When the president announced early this morning that he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, it immediately introduced the first real uncertainty into the 2020 election in months. A race that has been stubbornly stable since former Vice President Joe Biden opened up a lead in the high single-digits in June, immune to public health upheaval and economic calamity and widespread unrest, will now get its biggest test yet of the "nothing matters" theory of the 2020 election. While no one can say for certain what effect this unsettling bombshell will have on the race, we can think now through different possible scenarios and where they might lead us.
1. Trump falls seriously ill and cannot campaign.
Anyone who has experienced the symptomatic version of COVID-19 can tell you that it is an exhausting ordeal. Even people whose lives are not immediately threatened experience relentless fatigue, mind-fog, and shortness of breath for long periods of time. Many suffer seemingly unrelated heart and kidney problems. If the president is unlucky enough to be someone like that, it could knock him off the campaign trail altogether and force him to skip the remaining two debates with Biden, or, to try to do so while a hollow shell of his ordinary self, which might look even worse.
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In normal times, you might expect public sympathy for a president suffering through an unexpected and potentially deadly illness, but Trump burned through his limited reserves of good will long ago, and independents and moderate Republicans — the people he needs to win back to get within striking distance of victory — are unlikely to forget that the president has spent weeks recklessly crisscrossing the country, holding indoor rallies, meeting with donors, advisors, and even his Supreme Court nominee without a mask. He has directly jeopardized countless thousands of his fellow citizens, some of whom may not be thrilled by the news that their hero breathed the plague on them while freebasing Hunter Biden rumors at the podium. A President Trump perceived all along as a sober steward of this crisis since March would likely be in line for much more compassion than the man who was caught on tape in March bragging about how he was downplaying a virus he knew perfectly well was a catastrophic threat.
On the other hand, a largely incapacitated Trump who nevertheless seems like he is improving would at least be mercifully silent, inadvertently fulfilling the dreams of countless advisors who believe he would be cruising to re-election if he had simply turned off his relentless Twitter culture war machine and behaved normally. Perhaps with Trump sleeping it off and Pence and other surrogates making the case for re-election that the president himself is too depraved and undisciplined to make himself, the race could tighten, especially if Biden stumbles with the stage mostly to himself.
2. A chastened President Trump asks the nation for forgiveness.
As of today, President Trump's symptoms are being described as "mild" (although apparently serious enough for him to be admitted to Walter Reed hospital). This is not unusual, as many infected patients deteriorate even after days of relatively unserious symptoms. It is certainly possible, though, that despite his comorbidities and age, his situation will not deteriorate and that he might be back to normal as soon as he tests negative (or "positively toward negative" as he once put it). What if the president were, post-recovery, to break character by showing some rare contrition for his actions?
He need not confess that he never took the virus seriously — as the country heads into its third COVID-19 wave, all he needs to do is position himself, for the first time, as a sober steward of the crisis, newly awakened to the gravity of the threat by his own illness. He could publicly apologize to people he recently endangered. He could, in other words, behave like the kind of workaday leader the American people are craving after four years of ugly chaos from the White House.
A chastened President Trump would be a sight beholden in the flesh by no one, living or dead, who has ever had even incidental contact with the man. The novelty alone could drive days of "pivot to presidential" media coverage and blunt Biden's edge on the COVID issue. With views of President Trump and his record so deeply baked in, this scenario might not save him but certainly couldn't hurt. In other words, the president has nothing at all to lose by doing the right thing, which of course has never once stopped him from instead choosing the most venal and self-destructive path available.
3. President Trump recovers quickly and goes back on the attack.
That means the more likely scenario is the one in keeping with his uninterrupted, lifelong record of boorishness and self-interest. With every health innovation imaginable at his fingertips, he gets back on his feet relatively quickly, unleashes his indiscriminate bluster somewhere in the vicinity of the Chinese Communists and dopey Hope Hicks and some hapless aide that should've tested her, tweets maniacally about his incredible strength and returns to his regular program of hurling conspiracy-flecked invective about the "radical left" while egging on violent clashes between protestors and right-wing militias.
