As the 2020 US presidential election draws near, close to 209,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 and over 7.3 million have tested positive to the virus, including President Donald Trump.
The announcement of Trump’s positive diagnosis has led to arguably the most extensive case of collective schadenfreude in human history. Taking pleasure in another person being unwell is usually a sign that one has lost one’s moral bearings.
In this case, Trump‘s own cavalier behaviour and attempts to gaslight not just his own nation but the entire world on the dangers posed by Covid-19 (on top of a series of other lies and cruel policies) has led to a widespread lack of sympathy.
In the US, Trump‘s opponents and critics have gone out of their way to publicly wish Trump a speedy recovery.
But globally, the story is more complicated. Trump isn’t everyone’s president, of course, and he is seen by many as a singular threat to humanity and the global environment.
Recent Pew surveys show how deeply unpopular Trump is globally. Normally sanguine commentators have been talking about the death of democracy in the US if Trump steals victory from the jaws of defeat.
Our view is the most preferable way for the Trump presidency to end is for him to recover quickly and be beaten clearly on November 3. However, because people are so invested in this year’s election, there is much interest in what happens if Trump does not recover quickly. There is uncertainty on a number of fronts.
Although receiving the best medical care, at 74, Trump is in a high-risk category. We know that for many people, symptoms appear similar to that of the flu, often quite mild to begin with, but with the potential for things to go downhill quickly, especially if those contracting the illness develop respiratory complications.
There are conflicting reports from Washington about how sick Trump actually is, and much will depend on what happens in the next few days.
So what happens if the president is incapacitated in the coming weeks, or even dies from COVID-19?
First, if the president dies in office, there is a long line of succession starting with the vice president — in this case, Mike Pence. This is hardly unprecedented, as eight American presidents have died in office. The first of these, William Harrison, died of pneumonia after serving just over 30 days in office in 1841.
Following the vice president, there is a host of congressional leaders and cabinet secretaries identified as next in line. This starts with the speaker of house, which in this case would be Nancy Pelosi, the Californian Democrat whose relationship with Trump, to put it mildly, is not good. In other words, if Trump dies, there is a succession plan.
However, what complicates matters is that more people within the Trump circle are testing positive by the day.
Even if Trump does not die, what happens if he has a lengthy illness? What happens if Pence, who has initially tested negative, also contracts the virus in the coming days? If neither of these men are fit to run for the looming election, now less than one month away, how will the process play itself out?
If Trump and Pence were both unable to campaign as a result of contracting the virus, this would truly be unprecedented. Americans have had controversial elections in the past — elections in which neither candidate received the required number of electoral college votes, throwing the election to the House of Representatives; those where the winner of the popular vote did not win the presidency.
So if both Trump and Pence were incapacitated, the Republican National Committee would have some difficult choices to make — and they would have to make them quick.
At this stage, a delay of the election is extremely unlikely. This would require congressional authorisation and the Constitution requires through the 20th Amendment that a president must commence their new term on January 20. Time is the enemy, and advantages Biden. Democrats in the House, where they have a majority, would not countenance changing the election date.
However, even if Trump only develops a mild version of the illness, it has shaken up the campaign. Information on Trump’s condition is conflicting. Some reports suggest he is improving and in good spirits, others suggest he has already required a dose of supplemental oxygen.
The presidential debates are unlikely to go ahead and Trump will not be campaigning anytime soon. In the short term, Trump’s presence in his campaign will be virtual. If any Republican is to spend time in key swing states, it will be Pence.
If Trump recovers, he will want to project an image of strength — the “warrior” president who battled and defeated COVID-19. This might seem far-fetched, but creating an image of manly vigour has been central to the Trump presidency. Trump does not like images of weakness.
In Geoffrey Goldberg’s controversial article, he argues Trump fails to comprehend the notion of heroism, concluding the president, while “fixated on staging military parades”, does not like to include wounded veterans in such parades.
Uncomfortable with deformity, endlessly mocking those he considers weak and inferior, the president, if he recovers, could reappear late in the election cycle with a renewed swagger, boasting about his personal exploits against what he calls the “China plague”. His base would relish such images.
However, it is difficult to see how this situation will not advantage Biden.
As long as Biden, who is 77, stays healthy, he has quite a bit of latitude in terms of how and where he campaigns. He will continue to express his perfunctory well wishes to the president and first lady, but given Biden has spoken incessantly about the president’s failures to combat COVID-19, the disease will be the dominant issue of this election — and so it should.
With more than 200,000 Americans dead, most of whom, unlike the president, never had personal physicians, were not rushed to Walter Reed medical centre, and were not given drugs such as the anti-viral remdesivir to shorten their hospital stays, it is hard to resist the notion Biden will not consolidate his lead.
Without the debates, Biden can avoid tricky questions about what he will do to the Supreme Court if Republicans insist on a vote for Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.
Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell in the Senate, will do everything in their power to make sure this vote goes forward to consolidate the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. However, with three Republican Senators recently contracting the virus, a vote before the election is not guaranteed. Again, the longer the uncertainty lasts, and the more Senators who become infected, Biden may secure the advantage of a delayed vote, if indeed the vote takes place at all.
But as Trump recently said to journalist Bob Woodward in Rage, the controversial book in which the president admitted to knowing how serious this virus was despite publicly downplaying its threat to the American people, when “you’re running a country it’s full of surprises. There’s dynamite behind every door”.
The same can be said for the 2020 presidential election.
This article was first published in The Conversation and has been reproduced with permission.
Brendon O'Connor is Associate Professor in American Politics at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney.
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