Trump emerges from Marine One, climbs the steps to the Truman balcony, turns to face the helicopter to salute, maskless, as it takes off. This was the scene that concluded the most striking October Surprise in presidential electoral politics since Henry Kissinger announced that peace was at hand with the Viet Cong in October 1972. The man who minimized the threat of COVID to the United States and has presided over 200,000 dead and counting was himself stricken with the virus. He took experimental drugs and, for better or worse, left the hospital and violated safety protocols during his brief stay in Bethesda.
While this was the most important of the surprises, there were two others. Trump’s taxes were disclosed at the end of September and the analysis demonstrated that he was a better showman than businessman. It was the revenue and endorsements from his reality TV show, The Apprentice, that saved the Trump empire. The $420 million he earned from firing interns allowed him to support the losses in his golf clubs, real estate and bombs like Trump Steaks and Trump University. Normally, in non-pandemic times, this would have dominated the news cycle for a month before the election and been the driving subject of the first presidential debate. Instead, the virus, and surprise number three, took over.
Surprise three was the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the nomination of a conservative appeals court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, as her replacement. Barrett, at 48 is know as a brilliant jurist and a constitutional constructionist like Antonin Scalia, for whom she once clerked. There are concerns that with her appointment, the Supreme Court would permanently shift to the right with a 6-3 bias and if a challenge were brought to Roe V. Wade, it would be overturned. The Senate Republicans have committed to hold a confirmation hearing before the election on November 3rd, arguing that the business of government does not stop due to the approaching election cycle. Democrats argue in favour of RBG’s last wish, expressed to her granddaughter from her deathbed that her successor be selected by the next president, post election. Normally, this too would dominate the last month of the election cycle. However, at this point it is all Trump and COVID, 24/7.
Having the focus on Trump and COVID suits Trump perfectly. His Senate supporters realize that Trump is likely to lose the White House and they may lose the Senate, but with the media and public fixated on Trump’s health and his physical stamina for the office, they can go about the business of rushing Barrett’s confirmation. There is a chance that marginal Republican Senate candidates who were in danger of losing their elections may go home and galvanize support among conservative voters using the Barrett nomination as a stump speech. They will benefit from Trump boasting of his ability to “beat” COVID every day and he may tweet less on substantive issues, which means they get to apologize and explain less about the President’s musings at they go about their local races.
The first presidential debate was an embarrassing, incoherent melee and it did not work out in Trump’s favour. A post-debate NBC poll showed Biden with a commanding 53-39-point lead among likely voters. Worse yet, the over-65 crowd has abandoned Trump, so there goes Florida. Assuming there is a second presidential debate it is likely to be a virtual town hall since Trump is not going to be allowed to travel and Biden will not want to take the risk of sharing floorspace with him, given that he will not wear a mask and the volume of his diatribe can probably throw microbes of the virus much farther than six feet. Suddenly, the vice-presidential debate between Pence and Harris takes on more importance as the fragility of 74-year-old Trump and 77-year-old Biden comes into focus.
Trump loves crisis and dysfunction, he built a career on it. He thinks that it makes his opponents weak and they make mistakes. Maybe this works in business, but it's an unfair strategy to foist on all of us when you are at the helm of the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. Ironically, his COVID infection distracts from the Supreme Court fight and the scrutiny of his taxes, both which work in favour of his re-election and his agenda – it just will not be enough to save him. At least Trump will be able to blame his defeat on losing campaign time in the swing states and he can massage his ego and he sets off into the sunset as the former megalomaniac President of the United States.