Donald Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis upends 2020 election, but is a replay of 2016 on the cards?
Take a moment and think about how the race for president was placed in October 2016. And recognise the faint echoes of 2020.
News of Donald Trump testing positive for COVID-19 sent his critics on social media into paroxysms of mirth and mockery and left his followers, including partisans on his favourite news channel, fretting.
Which is par for the course in the United divided States of America.
After all, poll after poll shows Americans split on political lines on issue after issue: abortion, guns, immigration, and ironically, even COVID (after, irony of irony, Trump politicised mask wearing).
That no one looms larger on the American political stage at this moment or is a more divisive figure than Trump is well established.
What is also quickly taking hold in the press is the notion that Trump's COVID diagnosis, at a time when he is desperate to play down the coronavirus and the over 2,05,000 dead in that country, is the final nail in his political coffin.
As per this report from The New York Times, the White House is struggling to put a rosy spin on the development, with one unnamed adviser (is there any other kind at this point?) telling the newspaper Trump testing positive is a "disaster".
Above photo: US President Donald Trump holding up his face mask during the first presidential debate at Cleveland. Image via The Associated Press
Even those from opposite sides of the aisle in the political game are in agreement.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin called the COVID diagnosis a "critical blow" to Trump's re-election prospects while Republican campaign consultant Rob Stutzman grimly told the newspaper “it’s hard to imagine this doesn’t end his hopes of re-election.”
David Siders and Charlie Mahtesian, writing for Politico, said Trump, who once seemed impervious to October surprises “is suddenly confronting one big enough to alter the outcome of the election.”
The piece went on to note the dangers of such this scenario for a campaign already in catch-up mode.
“In the most conspicuous way imaginable, the positive test publicly undermines so much of Trump’s rhetoric about the virus — from his faith in hydroxychloroquine to his cavalier pronouncements about a vaccine and his dismissal of Covid-19 as a disease that 'affects virtually nobody,'” they wrote.
“The campaign as we knew it is over,” Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist confidently told Politico. “This is the worst nightmare for the Trump campaign.”
But, is it?
Because what if the pundits are wrong? What if the pollsters are mistaken?
What if 2020 is 2016 seen through a funhouse mirror?
Is 2020 a 2016 redux?
Looking back at 2016 can be strange. For all that has happened in the world over the past four years, one feels more than just a few pangs of nostalgia. It seems like such a quaint and distant time.
But take a moment and think about how the race for president was placed in October 2016. And recognise the faint echoes of 2020.
Hillary Clinton, much like Joe Biden, was the clear favourite in the polls and front-runner after the first debate.
On 1 October, 2016, The New York Times published a report that as per Trump's tax records, he could have avoided paying federal taxes for two decades.
The paper of record, just a handful of days ago, put out a story painting Trump as a chronic tax avoider who paid $750 in 2016 and another $750 in 2017.
On 7 October, 2016, the Access Hollywood tape with Trump's infamous 'grab em' remarks hit the news. Those remarks, which Trump apologised for, then defended as 'locker room talk' and eventually ever denied making, were widely thought to be the end of his campaign for president.
Just yesterday tapes emerged of the First Lady, Melania, (who Trump once amusingly called Melanie on social media), praising the standards of care for migrant children in US detention centres, which many have criticised as 'dangerously overcrowded' and even 'criminal'.
“The kids, they say, ‘Wow I will have my own bed? I will sleep on the bed? I will have a cabinet for my clothes.’ It’s so sad to hear, but they didn’t have that in their own countries. They sleep on the floor,” Melania said in one excerpt.
“They are taken care of nicely there. But you know, yeah, they are not with parents. It’s sad. But when they come here alone or with coyotes or illegally, you know, you need to do something.”
In any other universe, the First Lady of the United States caught making such remarks on tape would be a scandal that lasts for days. This barely made a ripple.
Soon, the second and third debates would occur (an unedifying spectacle that ended with Trump refusing to concede the election). Sounds familiar? It should.
Because Trump, who has repeatedly declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the 3 November presidential election and assailed mail-in voting, did more of the same at first debate with Biden just last week.
In his closing statement, Trump reiterated that mail-in ballots "are a disaster".
"This is going to be a fraud like you have never seen. We are going to do well. But, who knows? We are not going to know (the election results) for months." he concluded.
And then, at the end of October came the letter. The Comey letter, which by all accounts, came at the worst possible time for Hillary and cost her the election.