Instead of using his diagnosis as an opportunity to eliminate the absurd partisan divide between those who take COVID seriously and those who are unmasked out there right now, infecting and killing each other in bars, restaurants, and Trump rallies, he claims that if he can vanquish this thing so easily, at his age, there really is nothing to worry about. Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends, who conducts the closest thing Trump has to a daily briefing he actually listens to, is already on the case here, asking this morning, "doesn't that also send a message that you could say whatever you want in stats and graphs, but I give you an example of somebody who's in that danger age of 74 who is out there, gets it, and beats it?" What Kilmeade says frequently becomes the thing that Trump tweets out minutes later.
You can see this being the move recommended to him by the Stephen Millers of the world, and it is the one scenario that the president absolutely could not benefit from electorally. President Trump's biggest problem since the day he took office is that his behavior has alienated a majority of the American people, who as of this morning appeared poised to deliver a comprehensive, across the board walloping of the president and his GOP allies in Congress. If he's emboldened by his survival and returns to the trail with the same ghoulish lack of basic decency and an unchanged disinterest in appealing to a single person who voted against him in 2016, he will ultimately end up in the exact same position he is now, and quickly.
And unless there is a polling error of truly epic and unprecedented scale, that position is one of a man cruising toward a one-term presidency and a long series of legal battles. You would think the president would want to do everything in his power to avoid that scenario by trying to win the election legitimately rather than deliberately causing a 40-car pileup with threats, litigation, and rancor. But that's just not who he is.
4. President Trump passes away before or after the election.
This is not an outcome considered blithely — and the death of a sitting president is not something any Americans should want. But given Trump's age, gender, and comorbidity (obesity), it's worth thinking through what would happen if he died of a virus that has already taken the lives of over 30,000 other Americans in his age group.
Most people who pass away from the coronavirus follow a familiar trajectory that ends between two and eight weeks after infection. If Trump's fate fell on the earlier side of that spectrum, it would likely mean the Republican Party couldn't officially replace him with another nominee. No one has ever been asked to vote for a deceased person in a presidential election. There is no recent or meaningful polling about how Vice President Mike Pence would perform in a head-to-head matchup with Biden, but this is effectively the choice voters would be left with.
While Rule Nine of the 2016 Republican Party rules says that the GOP can technically replace Trump as the nominee with someone other than Pence, it would cause massive confusion because it is already too late to get Trump's name off the ballots and the understandable public assumption would be that the sitting vice president would be his natural replacement. The Electoral College implications of this unusual situation could be worked out easily by Congress and the states in the event that Biden is clearly defeated. Pence is a relentlessly bland politician with very right-wing views on social issues, but he looks and sounds like the kind of generic Republican who mostly went extinct over the past decade. The guess here is that Pence could improve on Trump's margins by just enough to make the ticket competitive.
What could make things even more chaotic is if Trump falls gravely ill but not pass away before the election. Would the GOP try to officially elevate Pence in late October even if Trump is alive but lingers in a Herman Cain-like state for weeks? It could set off a battle between long-suffering Republicans like Susan Collins who have probably been dreaming for years about swapping Pence in for Trump and the proto-authoritarian Tom Cotton wing of the party, which might want to rally behind the president, regardless of his medical outlook. It could cause genuine turmoil in the electorate, because people would in a literal sense not know exactly who they're voting for. It's hard to see how GOP field organizers would be able to maximize turnout under such circumstances.
While it might seem macabre to speculate about Trump's health in such a way, this is where the president's COVID antics have landed us. His months-long recklessness has endangered himself, his advisors, and everyone who was at his many events this past week.
In a way, it's fitting for the chaos candidate to make this election even more chaotic. But all things being equal, Trump's illness will probably just give voters one more reason to vote him and the Republicans out and replace them with people who don't give them constant nightmares.
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