CAROLINE GRAHAM: Can Covid return Trump to the White House?

CAROLINE GRAHAM: How ironic if the virus that Trump has long mocked now helps get him back into the White House

Just when you think it can’t get any more dumbfounding, it does. As events unfolded rapidly last week – from the disastrous presidential debate to a Covid-stricken President Donald Trump being airlifted to hospital – it was like watching the latest scenes in an apocalyptic Hollywood movie that refuses to end.

Sitting in my home in the hills above Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, smoke from the still-raging Californian wildfires hanging heavy in the air, it is almost unthinkable that just 12 months ago, the America I love was booming, with record employment figures and a rocketing economy.

Today, the country I have called home for 28 years since moving from Britain lies in tatters. Ravaged by the pandemic, with 208,000 dead and counting, America has never felt more divided and broken as an unrelenting tsunami of catastrophic events sweep the nation.

Donald Trump, pictured left during his disastrous debate with Joe Biden on Tuesday night, might benefit from his Covid-19 diagnosis 

Trump walked to Marine One on Friday ahead of the short flight to the Walter Reed Military Medical Center where he is receiving treatment for Covid-19 

Riots have consumed major cities from Portland to New York, and the deaths of two black Americans – George Floyd and Breonna Taylor – at the hands of police have highlighted a racial schism that has been festering for years.

Armed militia from both sides – white and black – gather on the streets, openly threatening bloodshed and civil war. The most bitterly contested election in living memory descended into an unedifying haranguing match between two septuagenarian candidates so awful that one CNN reporter called Tuesday’s debate a ‘s*** show’ live on air. Add to that the recent deaths of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a heroine of the Left, and 43-year-old superhero actor Chadwick Boseman, an icon for black Americans, and we are left with a country in existential crisis. Indeed, a survey last week revealed that people here are more anxious and depressed than at any time since ‘happiness levels’ were first measured by the University of Chicago nearly 50 years ago.

Glued to my television on Friday, watching live footage of Trump leaving the White House by Marine One for hospital just moments after filming a bizarre ‘proof of life’ video which was released on Twitter, a friend who is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter rang.

‘You couldn’t make this stuff up,’ he sighed. ‘If I took a script with all this to Netflix, they would laugh me out of the room.’

On another level, though, he said what is happening is so deeply depressing. ‘It’s as if the country is imploding. You wonder, what’s next? A plague of locusts? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?’

Glued to my television on Friday, watching live footage of Trump leaving the White House by Marine One for hospital just moments after filming a bizarre ‘proof of life’ video which was released on Twitter, a friend who is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter rang

With just 30 days to go before the country votes on November 3, and with postal voting already under way in some states, it might seem logical that the hospitalisation of a 74-year-old President who has resolutely (until now) refused to wear a mask and underplayed the ‘China virus’ so badly that he blithely remarked ‘one day, like a miracle, it will disappear’, could swing voters in favour of his opponent.

But while Democrats cling to the hope that Joe Biden, 77 – who immediately announced he was pulling ‘nasty’ party political commercials from TV and called the President’s diagnosis a ‘bracing reminder’ of the pandemic – might benefit from the situation, the reverse could be true.

‘Trump might end up getting the sympathy vote,’ a major Republican donor told me last night.

Certainly after Tuesday’s spittle-flecked presidential debate, the consensus was that it was a disaster for Trump because he came across as a petulant, out-of-control bully. For his part, Biden belied those ‘Sleepy Joe’, ‘dummy’ and ‘loser’ jibes from Trump.

But all that has been forgotten with America’s ailing 45th President now in a hospital room. The truth is that Americans have traditionally rallied behind a sick President. After Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, he won the next election in a landslide.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a polio sufferer confined to a wheelchair, is the only President to serve four terms in office.

‘Trump openly mocked Biden during the TV debate for wearing a mask, but if Trump gets through this and stays in control, it could really help his case,’ the donor added. ‘Republicans will rally to his cause and he could enjoy a bump in popularity, just like Boris Johnson did when he was hospitalised with the virus.’ Of course, there is also the possibility that Trump may not be well enough to take part in the remaining two presidential debates, set for October 15 and 22.

Which might not be a bad thing considering last week’s unedifying encounter. Trump performed so horribly that if he goes back to his favourite form of communication, tweeting, particularly from the hospital or his sick bed, he might avoid another disastrous showing. And if Biden is put on the back foot as all eyes focus on Trump, who then recovers, the chances are that the President will, ironically, look more robust to the undecided voter. In US politics there is a term ‘October surprise’ – a news event that unexpectedly ends up deciding the outcome of the November presidential elections. During the 2016 face-off between Trump and Hillary Clinton, a videotape emerged of him crudely talking about grabbing women by their ‘p****’.

It should have sunk his chances. But just days before the election, another ‘surprise’ development exploded. The then-FBI director, James Comey, announced he was investigating 650,000 emails sent by Hillary Clinton using a private server while Secretary of State.

In addition, a separate investigation was launched into the estranged husband of a top Clinton aide who was accused of sending sexually explicit emails to a 15-year-old girl. Trump predictably reacted by saying all this justified his ‘Crooked Hillary’ barb and that her presidency would mean the continuation of corrupt Washington politics, whereas he offered a fresh alternative.

Clinton was later absolved of any wrongdoing, but the damage had been done and Trump stormed to victory. This year, there has been fevered speculation about what this election’s ‘October surprise’ would be. Last month, Trump was hit by a double whammy of leaked tax records showing he paid just $750 in 2016, the year he was elected, and in 2017, his first year as President. Then Pulitzer Prize-winning Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, who helped bring down Richard Nixon, released tapes of interviews with Trump for his latest book, Rage, which proved Trump knew of the dangers of Covid-19 as early as February, saying it was ‘deadly stuff’ but he wanted to ‘play it down’ – something that undoubtedly cost lives.

Until the shock announcement that Trump and First Lady Melania both have Covid, Woodward’s tapes had been dominating the news agenda here. Multiple polls were showing Trump’s botched handling of the pandemic was the primary reason undecided voters would be casting their ballots against him.

Now it appears the President’s own Covid-19 diagnosis and hospitalisation could be this election’s ‘October surprise.’ ‘All he has to do to set himself on the path to re-election is to survive,’ the Republican donor claimed. ‘He’ll come across as robust – and it will knock the unpopular edges off him. A lot of people had thought they’d already made up their minds which way they would vote, and the polls up to this week had Biden just ahead.’

However, the events of the past 48 hours have thrown everything up in the air. How piquantly ironic, then, if it turns out that contracting the virus he has so long ridiculed and was accused of calling a ‘hoax’, ends up helping Donald Trump secure his second term.

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