The cascading events of 2020 have been unrelenting, at times unbelievable, at times almost unbearable. No one could have written the script of a year that has killed so many Americans, disrupted so many lives and, with the election now just a month away, left the country so politically divided and emotionally drained.
That was as of Thursday morning. Then came the report early Friday that President Trump and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. And then came the live images early Friday evening of the president, suffering from the symptoms of covid-19, being ferried by helicopter from the White House lawn to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The day’s events brought a new element of uncertainty and concern to a nation already on edge.
Many people have sent good wishes for a swift recovery for the president, the first lady and for others in their orbit who also have been or may be infected — just as people hope and pray for anyone who contracts a virus that has infected more than 7 million Americans and killed more than 200,000. The president’s illness is a reminder to those who doubted that the virus is real, it is not contained and respects no person’s station, even those like Trump, who believe they are in a protective bubble.
The president is in superb medical hands this weekend, but even with the best of outcomes, this episode, piled on top of everything else that has occurred this year, adds to the strain of a nation that never seems to have a minute to turn away from misery or controversy or both, never has a chance to collect its breath, never has a week or a day to fully enjoy life as it existed when the year began.
Events — some of them once-in-decades or once-in-a-century occurrences — now play out all in unison. There is no respite. If one ebbs another flows. People talk about an October surprise in presidential campaign years. The year has been a series of October surprises, some titanic in scope, others smaller but disruptive in their own way.
The biggest include the pandemic, the collapse of the economy and now a recovery that has left the worst off the farthest behind. They include a racial reckoning for the country, with protesters demanding justice after more shootings and killings of unarmed Black people by police. Just two weeks ago, it was a shock of a different kind — the death of a revered justice of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her passing has triggered a rancorous political and cultural struggle over the vacancy she left behind.
If all this weren’t enough, changes in the world’s climate have manifested themselves in intense wildfires in the West, bringing death and property destruction and drifting smoke that temporarily obscured the sun in cities as far away as the East Coast, or that have produced a full alphabet-and-more of named hurricanes and tropical storms, which are drowning the Southeast with massive amounts of rainfall.
For the president, there have been a series of personal and political October surprises that began to arrive even before the actual turn of the calendar this past week. None was on the scale of the biggest events that have shaped the political year, but to a beleaguered president, they have amounted to seismic eruptions — like one “Access Hollywood” after another after another — that have repeatedly thrown him on the defensive.
They include a devastating portrait of the president in the new book by his niece Mary L. Trump, a report in the Atlantic quoting anonymous sources as saying Trump called war dead and wounded soldiers “suckers” and “losers,” and revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book in which Trump admits he deliberately played down the risks of the virus. At the beginning of last week, it was a bombshell report by the New York Times about Trump’s years of tax avoidance.
On Tuesday night in Cleveland, it was self-inflicted damage from a belligerent debate performance against Democratic nominee Joe Biden that left even some of his supporters alarmed. As the president hectored Biden over the course of the 98-minute debate, members of his family sat in the front rows, refusing to wear masks even after being encouraged to do so by officials at the Cleveland Clinic and in violation of the rules for attendance.
Now, the president, who has flouted medical guidelines and belittled Biden for wearing a mask and taking other precautions, has been hospitalized, dramatically altering the near-term trajectory of the campaign. Trump’s condition throws into question the second presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 15 and perhaps the third on Oct. 22. The president’s illness also raises questions about when, if ever, he will be able to resume the big rallies he craves for energy and adulation, events routinely populated by thousands of people, mostly without masks.
The overriding question, however, is whether the president’s illness will affect his and the administration’s posture toward containing the spread of the virus as the country heads into the winter flu season amid warnings of more cases and deaths. The president’s hospitalization is a clarifying moment for all, but especially for him.
Whether it will be cause for recalibration awaits his return to good health.
For months, he has tried to claim that the pandemic will soon be history. If, after what he is going through, he continues to deny the reality of the pandemic, he could further alienate the majority of the country who fear they or a family member could contract the coronavirus and who already distrust his word on the topic. But to admit that what his own scientists have been saying is correct would require something uncharacteristic in this president: an acknowledgment that he had been wrong for months.
Whatever path is chosen, there is now no escaping the issue he has least wanted the election to be about. He has tried to make the campaign about many things in hopes of distracting voters from what they see all around them. Now he is guaranteed that the final weeks of the campaign will see the pandemic front and center, along with his willful dismissal of it.
Nothing to date has been able to jolt the campaign out of the track it has been on for months, with Biden leading and Trump struggling — not the pandemic, not the economy, not the protests or Trump’s message of law and order, not the revelations about taxes or his private knowledge of the virus vs. his public statements.
In Tuesday’s debate, the president again declined to pledge to accept the outcome of the election if it goes against him. Instead, he escalated his attacks on mail-in ballots, showed that he is prepared to question the legitimacy of a Biden victory and, most worrisome, called on his supporters to be prepared to challenge the votes at polling places and sites where ballots are counted. The end of the election threatens to be an explosive moment.
Trump’s illness adds yet another wild card to this mix. Will he generate sympathy for what he is going through, or be punished for what he has not done to protect himself and the country? The coming days will bring one more gut check for an electorate largely locked in and ready to vote. The outcome will provide a capstone to what has been America’s annus horribilis.
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