Donald Trump loses one of his most important campaign tools with the announcement of his COVID infection: his public appearances. This is a disaster considering the president needed to throw the kitchen sink at his challenger Joe Biden over these next five weeks.

The Coming Weeks Could Decide the Election

The White House set out a roadmap for these last weeks before election day, including Trump rallies in key states such as Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, and Georgia. The president was set to speak to his supporters and turn his campaign around. On Friday, the Trump team canceled these appearances. The impact could be severe. 

It did not come as a surprise, however. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official stipulation is that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 must be in quarantine for at least ten days, depending on the disease’s course.

Ten days may not sound significant. However, with 30 days until the election and the president trailing in all relevant polls, ten could end up being the deciding factor. More importantly, these ten days is the minimum, and depending on the president’s health status, even restrictions may or may not apply beyond.

How Sick is Trump?

According to the White House, Trump is showing mild symptoms, and the coming days will indicate how the infection progresses, according to the statement on Friday morning. However, by late Friday afternoon, it was announced that the president went to the Walter Reed Medical Center to stay there for “a few days”. The only certainty in this is that nobody currently knows what impact the virus will have on the president, which automatically puts significant question marks on his campaign. 

Friday’s events are a shock for the Trump campaign and may have sealed the president’s defeat. Not only can Trump not fuel his base personally but collecting campaign donations will now become more difficult. Moreover, further infections in Trump’s campaign have occurred, including campaign manager Bill Stepien and other GOP operatives as well as Trump staffers.

Various Theories About Trump’s Illness

The fact that the president is infected can moreover, be assessed differently in political and tactical terms. On the one hand, it’s about Trump’s credibility. His illness leads the president’s previous negligent attitude towards the coronavirus to absurdity. On the other hand, some already suspect the infection as a political scam, to use a possible, quickly overcome infection to downplay the virus again and praise his fitness ultimately. 

Others even go as far as suggesting that Trump could have just made up the infection as a political maneuver. A post by filmmaker Michael Moore, for example, pointed out Trump’s numerous proven lies and warned that Trump could use the infection – real or not – to postpone the election.

The latter, of course, is not only a preposterous claim by Moore but also inconceivable. The hurdles for postponing the election are incredibly high because the date has been set by law since 1845. A change would need congressional approval, which would arguably be challenged in court.

Most importantly, the House of Representatives is controlled by the Democrats who will have no interest in postponing Biden’s election since he is in the lead in the polls. Moreover, there would only be a few weeks to be gained in this way, because the rest of the schedule is laid down in the constitution and is therefore even more rigid.

Moreover, the disease is detrimental to Trump’s status quo as it will likely prevent him from conducting major political decisions shortly before the election. The latter concerns – inter alia – the delicate question of the appointment of the next Supreme Court Justice and Trump’s campaign against mail-in voting is likely also brought to a halt. Moreover, the two remaining presidential debates with Joe Biden – the next one scheduled on October 15 – will likely be canceled or altered in their format.

Trump Has No Reason to Fake an Illness

Thus, the benefit of staging an infection appears non-existent – unless the president has pretty much conceded defeat and attempt to establish an excuse – which appears rather far-fetched, even for today’s standards.

How severe the impact of the illness on the election campaign will depend on how the president recovers from the virus. Since there is no obligation to make the state of health of the president public, one ought not to expect detailed (read: necessarily truthful) daily updates. However, an unexplained prolonged absence of the president would inevitably lead to an even bigger political crisis close to the election. Moreover, any attempt to hide severe damage to Trump’s health, as was the case in 1919 after President Woodrow Wilson’s stroke, appears problematic to facilitate these days considering the leaking that has been omnipotent in Trump’s White House.

Can Trump Still Stage a Political Comeback?

On the bright side, if Trump’s illness remains mild, his campaign could somewhat be organized from quarantine. Tweet, stream speeches, interviews on Fox, all of which are possible. However, these are no substantial prerequisites for Trump, who needed to find a spark to transform a lackluster campaign into a winner through his presence and direct contact with his base.

Perhaps even more importantly, there does seem to be any political advantage to Trump’s infection. When Ronald Reagan got shot in 1981, the whole nation seemed to turn Republican and displayed its solidarity with the president. Reagan’s approval ratings rose to 73 percent. However, the degree of schadenfreude and outright repulsive hate communicated by many of the public since Friday does not indicate an increase in approval. A Reagan effect hence appears utterly inconceivable, and the chances for a second term are now declining with any day the president is not actively campaigning.  

 

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