Trump tests positive for COVID-19: a futurist’s questions and possibilities, plus your thoughts

It’s going to disappear one day. It’s like a miracle. It will disappear.

Donald Trump

Late last night the president and First Lady of the United States were diagnosed with COVID-19, shortly after Trump announced that a close aide had tested positive.

There are plenty of hot takes being emitted right now, from observers across social media to mainstream journalism to politicians tweeting.  I’d like to join them and offer a few quick thoughts and questions from my unusual perspective as a futurist.  That means I’m focused on looking ahead.  I also work with a macro view of society and politics.  Additionally, my perspective draws on closely tracking COVID-19 since the start.

I especially look forward to your thoughts in comments below, plus posts from your own blogs, LinkedIn, etc.

One topic to set aside right away is the question of Trump’s (or the Trumps’) personal health, what’s likely to happen to him in this illness, etc.  We simply don’t know enough, since this instance is quite opaque and likely to be ridden by rumors and (information) links.  And while I’ve studied pandemics as policy and cultural issues, I’m not a medical professional.  That said, I’m comfortable pointing to Donald Trump’s age and (to some mysterious degree) health issues as danger signs for his progress.

coronavirus US deaths by age CDC 2020 Oct 2_via Conversation articlecoronavirus US deaths by age CDC 2020 Oct 2_via Conversation article

So, starting with the most immediate topic:

Contact tracing How many people have the Trumps been in close physical contact with over the past week? I’m thinking of White House staff, senior governmental officials, members of Congress (both parties), state politicians, reporters, and supporters.

Already there are some indications.  Some announcements of new infections have cropped up, including the Republican National Committee chair and a Utah Senator.

Trump’s announcement of a Supreme Court nominee may have been an infection spot.  This video clip suggests so, with maskless people getting close to each other and hugging, no doubt delighting any nearby COVID-19:

During this week’s “presidential” debate, did Trump manage to snarl and shout enough virus over to Joe Biden?  Possibly not, as he just tested negative.

Moreover, how public will this contact tracing be?  What will we know as the story comes together?

(See Academic Impact below)

Peer examples What can we learn from similar national leaders’ experiences?  I’m thinking of Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) and Alexander Lukashenko (Byelarus), who, like Trump, downplayed the virus before his nation and his own body suffered outbreaks.  Or we could consider Boris Johnson (Britain), who was similarly infected, and also criticized for mishandling the crisis.

Politically it doesn’t seem that any of these politicians suffered from their infections.  Perhaps the dynamic to anticipate is that this kind of leaders’ case confirms their supporters and critics in their respective beliefs.  However, Trump could have it worse, if he is more seriously injured and the public knows of this, preferably through video footage.  Compare his older age: 74 to 66 (Lukashenko), 65 (Bolsonaro), and 56 (Johnson).

Decapitation Back in the Cold War (he said to the younger readers) nuclear powers saw that they had the ability to conduct atomic attacks that would remove a government’s upper echelons with one blow, dubbed “decapitation strikes.”  Such a strategy has some obvious military advantages – indeed, the United States attempted such a coup with conventional forces during the 2003 Gulf War.

To what extent is the American federal leadership paused or otherwise hit by the Trump infection?  He alone being biologically compromised is a problem, especially given his leadership styles, call it personal or autocratic as you like. But the situation ramified when we consider how far the contagion may have gone.  How many senior officials will be – or already are – sick enough to harm their ability to perform their jobs?  How many will die?

One political response draws on this and is already floating in the Republican world: blame and threaten China.

“China tried to kill our President” is a powerful charge.  It might not have any real geopolitical effect, but serve to rally voters for an election just one month away.

The 25th Amendment*  Will Trump be incapacitated enough to shift authority to vice president Pence?

Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

I expect there will be struggles over this.  Trump’s personality is such that he’s likely to not cede anything, since he prefers to project strength.  If some staff see him dangerously weakening they could lobby him for a declaration.  They could also lobby the vice president and the cabinet to issue their own declaration:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Nationally I expect to see calls for Trump to yield to Pence, especially from Democrats, and even more so if media leaks show Trump looking bad.

