US President Donald Trump wants to appear invulnerable to coronavirus. But if he recovers quickly, that could harm his chances of re-election.
Having become one of more than 7.45 million Americans who has caught Covid-19, US President Donald Trump returned to the White House on Monday after spending three nights receiving care at a military hospital outside Washington DC.
When Trump first announced his coronavirus infection, the reaction from some quarters was one of disbelief. Surely, this was just another political game. He will falsely say he has the virus, recover and then declare his invincibility after receiving an outpouring of sympathy.
That is not the case. Trump definitely has coronavirus, and would not want to fake a positive diagnosis. The coronavirus crisis is, in the terminology of Washington politics, ‘’not a winner’’ for Trump. There’s no reason for him to fake it.
Indeed, Trump’s infection is so real that his next debate with Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, on October 15 may be held virtually. That means Trump, 74, and Biden, 77, won’t be in the same room together - this is to stop Trump from infecting, and possibly killing, his opponent. But Trump on Thursday said he would refuse to show up for a virtual debate, fearing the moderator is biased against him and will cut his sound off.
"I'm not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That's not what debating is all about. you sit behind a computer and do a debate it's ridiculous," Trump told Fox Business in a phone interview Thursday morning. He also questioned whether the debate moderator would be biased against him.
Candidates who are behind in the polls typically want to participate in more debates instead of fewer. And surveys show viewers felt Biden won the first one, with polls showing he may have alienated older voters. His refusal to debate is just the latest in a series of potentially self-defeating choices Trump has made that could cost him the election and have already cost him his health.
Before his infection, Trump was never a fan of wearing masks unless the cameras demanded it, as in a visit to a hospital. That carelessness may have cost him. A recent poll from Reuters showed that 50 percent of Republican voters thought Trump could have avoided infection if he’d followed health and safety guidelines. About half of voters thought Trump was not truthful about the virus.
“The campaign as we knew it is over. This is the worst nightmare for the Trump campaign,’’ Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist, told Politico.
Feldman is not an unbiased source. He gets paid to help Democrats win elections. But if it isn’t the worst nightmare for the Trump campaign, he and thousands of others on his side are determined to make it so.
It might not actually be that difficult. One voter, who lives in the key swing state of Florida, described family members living in other crucial swing states who are switching their votes to Biden.
‘’I can tell you what's going on in my own extended family. I come from a military family, and my father, who is a retired lieutenant colonel and who has never voted Democrat in his life, is voting for Biden. He's in Pennsylvania. My Navy stepsister is voting for Biden. My aunt in Arizona, who previously voted for Trump, is voting for Biden,’’ Michelle Lewis, a green energy and climate journalist who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, told TRT World.
‘’I have never seen so many Biden signs. There was not one in 2016,’’ she said, adding that older voters in Florida retirement communities that typically vote for Republicans have switched to Biden.
Trump’s attempt to project invincibility after his infection, recording a video boasting that ‘’Maybe I’m immune, I don’t know,’’ does not hit the note of empathy that Lewis would like to see.
Especially galling for Lewis was Trump’s disregard for the safety of those around him when he rode past cheering supporters gathered outside the military hospital where he was being treated. At least one attending physician at the hospital said exposure to the president could go on to potentially kill the bodyguard and driver that rode alongside him in the vehicle.
‘’I think his behaviour around Covid, and the outbreak among his staff, has completely upended the country, yet embodies his approach to most things. It all comes down to his narcissism. He put Walter Reed staff, soldiers, Secret Service, at risk. And still thinks he can debate on the 15th. He doesn't care about the American people.’’
Even his own security detail was aghast at the display that delighted his cheering fans.
"That should never have happened," a Secret Service agent responsible for guarding the president’s family told CNN. "I mean, I wouldn't want to be around them. The frustration with how we're treated when it comes to decisions on this illness goes back before this though. We're not disposable."
It’s essentially unprecedented for a Secret Service agent to voice this kind of grievance so openly. And the feeling of being treated as disposable by the Trump administration is one that the Biden campaign does not even need to explain to voters who have had to watch their loved ones die while the president brags about his recovery.
Inside the White House’s walls
Indeed, Trump’s coronavirus infection puts him in a terrible position. It takes him off the campaign trail just days before the election. His illness is part of a cluster of at least a dozen cases in the White House. His campaign manager, Bill Stepien, and press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, have also tested positive. Politics requires connecting with people - connecting with voters is hard if they believe you could kill them with a handshake.
Before his infection, Trump’s best argument for another term was the relatively strong economy that preceded the pandemic - the economy is in a deep recession now, with millions more people unemployed than in January. Until recently, a slim majority of voters seem to think Trump might be able to do a better job bringing it back than former Vice President Joe Biden. But that majority is no longer outside the margin of error, according to a recent poll.
Now, Democrats can turn the conversation to deep disparities in healthcare. Unlike all other members of the G-7, the United States does not have a robust public healthcare system. When Americans contract coronavirus and don’t have the money to pay for treatment, they could either die or become saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical debt.
Even if Trump recovers quickly, Biden can say the president overcame the illness because of top quality care received at the taxpayer’s expense. A quick recovery allows Democrats to show that the president’s experience of the virus is far, far different than the millions who are sick and jobless. That allows them to make a larger argument about not only the Trump administration’s failures to contain the virus, glaringly self-evident now that it has breached the White House’s walls.
