On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump delivered a typically over-the-top boast during his debate against Joe Biden: “I’m the one that brought back football.” He must have been yearning for a return to normalcy—for packed Big Ten football stadiums filled with fans overstuffed and often over-lubricated from a morning of maskless tailgating.
But during the worst pandemic October since 1918, when 200,000 Americans died from influenza, normalcy, alas, means that presidents and first ladies can get sick.
The stunning revelation overnight that Trump had tested positive capped six months of presidential denial, dithering, and demonizing over Covid-19. Before the White House released the news, there was a hard-to-dispute truth about the 2020 presidential race: Joe Biden enjoyed a solid lead by almost every measure.
Nate Silver, among the most cautious of the polling analysts, gave Biden an 80 percent chance of prevailing in the Electoral College. Trump’s out-of-control debate performance squandered one of his last opportunities to catch up. And there had been private talk among Republicans about when to bail on Trump, in a desperate effort to save the GOP’s Senate majority.
Now everything about the election is scrambled, even if Trump makes a fast recovery from this debilitating and too often fatal disease.
Suddenly, it will be Biden’s conduct under the microscope. For the next week or so, political analysts will be debating whether Biden resumed campaigning too quickly and too enthusiastically. Every TV image of Biden will be scrutinized as to whether the 77-year-old former vice president looks healthy and whether he appears vigorous enough to lead the nation at a time of wrenching crises.
Donald Trump—who has mocked the infirmities of others and could barely muster words of mourning for John McCain and John Lewis—is not the world’s most sympathetic patient. But it is still conceivable that his poll numbers could tick up because of some rally-around-the-bedside sentiment. Boris Johnson’s approval ratings jumped sharply in April after he was hospitalized for the virus—though, to be fair, his government was already being praised for its handling of a national lockdown. And at least Johnson has some mastery of the English language, not to mention fragments of classical Greek, while all languages (even English) often appear Greek to Trump.
Fox News and all the other satellites that revolve around Trump live off the Umbrage Industry—as they are always taking public offense over something that Democrats or liberals or a stray barista said. What the arrival of Covid-19 into the Oval Office guarantees is that the right-wing talk-show chorus will soon be screaming about the left’s insensitive remarks about Trump’s health.
In electoral terms, the wisest course would be for Democrats to follow Michelle Obama’s 2016 mantra: “When they go low, we go high.” But that level of self-restraint is hard to muster after four years of Trump’s sewer-dwelling political invective. (On Friday, Merriam Webster reported that “schadenfreude” was suddenly the most looked-up word on its website.) Still, this is not a moment to revel in the suffering of others.
Certainly, the October 15 and October 22 Trump-Biden debates are in jeopardy, along with the vice-presidential face-off next Wednesday. With Trump balking at any effort by the Commission on Presidential Debates to curb his on-screen temper tantrums, Biden probably has more to lose if the debates are canceled or held remotely.
There is, surprisingly enough, precedent for a Zoom debate. On October 13, 1960, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon conducted their third debate by split screen, with the Democrat in New York and the Republican in Los Angeles. The two candidates may have spent the debate in an irrelevant squabble over Quemoy and Matsu (two tiny islands off the coast of China), but at least there were no problems with the split-screen technology.
Everything these days is fraught with risk, even if Trump is lucky enough to have a mild case of Covid-19. It is unfortunately easy to picture this headless horseman of a president bragging about how the virus is no worse than the flu—and that, by implication, only losers are bedridden for weeks. Such a macho approach would be in keeping with Trump’s character. It would also be devastating for prudent public health measures in the face of the pandemic.
Within hours of Trump’s diagnosis, Twitter was ablaze with jokes about how writers couldn’t have scripted a wackier twist for the last five weeks of a presidential campaign. These riffs quickly became tiresome, in part because it is hard to imagine anyone other than Aaron Sorkin or the writers of Veep orchestrating such an absurd pile-up of traumatic events, from the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the chaos-theory first presidential debate to a stricken president and first lady.
Instead of tired TV tropes, I like to imagine Charles Dickens in charge of the narrative march to November 3, as he summons the Ghost of Covid Yet to Come to the presidential sickbed. Trump would soon realize that—like Scrooge—he could die, as Dickens wrote, “with not a man or woman or child to say that he was kind to me in this or that.”
In the Dickensian reimagining, maybe Trump would devote his waning months in office to doing the best job possible to contain the virus and return science to the center of the battle against the pandemic. Trump might even say to himself, to steal another Dickens line, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”
This, of course, is merely a fever dream with no basis in the reality of the flesh-and-blood Donald Trump. At a hard-lived 74 years of age, Trump is decades past any time when he might have changed.
But, like the president, I crave a return to normalcy. I want a normal presidential election, in which Joe Biden wins an unequivocal triumph, rather than one in which Trump’s rendezvous with the coronavirus taints or compromises the outcome.