Ahead of the Nov. 3 election, this is an October Surprise that has four full weeks to play out.
The "first rough draft of history…" That's what they used to call the news back when most of us got it delivered in daily newspapers and our once-a-night evening broadcast. Now that everything that happens comes flooding at us, all the time, with more and more angles and voices and fewer and fewer agreed upon standards … well, that first draft has gotten much rougher.
The news of President Trump testing positive for COVID-19 pinged across the planet soon after midnight Washington time, just as we were waking up Friday morning here in Europe — and we all (inside and outside the news business) are expected to instantly start making sense of this apparently monumental breaking news story.
It is a tale about Trump and his unimaginable presidency, but also about this unprecedented pandemic. It is the proverbial (early) "October surprise," just a month before the Nov. 3 election, that throws an already tumultuous high-stakes campaign into uncharted territory, in what is still the world's most influential country.
It will be viewed by some as an ironic dose of "just desserts' for a leader who has long downplayed the risks of the virus. Yet anyone seeing this news who claims to know how it will now play out clearly has failed to understand the nature of either this virus, or this president. There are countless possible scenarios, of course. But to begin this first draft before it even happens, it's worth looking at two other world leaders — each with a Trumpian approach to both leadership and COVID — who both happened to contract the virus in the past months. And then, try to factor in the coming election, now just 32 days away:
Boris Johnson: The populist British Prime Minister was one of the first major politicians to announce that he had tested positive. The news in late March came after he had initially downplayed the gravity of the pandemic, and even considered foregoing any lockdowns in the UK in order to achieve so-called "herd immunity." Once stricken himself, Johnson initially claimed his symptoms were relatively mild, but over the coming days his health deteriorated, and he wound up in intensive care.
The Guardian later reported that doctors nearly decided to put the 55-year-old overweight on a ventilator, which has been a sign that a COVID-19's patient condition is grave. Johnson himself later quipped that "it could have gone either way." Though he emerged, and gained a momentary boost of public sympathy (thanks also to Johnson's girlfriend giving birth), the political "optics' were awful vis a vis the pandemic: a brash leader who'd brushed off the gravity of the coronavirus was debilitated for nearly a full month, mostly out of public view, forced to acknowledge (first-hand) what the risks really are.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo on Aug. 12 — Photo: Marcelo Chello/ZUMA
Jair Bolsonaro: Trump included, no world leader has been more dismissive of the threat of COVID-19 than Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Many experts in Brazil point to his public rantings against lockdowns and mask-wearing, which contributed to the country's more than 100,000 deaths.
When Bolsonaro tested positive on July 7, he went into quarantine but said he felt well and would continue his regular work through video calls. After testing negative two weeks later, he returned in full form: O Globo reported the 65-year-old singing the praises of the untested drug hydroxychloroquine and trivialized the virus saying he just had "a little mould" in his lungs. And days later Bolsonaro was back in crowds, with his approval ratings about to reach a new record-high.
Trump & Nov. 3: Of course, neither Johnson nor Bolsonaro contracted the virus on the eve of a reelection bid. With COVID-19 having become highly politicized in the U.S., and responsible for more than 200,000 deaths, the pandemic was already at the center of the showdown between Trump and Joe Biden, with the former vice president ahead in the polls and hammering away on the issue.
What will happen between now and Nov. 3 depends, it seems, how the body (not just the mouth) of the 74-year-old president reacts to the unpredictable virus. If his condition deteriorates over the next two weeks, à la Johnson, it's hard to imagine any way he can make his case and overtake Biden. But if he bounces back quickly like Bolsonaro, emerging with a storyline of his own personal superpowers and a virus as beatable as he'd always claimed, well then the 2020 election may have its second October surprise.