There are now fewer than 30 days left until the USA goes to the polls to select its next president: Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
That polling day will come just two weeks after Trump should stop self-isolating to protect those around him from catching the deadly illness his White House admitted he’d contracted late last week.
Trump becoming a super-spreader of coronavirus is, perhaps, a sign that the old relationship between the UK and the US is stronger than it initially appears.
When Boris Johnson contracted coronavirus much earlier in the pandemic, his illness too was shared with many of his senior aides and top officials in the UK government, adding more chaos to an already sclerotic response to the crisis.
Now Trump has done what America so often does – follow Britain’s example, but bigger and blowsier. Where Johnson had the excuse of contracting coronavirus early on, and had been operating in the cramped and meagre office resources for the UK’s chief executive, Trump spread the disease in style.
First, he held parties celebrating his Supreme Court nominee, with no social distancing. He continued his rallies. His family failed to wear masks (as required) at his first presidential debate.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, he forced secret service agents to share a hermetically-sealed car journey with him for no purpose other than waving at some of his supporters.
And finally, he capped off three days of world-class hospital treatment by immediately removing his mask for a grandiose promotional video.
Four years into his demented presidency, we should by now know better than to look for any kind of rhyme or reason in Trump’s actions, but if we were we could only conclude Trump has somehow become convinced coronaviruses themselves have the vote, since he seems to be going all-out to do whatever he can to help them out.
As we look to what comes next, we should roundly dismiss a theory that swirled across the internet for days, shared by many of us who should have known much better – that contracting the coronavirus would give Trump a huge poll boost, increase his public sympathy, or otherwise change the race.
So strongly did some people believe these theories that they jumped a step still further, suggesting that Trump had faked catching the virus to pick up on exactly these benefits. The problem is such theories misunderstand the politics, the context, and the man himself.
There is nothing in UK polling figures to suggest that Johnson’s bout of coronavirus did anything to boost his party in the ratings, though he did seem to get a modest ‘pity’ boost in his personal approval – but this came much earlier in the crisis, when the public broadly supported the government’s measures to tackle the virus, and when Johnson had displayed virtually none of the overt corona-scepticism of the US president.
Trump, on the other hand, has long-regarded ill health almost as a matter of morality or manliness – believing his own general good health as a sign of his excellent genetics and character. He had staked much of his presidential reelection campaign on calling the response to coronavirus overblown, and calling for more states to reopen their economies. He had flirted with mask sceptics and those calling for ends to lockdown.
Catching coronavirus simply wasn’t on his agenda.
Similarly, any idea of him getting a lucky poll bounce from his misfortune has already disappeared into the ether – largely as it would require the incident to in some way change him, and make him capable of showing human empathy.
Instead, inevitably, as soon as Trump was out of hospital (possibly prematurely, given the risky days ahead for a man of his age and weight) he was celebrating his triumph over the illness, telling people not to be afraid of it, and issuing a commemorative $100 “Trump defeats COVID” coin from the White House gift shop.
For a nation that has already lost 200,000 friends, parents or partners to this illness, this will win Trump absolutely no new voters – and the polls show voters slipping even further against the historically unpopular president, with even his core vote of those over-65 (not coincidentally, those most vulnerable to Covid) fading fast.
Trump’s administration is trying to fall back to its old coronasceptic playbook even as the illness ravages senators, White House staff, secret service, and anyone else unfortunate enough to have come close to the utterly reckless and feckless president. Some remain hospitalised, with uncertain prognosis.
Against that backdrop, attempts from Trump’s vice presidential pick Mike Pence to taunt his debate opponent Kamala Harris for wanting to keep her distance from his podium fall flat to anyone except the most hardened of his Fox News or online warriors.
Trump’s presidency represents nothing short of a contagion that has plagued America for nearly four years, leaving it weakened, delirious and frenetic. A literal contagion around those at the core of the project is, if nothing else, poetic as it nears what we must hope is its end.
The question is how a weakened and surely still unwell Trump lashes out if the race and the polls continue to move against him. A rabid animal is at its most dangerous when it’s cornered. Trump is certainly cornered right now.