Impending death, as the saying goes, has a way of focusing the mind. There’s no reason to believe President Trump faces imminent death as a result of his recently testing positive for the coronavirus.
But the brief video he released before he went into hospital showed a Trump we’ve rarely seen before: sombre, scared and, perhaps for the first time, truly shaken by the pandemic’s threat to both the nation and himself. It’s conceivable that this momentous new development in the US presidential race, just a month from election day, could restore a seriousness to our politics that it has lacked for quite a while.
Exhibit A in the unseriousness of American political life has, of course, been our tragically inept response to the pandemic. Not all of the blame can be pinned on the Trump administration. The coronavirus has demonstrated a widespread breakdown in national competence that has become increasingly evident since the end of the cold war, which likely will receive further confirmation when we prove ourselves incapable of conducting a successful election next month.
But Trump’s distinctive contribution to our cack-handed response to this pandemic has been to politicise the public health measures to combat it. His irresponsible pursuit of partisan advantage over the national interest led him to downplay the threat of the virus, to demand a premature return to business as usual, to ignore social distancing at his public rallies and to mock wearing a mask as somehow weak and un-American.
Trump’s opponents have some justification for considering his contracting the coronavirus to be a kind of karmic retribution. Bu fortunately, most prominent Democrats and Never Trumpers understand that the presidency as an institution, as opposed to any particular individual who occupies the White House, is too important to the nation’s security and wellbeing to be completely a matter of partisan politics.
Most have also refrained from publicly indulging in the kind of schadenfreude that will only deepen our tribal divisions. Joe Biden hit exactly the right note with his message wishing the first couple a speedy recovery and his campaign’s suspension of negative advertising.
It’s distantly possible that Trump, after what I pray will be his complete recovery, might return to campaigning with a new maturity brought on by being forced to confront his mortality. He might issue a bipartisan call for mask-wearing and social distancing and for taking the pandemic out of politics.
No one seriously expects this of Trump, however, even though such a course would be the most likely to give him a rally-around-the flag bump in popularity. As Biden observed in the last debate, Trump is who he is.
It’s far more likely that Trump will boast that his recovery is a tribute to his personal strength and shows that the coronavirus is, as he has said on many occasions, not much worse than the flu. And, given that his admission to hospital will take him off the campaign trail at the very moment when he most needs to narrow his polling gap with Biden, the likelihood of his defeat will increase his desperation. That in turn makes it likelier that he will try to sabotage the legitimacy of the election.
But if the virus can’t change Trump, perhaps it can have a sobering effect on a critical mass of Americans who, for too long, have regarded politics merely as cheap entertainment and the venue for the expression of culture war grievances. Just as Trump has not been a saviour for his supporters, removing him from office will do little in itself to arrest the reality of American decline.
Vladimir Putin has claimed that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” but hindsight may show America’s victory in the cold war as the prelude to a greater tragedy. The end of the cold war at least deprived the US of the desire to live up to its image as the leader of the free world and the national unity needed to pursue that end.
There was a time when it would have been a matter of deep and widely shared national embarrassment that the US, which makes up 4% of the world’s population, should account for 20% of all Covid-19 deaths. There was a time when the country that saw itself as the beacon of global democracy would have undertaken the kind of reforms needed to conduct a national election during a pandemic.
The lukewarm enthusiasm of most of Biden’s supporters, in sharp contrast to their passionate determination to oust Trump, is an indication of political maturity. The fact that few of them expect Biden to be a saviour indicates a wider understanding that the responsibility for reversing our national decline rests with the American people. Some of this same understanding has glimmered, however faintly, with those of Trump’s supporters who have been forced by his illness to think about the possibility of his defeat or even his incapacitation or death.
Just as the pandemic has touched every part of the country, the problems driving our national decline extend to both red and blue America. The solutions will have to come from the same kind of national mobilisation, skill at practical problem-solving and facility for governance and political compromise that allowed the country to win a world war, put a man on the moon and extend the benefits of peace and prosperity to much of the globe.
Perhaps Trump’s illness will, in hindsight, be seen to have provided a much-needed national wake-up call.
• Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party and director of political studies at the Niskanen Centre, Washington