It didn’t take long for the conspiracy theories to start hitting my Facebook feed. Not a trickle, mind you, but an avalanche.
My friends on the left say that it’s a hoax. The president is going to disappear into seclusion for a while, only to re-emerge fit and strong. His COVID illness will be cured. The goal? To create sympathy. Boost his image. Secure re-election.
My friends on the right say that it’s proof of a Deep State plot against the president. Somehow, his enemies have infected him with the virus. The goal? To discredit him. Cripple him. Knock him out of the race.
Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 2, 2020
Gossip. Innuendo. Speculation.
It’s all reached fever pitch now.
In times of extreme crisis, it’s human nature to be fearful. To desperately search for answers. To find patterns of control even when none actually exist.
Alan Moore had this to say on the matter:
‘Conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Illuminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory. The truth is far more frightening — nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.’
So…let’s avoid the conspiracy theories. Let’s avoid cruel comments. Let’s look only at the rational facts in front of us.
Here’s what we know:
- President Trump has been infected with COVID.
- He has undergone treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
- He is expected to return to the White House shortly.
This is a critical moment in the presidential race.
The big question now: will this event change things? How? In what way?
A showcase for COVID treatment
At the age of 74, Donald Trump is believed to be in the high-risk category for COVID. He is reportedly suffering from fever, cough, congestion, and lethargy.
Let’s put aside the controversy surrounding the president’s statements about COVID being no different than the common flu. I won’t get into that.
Instead, I will focus on what’s important: Trump’s doctors are taking no chances with his illness.
They have given him a dose of remdesivir, an experimental antiviral medication developed by Gilead Sciences [NASDAQ:GILD]. They have also given him an antibody cocktail known as polyclonol, developed by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals [NASDAQ:REGN].
It’s still early days, but if these treatments allow Trump to pull through and get back on his feet, then we can expect a much-needed boost of national confidence. This is especially crucial at a time when emotions are rattled and people are searching for hope and certainty.
It feels like we’ve been waiting for a COVID cure since forever — and if Trump benefits from cutting-edge therapy, well, it’s a win for all of us. It’s the most public endorsement of the science that may eventually give us a credible vaccine.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, President Franklin Roosevelt was a very sick man. He was suffering from an autoimmune disease that left him paralysed from the waist down.
However, Roosevelt had a gentleman’s agreement with the media. He had to project strength and confidence. So they never photographed him in a wheelchair. All his public appearances were carefully choreographed to disguise his illness.
This deception was necessary to steer America though the turbulence of the Great Depression and the Second World War. It was all about the optics of telling a beneficial lie.
Today, however, all gloves are off. We no longer live in gracious times. President Trump has an antagonistic relationship with the liberal media, and they have seized on his COVID diagnosis, waving a patronising finger: ‘I told you so.’
All this reflects the steady deterioration of discourse in American life. Everyone is rude and getting ruder.
Unfortunately, Trump himself has been a willing participant in this trend. On the campaign trail in 2016, he mocked Hillary Clinton’s bout with pneumonia, using that illness as proof that she’s weak.
Liberals are still enraged by this. They will not forgive. They will not forget. And they have been enthusiastically vocal about hitting back at Trump.
Given this sad state of affairs, I can only sigh and shake my head. President Roosevelt had the benefit of serving in a time where politeness, respect, and discretion was important. President Trump does not enjoy that same privilege today.
The ideological fault lines are rupturing even further, and you can expect the partisanship to get even worse in the days ahead.
Trump has taken a blow, but so has Biden
Here’s what I noted in my previous article in June about the match-up between Donald Trump and Joe Biden:
Trump is a seasoned street fighter with a history of hitting under the belt and holding nothing back. Meanwhile, Biden is a conventional boxer with an orthodox stance and a habit of operating by traditional Washington rules.
That was true back then, and it’s still true now.
Trump’s greatest strength has been cultivating a tough and boisterous image. He has ignored health guidelines, and for good reason. His public rallies have been enormously popular and critical for energising his base. By looking beyond COVID and pushing to reopen the country, Trump has given his supporters hope that the worst of the pandemic is cover. He promises them that economic rejuvenation is just around the corner.
By contrast, Biden’s approach has been plain vanilla. He wears a mask. He obeys social-distancing rules. He focuses almost entirely on the fear and damage of COVID — and relies on that as leverage for his campaign.
Now, the pandemic has delivered an unexpected sucker punch — striking at the heart of the White house. And both men will be left reeling by the impact of it.
Trump is known to be fiercely competitive, and he has repeatedly expressed his disdain for weakness. He now finds himself in an inconvenient position. He will need to adapt quickly and do all he can to avoid invoking the 25th Amendment — which is transferring power to Vice President Mike Pence. It’s a failsafe option, but one that will only be used as a last resort.
Meanwhile, Biden is caught between a rock and a hard place. He needs to appear civil during this difficult time — even as he tries to advance his quest for the presidency. This means he has chosen not to personally attack Trump while he’s vulnerable, while his campaign struggles to find a way to run political ads that don’t appear exploitative of the situation. It’s a hard balance to achieve: criticising Trump’s policies without criticising the man himself. On the face of it, this kind of mixed messaging places Biden at a disadvantage — and the consequences are still unravelling.
Jill and I send our thoughts to President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump for a swift recovery. We will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) October 2, 2020
A positive angle for Trump?
History tells us that calamity befalling a president usually provides a boost in popularity.
Here are two examples of that happening:
In 1963, John F. Kennedy was campaigning for re-election in Dallas when he was assassinated. This was a hugely traumatic moment for the country — but it benefited Lyndon Johnson, who immediately assumed the presidency. The following year, he led the Democrats to a landslide victory in the polls. They won by a margin of 61.1%. It was the largest share of the popular vote in 140 years.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan had a popularity problem. He was suffering from the lowest approval rating of any president during a first term in office. Then a crazed gunman took a shot at him outside a Washington hotel. Reagan survived — and his downward spiral was reversed. His popularity saw a sharp bounce, peaking at 73%. From that point on, Reagan had a more secure path to a second term in 1984.
Remember: elections are not about facts. They are about emotions. People will vote the way they feel.
Trump is not a man known for displaying too much empathy in public. But empathy from his citizens may just be the most positive and life-affirming aspect that his campaign can harness right now.
It could provide Trump with a turning point for his presidency, even as he fights his way through this health scare.
The bottom line
We only have 29 days to go until November 3.
What’s at stake here? Well, everything.
COVID has disrupted American life to an extraordinary degree. Republicans and Democrats are competing for the soul of the country. The jostling over swing states and mail-in ballots just complicates things even more.
There is renewed talk now of postponing the election — which would be unprecedented. It’s never been done, and it’s unclear whether there’s the appetite in Congress to actually do it.
The clock is steadily ticking down to zero.
I’m reminded of what King Philip once told his son, the future Alexander the Great, about lofty ambitions and the potential for tragedy:
‘Fate is cruel. No man or woman can be too powerful or too beautiful without disaster befalling. They laugh when you rise too high. And they crush everything you’ve built with a whim. What glory they give in the end, they take away. They make of us slaves.’
Everyone is anxious right now. It’s a season of fear. The days ahead will be critical, not just for America, but for the world at large.
But, rest assured, we will have answers and certainty soon enough.
Analyst, Wealth Morning
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