Admit it: this probably wasn’t the October surprise you envisioned. There’s an appreciable irony in the news that President Trump and First Lady Melania—as well as Kellyanne Conway, Hope Hicks, Chris Christie and a veritable clown car of Trump notables—had tested positive for COVID-19. But I can’t help but feel this might also be the development that shuts down the circus for good.
Call it karma, call it poetic justice. One thing’s for sure: It’s impossible to quantify at present how this unforeseen turn of events will affect Trump’s re-election (you’re wrong if you think Donny’s diagnosis automatically seals the deal for Joe Biden). On the other hand, it’s not controversial to surmise that, with only a month out until Election Day, this turn of events has dumped cold water on Trump’s campaign, given in-person rallies and debates have been put on hold during the final stretch of a race for which poll after poll indicates he’s losing.
Worse, Trump is now personally responsible for seeing the national conversation return to a crisis he pretended wasn’t real (How exactly do you contract a “hoax” that “affects virtually nobody” and “will be gone by Easter” anyway?). It’s cringeworthy enough to get the “China Virus” days after ridiculing Biden for wearing a mask; falling victim to a pandemic he downplayed for months undercuts critical elements of his reelection message: it exposes his mishandling of the virus, confirms the country remains in uncertain territory and reinforces the notion that he’s failed to address a disaster that’s killed more than 200,000 Americans. Four more years, anyone?
Trump re-wrote the election playbook. He galvanized a populist movement by addressing the grievances of a sizable portion of the electorate who hadn’t been represented in election cycles for decades. He proved that emotions matter more than metrics in politics, that you need to go where the energy is—something Biden still needs to figure out—essentially running on a promise to return America to halcyon days that never really existed. And until COVID happened, when the economy was booming and unemployment was under four percent, it was beyond clear that he’d clobber Biden in a general election and waltz into a second term.
Politics always distorts reality to a degree, but Trump’s supporters live in a special kind of fantasy world. Again, this speaks to his persuasiveness. Trump’s a con man who’s arguably the least capable and most incompetent American president in history, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t know how to hook an audience, develop a product and sell it to the hilt. And for four years, the rest of us have been waiting for the spell to break, for the Trump cargo cult to arrive at a nadir, some moral bottom that doesn’t exist. Virtually every month since he announced his candidacy five years ago, there’s been another bridge too far, another “he really did it this time” moment. And yet nothing seemed to give. The lies, the bullying, the name calling, the conspiracy theories, the idiotic tweets. It didn’t matter that he cheated on his taxes or cheated on his wives or cheated his way out of Vietnam. It didn’t matter that he courted white supremacists or kept migrant kids in cages or cozied up to dictators or referred to soldiers as “losers” and “suckers.” The most fascinating thing about the Trump era is that it has put into focus a phenomenon that essentially amounts to a willful denial of reality when you finally get what you want after being on the losing side of the culture wars for three decades.
It isn’t unlike the psychology of abusive relationships: make me feel wanted, and I’ll excuse any behavior you throw at me. Trump’s recklessness, boorishness and callousness are recast as instances of craft. Years of consecutive financial losses are somehow the makings of a shrewd businessman. Anytime he makes an absurd statement—like advocating injecting disinfectant to kill the coronavirus—he’s somehow both making a medically-sound claim and telling a joke at the same time. The “us versus them” mindset in our political discourse has reached such dizzying heights that we now reside in a sort of quasi-parodic “Black Mirror” episode where everyone gets their own personalized confabulation of reality. His supporters endorse the tortuous logic that something is true only when you want to believe it. What’s wrong for everyone else is fine when our camp does it. The loudest voice in the room wins.
And now, after nearly four years of incompetency, philistinism and science denial, this comedy of errors has arrived at an inevitable—albeit unexpected—conclusion: Trump has contracted a disease many of his followers didn’t even believe existed. It’s a stunning development, not only due to the fact that Trump’s own diagnosis lays bare his mishandling of the pandemic, but because for the first time, he and his supporters have finally been forced to contend with reality.
Trump has become a victim of his own failures. He’s now been placed in the unenviable position of showing by example what happens when you know the risks but ignore the science and refuse to take the proper precautions. The illusion has failed, or as Trump said himself: “it is what it is.”