The writer is resident scholar at the american enterprise institute
In every us presidential election, it has become customary to watch out for an october surprise: an event or action in the final weeks that can alter the dynamic and possibly change the outcome.
Days before the 1972 election, henry kissinger, then national security adviser to richard nixon, announced peace is at hand with vietnam. in 2000, days before the bush/gore election, an attorney released information that george w bush had been caught in a drunk driving incident in maine in 1976.
In this extraordinary year, the first october surprise was a shockingly bombastic and divisive debate performance by president donald trump. but an even bigger shock came hot on its heels with the announcement that a host of senators and other political figures, including the us president and the first lady, had tested positive for coronavirus after a white house event where they mingled with mostly mask-less guests.
Americans watch the health and wellbeing of their leader with utmost care. if a president were to be incapacitated or die right before an election, it would create untold drama and difficulties. so when mr trump was diagnosed with covid-19 and rushed by helicopter to walter reed medical center, it sent shockwaves around the world. when his team of doctors also refused to answer basic questions about his condition and dissembled about his health, it caused a remarkable level of anger and unease among the reporters covering him and the public watching the spectacle.
But that anger and unease was only beginning. on monday the president returned from hospital to the white house. in an extraordinary performance, a film of which was then posted on twitter by mr trump, he emerged from his helicopter on the white house lawn, walked up steps to the second floor balcony, took off his mask and stood saluting and waving. the scene only missed a white horse to take him to his victory perch and a military band saluting dear leader.
As the president released a misleading and dangerous message to the public about his ability to vanquish the virus, which he said was more like a case of the common flu, his campaign also released an ad showing the president as a professional footballer vaulting over and then knocking to the ground a defensive player dressed as a covid-19 molecule, and trotting to the end zone.
Put aside the misinformation that was likely to make many americans even more lax about taking precautions against the deadly disease, leading to more cases and more deaths. it appears from the list of medications and the pieces of information we have about his condition that mr trump may have covid-19 pneumonia. that would be serious, especially for an obese 74-year-old whose only exercise is swinging a golf club and climbing into a golf cart to transport him to the next shot.
We know, too, that the trump white house appears to be its own super spreader building, with staffers and reporters having also caught the virus. meanwhile, there is the stunning refusal by the white house chief of staff to impose a mask requirement on those in the building with a highly contagious president, who has indicated he will go to miami to debate with joe biden rather than stay quarantined in the white house family quarters.
Former presidential candidate herman cain caught covid-19 shortly after attending a trump rally where he posted pictures of himself without a mask. after his test, he tweeted for weeks that he was doing fine. he died after a late turn for the worse. we do not know if mr trump will suffer further deterioration or ongoing side-effects. but we do know that short-term improvement in symptoms can be followed by a sharp increase in deadly ones.
There is no indication that mr trump has signed a directive turning authority over to his vice-president, mike pence, in the event he cannot carry out his duties or that mr pence, who is continuing to travel and campaign, is taking the prospect seriously himself. americans are left wondering what happens if the president dies or is incapacitated before the election (millions have already voted, and ballots are printed in all states). the complications mushroom if he were to die after having won the election. questions about the chain of command are there not just for the us and its allies, but in the calculations of adversaries such as russia, china, iran and isis.
The narcissistic and authoritarian impulses of mr trump were there for all to see before october. they have now reached a new level of recklessness and uncertainty with covid-19. not the kind of october surprise we needed or wanted.