Trump Has COVID — What Happens Next?
President Donald Trump announced he was diagnosed with COVID-19 just past midnight on October 2nd. In a year of dramatic twists and turns, this might be most insane yet. While it is impossible to know where things go from here, it is worth gaming out some of the most likely scenarios.
Example of Trump’s Failure
Trump’s performance on COVID has been very poor. America’s caseload has been far higher than peer countries. Voters also see this — only 40% of Americans approve of Trump’s performance handling the pandemic. A news event like this heightens the salience of the COVID pandemic, and is a clear example of Trump’s unsuitability for the job. “Trump can’t protect your family, he can’t even protect himself!” is a pretty brutal attack line which some anti-Trump influencers will employ.
Even though Trump’s diagnosis is a dramatic event, you shouldn’t necessarily expect a massive shift in the polling. This election has been incredibly stable. Even the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has had little effect on the race. Trump’s die-hard supporters will probably never leave him. Still, losing just 2–3 percentage points nationally will push the race out of reach for Trump.
Trump’s public appearances will be hugely important. Even Trump isn’t crazy enough to hold in-person news conferences while sick, but video appearances are not outside the realm of possibility. If he does, any throat-clearing, sniffling, drop in energy, or paleness will be extensively covered by the media. On the other hand, Trump is not known for his patience, and likes attention, so a step back from the spotlight could be seen as a sign of weakness. Trump’s image as a strong leader runs slightly ahead of his polling, so any impression of weakness could undercut his approval.
Rally Around the Flag
This is a nationally crisis — Trump is still the president after all. During an emergency or traumatic event, voters often rally around the figure in power as a show of unity. In March and April, Trump enjoyed a boost in his approval rating due to the pandemic. That bump reversed itself by the middle of May, but Trump needs any bump he can get electorally.
Just because Trump experiences a “rally around the flag” moment, doesn’t mean it will improve his chances in the election. From March 10 to the 31st, Trump’s approval jumped from about 42% to a peak of 46%, but his polling versus Biden went from -5.5% to -6.1%. Similarly, in recent weeks we have seen Trump’s approval climb from 40% in the summer to almost 44% now, but his election chances have not improved.
Given that the election is a month away, any rally around the flag effect is unlikely to last until then, so don’t panic/rejoice if his favorability jumps in the next week or two. This is part of the reason that the “fake diagnosis” conspiracies seem outlandish to me — why would he stage this now? It this was some desperate play to generate sympathy, it feels like they would pull this stunt a week before the election. Not only would it take advantage of the favorability bump, but it would leave a shorter window for the truth to get out. Of course, it is entirely possible that the Trump team is not being entirely honest about everything, but it is hard to believe that the COVID diagnosis is fake.
For Trump to really gain from this situation, Biden’s team is going to need to make an inappropriate comment. I’m not talking members of the “squad” or some podcast hosts, but someone like Schumer, Harris, or Obama. There will be some silly controversy about a left-leaning figure making a joke that is seen as over-the-line, but this is unlikely to make a real difference. So far, comments from high-ranking Democrats have been quite tasteful:
Given what Trump said about Hillary’s health in 2016 after she contracted pneumonia, the comments will need to be pretty toxic to influence the results of the election.
Running Out the Clock
As things stand, Trump is behind in the polls. He is further behind now than he was at this point in 2016. Trump needs to make up ground to even have a chance to win. COVID is going to greatly limit Trump’s ability to influence the election, meaning he has less opportunity to turn things around. Trump is so central to his administration that it is impossible to imagine a world where anyone else is able to adequately fill the vacuum he leaves behind.
One scenario that works in Trump’s favor involves Pence taking a more dominant position in the campaign. Pence is only slightly more popular than Trump, and is not a particularly charismatic guy, but he has a presence some might see as calming. It’s a long shot, but Pence could position himself as a father-figure to the country while Trump is sick as a “Hail Mary” play. If this happens, along with the rally around the flag effect, and paired with some gaffes from Biden, it might actually help Trump’s chances in the election. This becomes more likely if Trump is seriously ill, which would generate more sympathy.
QAnon et al.
There is a very real chance of some wild reactions from the conspiratorial hard-right. QAnon is a real political force, with millions of (apparent) adherents. It is impossible to know how they will interpret this, and what the response will be. I almost guarantee that by the end of the day there will be large contingent of goons accusing Biden of poisoning Trump at the debate, or Hope Hicks of deliberately infecting the president. Trump’s specific comments and symptomology will be important here, but there is a chance for things to get really crazy. One QAnon expert said it best:
An Excuse to Peacefully Leave Office
What is perhaps the most fortunate scenario, is Trump using his diagnosis as an excuse for losing the election. Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies have been alarming, and there is a very real concern that this election would lead to a constitutional crisis. Much of this is about Trump’s ego — he is unwilling to admit mistakes or faults under almost any conditions, and he hates looking like a loser or weak.
Now, if Trump loses, he will blame catching COVID. You can already hear the rationale: “My polling was looking so strong, so strong, but then I got COVID, and it all fell apart! We were coming back, and we almost came back again, but COVID stopped it! I didn’t even feel bad, I felt fine, but they said I couldn’t campaign!” This will be enough to protect his pride, and the pride of his supporters.
By having an excuse, Trump has been given a ramp to de-escalation. He can still rant about everything being rigged, but it would be performative. Trump doesn’t seem to like being president, but he hates losing even more, and blaming COVID would provide an opportunity to save face.
In the best-case scenario, Trump takes the off-ramp. Democrats win the presidency and the Senate, Trump complains about mail-in ballots, but we get a peaceful transition of power. Trump may then resign in mid-January, setting up Pence to offer a blanket pardon. What happens next is hard to say, but this is the a path that actually allows for some semblance of national unity.