@claytonj944 writes about how the Covid-19 outbreak could affect Donald Trump's prospects for re-election this November.
When “coronavirus” or “covid19” began to enter American discourse, Trump’s reacted by downplaying it and having it under control, even dismissing it as a “Democrat hoax”. During this time, when more preparation could have been done as it worsened globally, Trump argued with the media, and said it would miraculously disappear. As it worsened, he baselessly claimed that a vaccine would soon be available, and that far more testing of Americans was being done than they were. Only weeks later, the U.S declared a national emergency, and Trump signed into law the biggest financial stimulus package in U.S history worth $2 trillion. In normal times, it would make the many fiscal hawks in the Republican Party faint, and the president would appear incompetent by changing his urgency. But as the cliché goes, these are not normal times. Instead it remains unclear if Trump will come out of it looking unfit to lead in a crisis, or a commander in chief who you don’t fire during it.
If history is anything to go by, when presidents were defined by a moment, then there can be multiple outcomes. One scenario could be that the crisis further escalates between now and November, harming many Americans, and anything Trump does, whether it’s by a particular action, or inaction, only makes his situation worse. If he becomes perceived as someone who cannot protect Americans, and looks helpless, and indecisive, then he will be in trouble. Carter discovered this during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and looked ineffective when he struggled to get bring back U.S diplomats in the wake of the revolution. He further provoked that image when Operation Eagle Claw failed to retrieve them, and resulted in a helicopter crash killing eight servicemen, and his Secretary of State Vance, consequently resigning. It is possible that Trump may be idle rather than indecisive, but still result in the main problem Carter had, which was looking ineffective in a crisis, and losing his re-election bid. Americans have expressed public dissatisfaction in the past when they see their own die, as happened in Iran. This was most notable though in the Vietnam War, and a credibility gap between what Johnson said the death rate was and the reality, destroyed his presidency. Trump is known for ignoring the truth, but Americans may not forgive him if he denies fatalities of their own.
A second possibility is that Trump begins to take more control of the narrative around his handling of covid19 and increase his popularity. Currently, Trump has had a small increase in approval ratings, but it is only one twentieth of the 40% increase George W. Bush for example had in the aftermath of 9/11. Naturally, Trump is pleading with the American public already that they must stick with him to bring stability and not to drastically change government in the middle of a huge crisis. This is a tactic that might suit Trump’s campaign well. It would almost completely focus the election on one issue, that will still be fairly early in development being less than a year old. Moreover, it could marginalise other election issues such as healthcare, gun control/rights, climate change, taxes, the economy due to mitigating circumstances, and female, racial minority and LGBTQ rights. Trump’s attempt to convince Americans he is a strongman protective figure has proven success. Reagan portrayed himself as trustworthy to defend America against communism, and George W. Bush did the same during his War on Terror against Islamic extremism.
To make matters worse for the Democrats, their likely nominee Biden has barely been seen. Before the virus, he was sweeping up states in the primaries, partly because he was trusted more in a crisis as a former vice president, and perhaps because covid19 is enough uncertainty for voters to handle to embrace socialism under Sanders. However, Biden has been stuck in a basement, trying to hold online rallies, but struggling with a faulty connection. With concerns about his cognitive health discussed before covid19, do not be surprised if the Republicans use that to sow mistrust amongst Americans, or even suggest that covid19 makes Biden vulnerable and unfit for office because he is 77 years old. Recently, a Washington Post-ABC poll only had Biden 2% ahead of Trump, and the abrupt disruption to his momentum hasn’t helped. Additionally, less opportunity to scrutinise Trump’s record in debates will cause greater difficulty for his opponent to put him on the backfoot.
The final possible outcome, which might favour the Democrats the most, is if some normality returns, is to have an analysis of how America’s economic and health system works to highlight its inadequacies. Bill Clinton arguably had success with this by focusing on the struggling economy and defeating George H.W. Bush, despite becoming initially popular after his Gulf War victory. Notably, Clinton defeated an incumbent Republican, something not achieved in modern history. For this to work though, Biden would need to broaden his platform as more than someone who brings stability, and ask more fundamental questions about the economic system, instead of tinkering around edges of an economy that will likely be significantly damaged. It is entirely plausible this might happen, but it would require the Democrats to convincingly unite behind the candidate. The last thing they want to do is look like they are fighting themselves for the party whilst the president says he is fighting for the country.