Politics Opinion

Trump’s October surprise: The U.S. Election takes an unexpected turn

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

According to White House statements, President Trump has contracted COVID-19, but Dr Martin Hirst says there are reasons to be sceptical.

THE SO-CALLED “October surprise” is more folklore than fact, but it is a long-standing myth that something spectacular will happen in the last month of a presidential campaign season that upsets the pundits and throws the election outcome into doubt. President Donald Trump being infected with COVID-19 – after calling it a “Democrat hoax”, saying it would go away like a miracle and mocking presidential candidate Joe Biden for wearing a mask – is certainly one of the biggest surprises.

Since the weekend, Trump has been sequestered in the Truman suite at the Walter Reed Medical Centre after reportedly receiving a cocktail of expensive and largely untested treatments. But the messaging about Trump’s condition from a stunned and confused White House has been confusing.

The election campaign is not on hold, but the tempo has certainly shifted and the scheduled presidential debates are now likely to be cancelled. It’s hard to tell who might benefit the most from this shift, but Trump entered October a long way behind in the polls and seemingly losing even more support as a result of his blustering and bullying performance in the first debate.

This is a big and continuing story, so this is an attempt to put what we know so far into context. There’s surely more to come, including the election itself. If Trump is sidelined for the next two weeks, it will make it hard for him to energise his base and continue his flagrant attacks on postal and absentee ballots which, to be frank, appears to be his entire re-election strategy.

Does Trump have COVID-19?

It seems odd that we have to ask this question given that Trump is in hospital and the official White House position is that he, Melania and a growing number of his close advisors have all tested positive in the past week. We also are probably not surprised that the President has become infected because his increasingly unhinged public rallies have been dubbed the “superspreader tour” because of the lax precautions in place.

However, ask it we must.

Trump’s whole public persona is built on a Horcrux of lies. He has lied with impunity (it seems) his entire adult life — from avoiding military service because of alleged “bone spurs” to his constant (and hollow) boasts about his wealth, his IQ, his golf handicap, his achievements as President and his prowess with women. Trump’s Presidency began with a ludicrous lie about the size of the crowd at his inauguration nearly four years ago. Since then, according to fact-checkers at The Washington Post, Trump has amassed a total in excess of 20,000 lies (as of three months ago).

In his debate debacle with Joe Biden just over a week ago, Trump lied incessantly, loudly and rudely. CNN reporter Daniel Dale, who specialises in cataloguing and debunking Trump’s mistruths, described the debate as an avalanche of deliberate lies. We simply cannot take anything Trump says at face value, which is why there’s been a cynical response on Twitter.

Then there’s the timing. The tweet from Trump alerting the world to his condition was sent from the White House a little after 1 A.M. Washington time. This was only hours after new recordings of Melania whining about Christmas decorations and refugee children on the border – replete with the “f-bomb” – were released to CNN. It was only two days after Trump’s disastrous performance in the first debate which everybody except Trump gave to Joe Biden. Trump has plenty of reasons to hide out at a hospice for a couple of weeks.

Can we believe Trump?

People are reluctant to believe Trump – or his doctors, staff and media surrogates – and perhaps rightly so. There are elements of the #TrumpHasCovid narrative that are dodgy.

According to his doctors, Trump is continuing to carry out his duties as President from the hospital. So how sick can he really be? Well, we know that, so far, he’s not on a ventilator or taking oxygen.

There’s also been some conflicting reporting about his treatment. The first reported White House statement said he was being given a blood serum containing antibodies and a cocktail of drugs (funnily enough, not hydroxychloroquine or bleach enemas). The antibody therapy is an unproven treatment from the Regeneron company which spends big on political candidates and lobbying. It’s unclear if the company and affiliated bodies are donating to Trump’s campaign.

Within hours of the first statement, there was an update which said the President was being given Remdesivir which is still in trials and only classed as “experimental”.

Then, over the weekend the story changed again. Doctors and White House officials seemed to contradict themselves and briefed journalists with differing accounts of just how serious Trump’s condition is.

If this sounds a little confusing, it is. You might think that there would be some pretty strict treatment protocols around what drugs can be given to the President and throwing one unproven treatment on top of another doesn’t sound like something competent doctors would do. We’ll see. I’m sure this isn’t going unnoticed elsewhere.

What happens now?

Well, in order to clear our heads, let’s assume that Trump has COVID-19 and that he is likely to be in hospital for a bit longer and in some form of isolation for several weeks. This gives us a chance to look at the various scenarios that could emerge.

  1. The Pelosi option:

According to the 25th Amendment, there is a protocol for power to be handed down through a pre-ordained chain of command if the President is incapacitated. The first-in-line is Vice President Mike Pence, but given his proximity to Trump, it is not beyond possibility that he, too, will be infected with COVID-19. Second-in-line is the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

The catch is that, while ever Trump is conscious, he is not going to give up power. He’d hate to give it to Pence and he’d explode with rage if Pelosi became President in his absence. So, my guess is that, short of Trump being in a coma, this scenario is unlikely to eventuate.

  1. The new Republican candidate option:

If Trump is too sick to continue and is effectively pushed into medical retirement (he won’t go quietly), then theoretically a hole opens up on the Republican presidential ticket. It’s too late to withdraw his nomination and millions of voters have already cast their ballots. However, it is apparently still on the table that Trump could be replaced. The question is, which Republican would be stupid or venal enough to drink from that poisoned chalice?

  1. The miraculous recovery option:

A long shot in my view. I think Trump is genuinely ill (I could be wrong). I also don’t see how this scenario plays out in his favour. If he does suddenly bounce back as if nothing happened, the explosion of cynicism and anger is likely to increase and, if anything, tip even more waiverers into the Biden camp.

  1. The sympathy vote option:

This scenario doesn’t require the COVID-19 narrative to be true or false (likely false, in my opinion, if this plays out). Trump stays in Walter Reed and there’s a carefully crafted “wag the dog” plot developed that allows him to make strategic pronouncements and maintain a level of illness that keeps him out of the public gaze but generates a wave of sympathy that pushes voters in his direction.

I’m not saying that would work, but I also don’t think it can be entirely ruled out. Remember who we’re dealing with here — Trump’s inner circle will do almost anything to prop him up.

Let’s also not forget that the Trump strategy of voter suppression, particularly of Black and working-class White voters, is still in play. This campaign of knee-capping campaigns in largely Democrat-held urban electorates has been outsourced to sympathetic governors like Greg Abbott in Texas (who is being sued) and freelancers like the notorious and disgraced Right-wing troll Jacob Wohl and his bagman buddy, Jack Burkman.

The curvaceous chanteuse is not even in the dressing room. Watch this space.

Dr Martin Hirst is an Independent Australia columnist, a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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