When the president of the United States is diagnosed with a virus that has killed more than 1 million people, 32 days out from the election, some questions about our democracy naturally arise, such as: AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH?
It’s only been single-digit hours since President Donald Trump announced his positive COVID-19 test, and few questions have any answers.
I’ve been writing a version of the Donald Trump Has the Coronavirus story since March, when news broke that the president had potentially been exposed to the virus at Mar-a-Lago. I, along with BuzzFeed News’ science editor, have regularly updated that prewritten story ever since with more and more grim updates about the virus and the administration’s botched response. I still woke up shocked to see that it had been published, even after the Hope Hicks news Thursday night.
As you try to focus your brain on this Friday morning, in a year that hasn’t been exactly predictable, it is…pretty OK and accurate to be really thrown off by this one.
It’s good to accept you have no idea what is going to happen next. None of us has any idea what is going to happen next. Whatever you feel about Trump, it has been almost 40 years since there’s been such an open question about the health and stability of a US president. This is not the sort of thing that normally happens so close to an election.
I’m not going to pretend here to have many answers to anything right now (good luck, reporters!). But there are a few directions worth letting your mind wander to as you settle into this new, escalated-chaos reality.
What happens to the presidential campaign? This deeply weird presidential campaign as we know it could theoretically be over. If Trump commits to quarantining for the CDC recommended minimum, he would be sheltered from the public until at least mid-October. We don’t know if there are going to be large-scale Trump rallies. We don’t yet know if there will be future presidential debates.
Who else in politics could have been exposed? We don’t yet have a full idea of this, or know how long Trump himself has had the virus or could have been contagious for. But this has been one of the most high-contact weeks of the presidential campaign. Supreme Court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett last saw Trump on Saturday, the White House said. The debate was on Tuesday, where Trump yelled at Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace — inside — for 90 minutes. The debate hall was filled with Trump and Biden family members, and the Trump side of the hall was (at least largely) not masked. We don’t yet know what Biden or his campaign plan to do in the coming days in response, though we do know that Biden’s campaign says he is regularly tested.
What happens to….the election? More than 2 million people have already voted. It’s really hard to imagine something dramatic changing at this point, though things have been dramatically changing at a regular pace. If Trump or Biden is not able to serve as president and has to withdraw from the election, their respective parties would technically decide on their replacements. This has never happened before, and if it had to happen now, it would come so close to the election with so many people already voting that it’s right now unfathomable to say how it would work. It’s really hard to imagine countless millions of ballots being reprinted in a worst-case scenario. Trump and his allies have already spent months trying to suggest that the election might be rigged or faulty. The mind boggles.
What should we think about pundits who tell us what this really means for the election? Could this have any impact on who people actually decide to vote for? Who knows! Voters’ minds have seemed very made up for months now, but this isn’t exactly a normal event. Trump, one could argue, could be the beneficiary of a wave of sympathy if he publicly handles this right. Or, one could counter, Trump has just again proven how reckless he’s been throughout the pandemic, how his bungled response to a deadly virus was always going to end like this.
Trump’s case against Biden has often boiled down to a machismo-infused “toughness”: that he’s the one who’s mentally and physically fit enough to take on America’s adversaries, foreign and domestic. How does that argument work now with Trump potentially fighting a very deadly virus in the weeks before the election? Or if he winds up being asymptomatic, does this just become proof of concept to his base?
It is going to be days until many of these questions begin to have true answers. Literally, the incubation time for the virus is days. We are not going to know much of anything for days. It is OK to be uncertain. This whole year has been uncertain. We’re all very practiced.
Anyway, back to screaming.