The Republicans, already trying to paint Hunter Biden as the boogeyman, recently released a report about his 'problematic' tenure on the board of an energy company at a time when his father was vice-president.
While that hasn't caught on, you can bet Attorney-General William Barr has something up his sleeve. Why else would 1,600 former justice department lawyers express concern that he might use his powers to aid the incumbent?
Is any of this ringing a bell? To me, it's looking eerily like déjà vu all over again
The liberal handwringing commences
Already, the handwringing has commenced by liberals over whether the news could bring the incumbent a sympathy vote or, worse, be a brilliant move by a master manipulator playing 3D Chess to their checkers (this by a man who once stared at the sun, sans glasses, during an eclipse).
Neil Steinberg, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, urged the Democrats not to celebrate though he allowed for the fact that there would, no doubt be "a certain amount of gloating, of snide 'thoughts and prayers' chortling."
Steinberg wrote that he hoped that this development would drive home, at least for the public if not Trump, the seriousness of the situation.
“Or maybe it will merely spur a sympathy vote, the sickness becoming a shirt Trump waves over his head: Look what the Democrats did to me and my wife. Unfortunately, that sounds about right,” Steinberg, striking a dour note, concluded.
Some experts were certain that this news would not improve Trump's chances.
In this image: Trump arriving at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre after he tested positive for COVID-19. Image via The Associated Press
"To believe the president will benefit from having gotten COVID while ignoring health protocols, one would have to think it will make him more appealing to voters who have been (at the least) badly inconvenienced by the virus in their own lives, blame the president for its continued spread, believed until Friday morning that Joe Biden would be better at managing it than he is, and say it’s important to wear masks and observe social distancing guidelines," Ben Mathis-Lilley argued for Slate.
Lilley, noting the fact that Melania, White House aide Hope Hicks, and Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel have tested positive, said the news could spur news cycles that could last for weeks about the White House unable to control the disease even within the White House.
But others hedged their bets.
Speaking to CNBC on Friday, Cailin Birch of The Economist Intelligence Unit, said, “There is definitely a possibility that we could have a little bit of a sympathy vote coming through for Trump,” Birch said.
“But… I’m not sure, given his approach to the virus… plus the fact that the US political spectrum is just so deeply polarised and entrenched, that it will have any real sort of impact,” she concluded.
Still, the worry that the illness could possibly serve to humanise a president who is so widely unpopular speaks to the extent the hold the 2016 election still has on the imagination of liberals.
Who are taking no chances.
Democrats tread carefully
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in the country not named Oprah, told MSNBC, "This is tragic, it's very sad, but it also is something that, again, going into crowds unmasked and all the rest is sort of a brazen invitation for something like this to happen."
Pelosi, who, incidentally, is third in line for the presidency, added, "It's sad that it did, but nonetheless hopeful that it will be a transition to a saner approach to what this virus is all about."
Biden, days after blasting Trump as a 'clown', saying America was 'weaker, sicker, poorer and more divided' under Trump, said he and his wife Jill “send our thoughts to President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump for a swift recovery.”
Above photo: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (left) and incumbent Donald Trump (right) lock horns at the first presidential debate 2020 in Cleveland. Image via Twitter
In a Friday morning tweet, he added, “We will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family.”
While Biden was correct to show the proper respect for the president and first lady, what remains to be seen is how he will tread the delicate path of attacking Trump's policies without assailing the man now fighting off an illness.
An illness that has proved so deadly to many in their age bracket and has left even the healthiest of adults struggling for months afterward.
While Biden likes to play up his 'uncle Joe' image, he has, at times has been confrontational with voters on the campaign trail, telling an activist 'go vote for someone else', calling another voter 'a damn liar' and challenging him to a push-up contest.
Of course, there are differences.
Biden, for one, is no Hillary.
Hillary was the second most unpopular candidate for president in history.
The most unpopular was the man she eclipsed by nearly three million popular votes and who beat her handily where it counts: the Electoral College.
And while many on the right truly despise Hillary, the best they can do with Biden is assert without much feeling that "his strings are being pulled by Warren and AOC."
In 2016, Trump ran as the outsider. The businessman who would come into Washington, bring with him a businessman's mentality and "fix things".
That did not happen. America is more broken, more divided, and more scarred.
A pandemic rages in the streets. People of colour are protesting police brutality. The US unemployment rate is at 7.9 percent. The markets are spooked.
And Trump is the incumbent.
So, how will things play out?
To quote a far deeper thinker than I, "There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."
We'll know on 4 November. Inshallah.
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