Now, Pence is testing negative so far.  If Pence gets sick as well, then things get even more interesting.

Campaigning with a compromised candidate How will Trump’s illness change his presidential campaign over the next month?  He clearly loves his in-person rallies, so those will be set aside for some period of time.  Perhaps he’ll take to Zoom, or phone alone if the visuals are too disturbing.  Will this depress his ultimate turnout?

Two debates remain.  Perhaps they will be Zoom events, which will make interruption and cross-talk worse.  That is if Trump feels he is visually presentable.

Further, what happens if Trump is too injured to act, or dies?  Several analyses are out there which work this through; here’s a good one.  It looks like the Republican party will have to determine who’ll actually stand for president, which can mean a complicated shuffle of Pence, electors, voters (remember than some have already cast ballots), and state governments.

Ultimately, how might this story shape the November election results?  If Trump makes a full recovery, that should boost his ratings as supporters happily cast ballots for their victorious hero.  But if he’s clearly, visibly weakened… I’m not sure if there’s a net loss, or if he gains from sympathy.

On 538 Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux offers a similar forking path:

I could see this playing out at least two ways …

  1. Trump gets moderately or very sick and this does prompt Republicans to think, “Oh geez, this actually is serious and if it could happen to Trump it could happen to me”;

  2. Trump remains mostly asymptomatic and it bolsters the idea that this is actually not such a big deal.

One cultural angle Will the Trumps’ infections change how Americans think of the virus?  It seems that, back in springtime, our celebrity obsession led many to take COVID seriously once Tom Hanks and other glitterati tested positive.  Will Trump’s vulnerability nudge more supporters – especially older white men – to mask up and observe social distancing?

Some will view this inhuman virus carving out a morality tale in the Trumps’ case.

A second cultural angle: the president’s bodies  I’m reminded of the old mythic dimensions linking the ruler’s body to the health of the nation/state/community.   Think of the line from Excalibur (1981): “You [the king] and the land are one.” There can be some modern resonance to this for people who project cultural, psychological, and mythic dimensions onto national executives.

Another cultural angle: conspiracy  We should expect variously imaginative interpretations of the Trumps’ infections, given American culture in general as well as the tenor of the season.  How many folks will think the positive test revealed a deliberate infection by a deep state agent?  Or that it wasn’t COVID per se but a bioweapon cooked up and deployed by the nefarious intelligence community/George Soros/the Illuminati/Hillary Clinton? It looks like some Q-anon believers think Trump contracted the virus on purpose, in order to… speed up arrests?  I honestly don’t follow it.

How many anti-Trump folks will suspect Trump doesn’t really have the virus, thinking that the self-announced story is a ploy aimed at distracting us from, or covering up, some other development?  Michael Moore is already floating ideas along these lines:

he’s losing the election. And he knows it. It’s not 2016. He was hated in 2016, but he’s hated even more now. Millions of Americans are ON FIRE and on the verge of serving him up a major league ass-whooping and a record landslide defeat.

So he needs – badly – to totally change the conversation about this campaign.

And he just has.

Academic impacts Let me take the story back to higher education, the future of which is the putative subject of this very blog.  One case is that of the University of Notre Dame, whose president was apparently infected during a White House event.

Over to you all.  What kind of fallout do you anticipate from the Trump COVID situation?

(thanks to various my family, Facebook friends, Tom Haymes, this 538 discussion, and this MetaFilter thread for conversations feeding into this post)

*It looks like the last state to ratify the amendment did so on my birthday.  I feel weirdly hailed by history.

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2 Responses to Trump tests positive for COVID-19: a futurist’s questions and possibilities, plus your thoughts

  1. Michael Flood says:

    “Two debates remain. Perhaps they will be Zoom events, which will make interruption and cross-talk worse. That is if Trump feels he is visually presentable.”

    Well, at least on Zoom there is a mute button for the moderator…

  2. Leigh Marthe says:

    Thank you for this analysis. So thoughtfully done and helpful.

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