The October Surprise nobody wanted
President Trump has just gained membership to one exclusive club he had no interest in joining: world leaders with COVID-19.
Other members, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, recovered. So did former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, another Trump-like figure and, at 84, closer to Trump's age than he is to Johnson's. Johnson and Berlusconi were both hospitalized with severe symptoms. We don't know Trump's path, but the odds are he will get through this. That's the good news.
The bad news: In this cursed year of the Lord 2020, who knows?
What is immediately clear is that this is a terrible development as the U.S. enters the final month of a historically tumultuous campaign for the White House. In a year that has already featured a deadly plague, an economic free-fall and iniquitous recovery, massive protests against racism and deadly use of police force, assaults on normally boring institutions like the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Census Bureau, and a thousand scandals you've probably already forgotten about, it seemed a safe bet to cancel the phrase "October Surprise."
We didn't even make it past October 1.
The most obvious reason this is bad news for Trump is that he is a 74-year-old man who is carrying too much weight and has a very stressful job. He has the best medical care in the world at his disposal, but he is in the wrong demographic cohort for this new coronavirus.
But the politics are bad for Trump, too. "The diagnosis, just weeks before the Nov. 3 election, marks a major blow for a president who has been trying desperately to convince the American public that the worst of the pandemic is behind them, despite a growing nationwide death toll of more than 205,000 and 7 million confirmed infections," The Associated Press notes. "The White House has access to near-unlimited resources, including a constant supply of quick-result tests, and still failed to keep the president safe, raising questions about how the rest of the country will be able to protect its workers, students, and the public as businesses and schools reopen."
If Trump keeps in quarantine for the usual 14 days, that is two weeks he won't be holding his treasured rallies. The remaining two weeks are an open question. And Trump has long resisted virtual political events.
If Trump had been publicly advocating public health measures recommended by the government's infectious disease experts — don't gather in large groups, always wear a mask in public, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet when possible — coming down with a life-threatening malady might win him sympathy points. But of course he has done the opposite. In Tuesday's debate, he mocked his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, for practicing those measures.
Still, this isn't great for Biden, either. That's largely because Biden is currently winning the presidential race, and October Surprises don't typically benefit the frontrunner. The conventional wisdom, embraced by both campaigns, is any focus on the COVID-19 pandemic is bad for Trump. Now, Biden can't criticize Trump's handling of the pandemic without it getting personal. And this could get personal for Biden, too: He debated Trump in person just 48 hours before the president tested positive, so there's a chance Trump spread the virus to him.
If Trump gets sick enough to invoke the 25th Amendment, would anyone rally around Vice President Mike Pence? He isn't as unpopular as Trump, but he isn't exactly a figure that inspires excitement and devotion, either. Right now this is a race about one candidate, Donald Trump. What would happen if you sideline him and swap in Pence? Maybe it would lead to, as my colleague Matthew Walther predicts, "an abject defeat" for Republicans. This surely isn't a risk Team Biden would welcome.
And what about America? Haven't we had enough already?
In a best-case scenario, Trump would experience symptoms uncomfortable enough to convince him universal indoor mask-wearing, social distancing, and avoiding potential super-spreader events are the best prescription for making it through the next six months and reviving the economy — but not get sick enough to become incapacitated. Boris Johnson seems to have taken the disease more seriously after his stay in the ICU. Such a change of heart could potentially depoliticize at least one raging conflict as America goes to vote.
But again, best-case scenarios aren't really 2020's thing. The more likely outcome seems to be more tenterhooks for the already frazzled American psyche.
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