC News that people were not wearing masks. Who else may be infected?
Will the Trump White House have to be in essence shut down for a while? And what are the national security implications of this? How is this news being regarded in Tehran and Beijing? Surely they’re not just sending get well soon cards. They, and others, are thinking of ways to exploit this situation. More possible fallout: What does this do to the Amy Coney Barrett hearings? They’re scheduled for October 12. She spent some time around Trump. Preparing for confirmation hearings, even sham ones like this one, takes input from dozens of people. Is this White House still going to be capable of that? In addition to that, this development could change the polling in a few states such that another GOP senator or two facing reelection decide that to save their own necks, they need to line up with Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.
Another question here is what Joe Biden does. First of all, of course, Biden shared a stage with Trump just two nights before. They didn’t get all that close to each other, but it’s pretty nerve wracking anyway until Biden gets tested and it hopefully comes back negative. If Donald Trump got Joe Biden sick…
But let’s assume for now Biden is OK. I saw some people on Twitter suggesting Biden should suspend his campaign out of respect. Nonsense. He has to play this right, with the proper amount of human sensitivity and respect for the office, and I’m sure he will. But of course he should campaign. He has followed the science. Trump has mocked the science. Biden should absolutely continue campaigning, showing America what responsible behavior looks like.
Trumpworld and its sycophants will be rocked back on their heels by this news, but they will gather themselves quickly as they’re wont to do. By the time he goes on air this afternoon, rest assured Rush Limbaugh will have a take that tries to make Trump look like a brave superhero rather than the insanely irresponsible man-child he has in fact been.
So this—like everything else in our politics, but in highly concentrated form—will come down to a battle of narratives. The real-world narrative will be: while we wish them all the same successful recovery we’d wish any human being (while also noting that Trump himself lacks that small grace—see the way he mocked Hillary over pneumonia in October 2016), the fact is that the president has been cavalier about this for months. He has endangered his supporters and shown no concern for their well-being, only for his own. And it all fits into the frame of his unforgivable response to this crisis from the start, when he knew it was deadly but kept saying it would go away like a miracle.
The parallel universe: Trumpland narrative will be the most furious and desperate spinning we’ve ever seen. It’ll start with this: If you, libs, do anything other than express sympathy for Trump, you are moral monsters. If Trump is asymptomatic, the spin will proceed to say, he is in perfect health otherwise, and the whole thing is overblown like we’ve said. And when he gets over this, it will be the greatest story of human triumph in all of human history.
We’ll see how many people buy it. But we live in a world where a picture’s worth a thousand words, and the picture, or video, I keep thinking of is the Trump family filing into the debate hall, two nights before the president’s diagnosis, with masks and immediately taking them off (and refusing requests to wear them, even though they were sitting in the Cleveland Clinic).
If the voters decide next month that the Trump era was just a hideous detour in our history, that’s the image that will encapsulate it.