Meanwhile, Trump is not following the example of a similar right-wing populist leader, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who contracted the virus after ignoring public health protocols. Bolsonaro, like Trump, criticised local governors for imposing social distancing measures.
But Bolsonaro has been able to recover in the polls by delivering economic bailouts. Trump, on Tuesday, walked away from those negotiations with Democrats in congress, vexing even members of his own party. But he wants to hold off on a stimulus until ‘’after I win.’’ He does not seem to be considering the concerns of Republican senators and representatives also up for re-election.
And it’s not just the voting public who will be harmed by the lack of a stimulus. Airlines, shopping malls and retail stores are facing a severe cash crunch due to decreased business. Not only will they have to dismiss workers they can’t pay, but their creditors may start to seize assets as collateral.
Billions of dollars have already been lost for big office buildings built for people who are now working from home, but rents are still due. But even if creditors seize airplanes or buildings, there won’t be anyone around who’s willing to buy them.
A delay in economic relief could spark a chain reaction of closures that would cause a deep recession in the US and harm the chances of economic recovery for the rest of the world. Layoffs in the US airline industry, upon which other countries rely for tourist dollars, have already begun. Some job losses across the US have already become permanent.
Trump tried to reverse course on Tuesday night, demanding congress pass specific bailout efforts for airlines and issue another $1200 relief check to citizens. By the time you read this, Trump could have changed his mind again.
As for the election, It’s unlikely that undecided voters will be able to follow the president’s stream of consciousness in a way that makes him come off as cool headed or in control. Sudden movements one way or the other are not the way to assure people desperate for help.
The failure to pass a stimulus due to Trump’s confusing commands to his cabinet might undo whatever slow recovery the US economy has made since the shocks in the spring. A new second wave of infections over the autumn and winter could deliver another devastating punch.
Calling off negotiations makes it impossible for businesses to tell their creditors they’ll have money soon. On Tuesday, the President indicated that his priority was pushing through a Supreme Court pick to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s a lifetime appointment that would shift the nine-member court to the right on issues like reproductive rights, gun control and immigration policy.
‘’I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business.
‘’I have asked [Republican Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell not to delay, but to instead focus full time on approving my outstanding nominee to the United States Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett,’’ Trump wrote on Twitter, part of a series of tweets where he blamed top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi for wanting too much money for ‘’poorly run, high crime Democrat-run states.’’
But some of those states with Democratic governors, like Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin, are also key to his re-election bid. Punishing the people who live there will only end up hurting his re-election chances. Focusing on the Barrett confirmation, will only please people who were going to vote for him anyway, polls show.
If politics is a poker game, Trump seems to be playing a bad hand of cards poorly. Getting Barrett on the bench before November 3 would mean he has a potential ally there if there is a recount that goes to the Supreme Court. That’s what happened in 2000, when five of the four justices ruled that Florida should stop a recount of ballots, awarding the state’s electoral votes -- and the whole election -- to George W. Bush.
However, in order to get to that point, Trump will have to make sure the election is close in the first place. Walking away from stimulus negotiations will make it easier for Biden to say he is holding Americans hostage, offering a bailout in return for votes. And even if voters aren’t paying attention to Biden, they’ll know their lives are getting worse. It may rouse Trump’s base, but those are not the people he needs to convince.
‘’Trump's ability to convince anyone of anything has only decreased since he took office. The deep, core base of his support will continue to "believe"-or rather accept-whatever he tells them. But this is a group that can only get smaller,’’ said Florida voter Marshall Touchton, a demographer who lives in the Tampa Bay area.
‘’No sane, literate, informed person can ignore Trump essentially ‘cancelling’ negotiations until after the election. The deepest part of his base is basically untethered from reality, though,’’ he added.
The President hasn’t stopped making promises he can’t possibly keep, and that are at odds with his own party. On Wednesday, Trump released a video on Twitter saying he felt an experimental treatment he received in the hospital was a ‘’cure’’ for coronavirus.
He promised that everyone would get it for ‘’free.’’ The antibody-boosting drug, developed by a company called Regeneron, is still only in its testing stages, but was provided to the president on a ‘’compassionate use’’ basis, and does not yet have approval from US regulators. But upon Trump posting the video, Regeneron’s stock price shot up, making major investors potentially millions of dollars overnight.
‘’I want everybody to be given the same treatment as your president. I feel great. I feel, like perfect. I think this was a blessing from God that I caught it. This was a blessing in disguise,’’ Trump said in a video Wednesday. ‘’I’m going to make it free. You’re not going to pay for it...You’re going to get better fast just like I did...Good luck.’’
In sharp irony, the drug that may have saved the president’s life was culled from the tissue of an aborted fetus. The Trump administration has tried to block funding for that type of research. Most Republicans are fiercely opposed to abortion. Democrats fear Barrett’s appointment to the court will result in a case that allows individual states to outlaw the practice and deny women other forms of reproductive healthcare.
So what’s the bottom line here? Trump has tried to portray his recovery, so far, from coronavirus, as a reason for the public not to be afraid of it or ‘’let it dominate your life.’’ But that messaging might not resonate with people who do not have the resources he has to fight it. And that includes basically you, me and everyone else on Earth, the planet where the virus has taken at least a million lives so far.
Pulling away financial support as part of a political gambit may satisfy his most loyal followers, but it won’t put food on the table of undecided voters. The more meals they and their children miss between now and November 3rd, the worse his chances of winning become.