Inside one month to the 2020 election, an already circuitous plot takes on even tighter twists as President Trump rides out a hospital stay following his COVID-19 diagnosis. Current polls to the contrary, the November result has always been unpredictable, and now the winner is even harder to discern. An election that was once an overall referendum on the Trump record is now tilted by a variety of factors that will reveal themselves in the coming days.
The realm of possibilities begins with the president’s actual health. If he rebounds quickly, he is on that second debate stage having thrown off yet another challenge, boasting even further evidence of strength and resiliency. But if his condition worsens, that narrative is lost and may not be easily retrievable. Multiple weeks at Walter Reed Hospital is no way to spend the home stretch of the campaign, even if he emerges successfully by month’s end.
The course of the disease is beyond anyone’s ultimate control. But there is one variable that is completely controllable, and the man at the switch is the president himself. His demeanor, attitude and even his infamous tweets may be a determining factor in how this virus time-out affects the campaign.
It is, of course, not a time-out at all; it is merely a change of venue. While Biden continues to campaign (as he should), the Trump operation is not on hold. It is simply being run from the presidential suite at Walter Reed. While we won’t be seeing the president addressing large throngs in person for at least the first half of the month, we apparently will see strategically posted photos featuring the images of his otherwise normal workdays, plus the occasional video in which Trump himself, health permitting, will tell us how he’s feeling.
If he’s doing well, that will be self-evident. But beyond that, these glimpses into his hospital experience have the power to overcome the inherent disadvantage of being yanked off the campaign trail.
The four-minute video released over the weekend was filled with gratitude for the staff caring for him, determination to get back to campaigning (and running the country), and even a dash of humor, lighting a mild spark of why-can’t-he-be-like-this-more-often approval from voices often at odds with his style. On Sunday, he even emerged from the hospital for a quick motorcade jaunt, waving to cheering supporters from behind the smoky windows of a Suburban—and behind a mask.
But now things get complicated. How does a president who wears the reputation of downplaying the virus now don the mantle of a patient fighting it? There are those who want him to admit he has been too casual about the disease all along, perhaps offering a broad mea culpa to atone for his ambivalence.
That won’t be happening.
The flip side of that coin features the usual Trump refusal to let a curveball change his core approach. Some in the base want him to emerge unbowed, ready to dive into an immediate schedule of events featuring the old environment of optional masks and distancing.
That would not be smart.
The best route for the president, if blessed with a return to the White House and the campaign trail sooner rather than later, is to maintain his usual themes of optimism and personal responsibility on the mask and distancing issues, perhaps even maintaining the occasional barb for Biden if he insists on wearing masks while delivering speeches with no one nearby.
But alongside that, he would do well to project an aura of experience that no one can muster who has not actually fought the virus. This need not feature days of navel-gazing regret over policy; it can, however, feature a heightened first-hand empathy for COVID patients and their families. He can offer whatever initiatives he wishes in a wrapping of intent to protect Americans from “what I went through.”
The last variable that will write the election script is the reaction of his voters. It looks like an instant disadvantage to be plucked from the campaign trail with a month to go, as early voting and mail-in ballots throw around their considerable destabilizing weight. But something began to rumble along with the engines lifting Marine One from the White House lawn for the hospital trip Friday. It was a spirit in some corners of MAGA nation that reflected a desire to view this as just another setback to be overcome. The Mueller report, a spate of tell-all books, a daily barrage of media torment, and impeachment—remember that? All were supposed to end the Trump presidency at one term, if not earlier.
A voter base that will gather in full arenas to hear him riff for an hour about anything or nothing in particular may show up with undimmed enthusiasm at the ballot box. If those other land mines didn’t bring him down, there are Trump voters driven to make sure the virus doesn’t screw up their year in yet another way.
But how many voters fit that description? No one knows. The viral moments of well-wishes and the still-unfolding boat parades will arise, but that doesn’t automatically mean a groundswell is primed to carry Trump to November success no matter what course his COVID case runs.
In fact, there’s no way to quantify the exact impact of any of these factors. But rest assured, as nebulous as they may be, the November 3rd result will now contain some measure of how the virus affected Trump physically, how he responded to it politically and how his voters respond viscerally.