To many, it seemed like an inevitability. But now it’s happened, no one seems to know how to react: Donald Trump has reported that both he and Melania have tested positive for Covid-19.
Given Trump’s personal response to the threat of the virus (eschewing masks, downplaying its spreading ability, ostensibly taking hydroxychloroquine weekly in a futile attempt to ward it off), to many it seemed a question of ‘if’, not ‘when’ the president would contract it.
Now, the question – apart from a begrudging ‘is he OK?’ – is: what happens next? What impact will the diagnosis have on the upcoming election and Trump’s (annoyingly) consistent approval ratings? Will the president emerge from his sickness politically stronger or will it be the final straw?
For answers, many have begun turning to the experience of UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, to give an idea of what can be expected to happen after a leader contracts the virus.
Johnson, for those with short memories, announced he had coronavirus in early April; days later he was admitted to hospital after experiencing worrying symptoms. As the UK’s virus death toll inched incrementally higher, it was revealed Johnson was in intensive care and news channels began tracking his progress with 24 hour coverage. After a week though, a sigh of relief – the PM was released from hospital and sent home to recuperate.
The day after Johnson was released from hospital, his personal YouGov approval rating rocketed to 66 per cent – the highest it had been since he came to power. Just before Johnson’s hospitalisation was reported, he was sitting at 46 per cent.
Over the next few months, the number of people reporting that the PM is doing ‘well’ has dive-bombed, now coming in at a measly 35 per cent. But unquestionably, catching coronavirus bought him time and a (albeit temporary) boost in the polls.
It also gave him protection from criticism over his handling of the crisis; in a society that now values ‘lived experience’, who could argue with Johnson’s decisions on how to further prevent the spread of coronavirus? After all, the man had beaten the virus. He must have the UK’s best interests at heart. Opposition (and backbench Tory) politicians shied away from being seen to attack a sick man, or one in the midst of recovery.
And with deputy Dominic Raab in charge while Johnson was recuperating, the PM was given distance from the daily decisions that seemed so arbitrary and ineffective (the government’s approval ratings had actually soaredbefore Boris was hospitalised).
Having coronavirus bought Johnson time and space from some of the public pressure that was weighing on him. He was given an injection of goodwill to continue with his chosen course that, only now, is running out.
This, people are already predicting, is how it will play out with Donald Trump.
But, perhaps this is not quite an accurate comparison to make.
While Trump and Johnson do share similarities in their audiences, the broad notes they play to and on, the bombast and the populism with which they rose to power, they are very different men.
Johnson is a shrewd political operator (he’s admitted as much), who made his way through the ranks of the Tory party until he reached the loftiest heights possible. By many accounts, he does not particularly enjoy being prime minister now he’s there; it’s cold at the top and the pandemic has thrown off what should have been a triumphant victory lap as we exited the European Union.
Trump, in comparison, is more like a leathered wrecking ball. He bulldozed his way into politics, all shock and awe. Sure, he dislikes constant criticism at the moment but he still loves the show – at his core, he’s a reality TV star and as president, the whole world’s his stage.
Trump does not seem to listen to what his communications directors or family tell him; he appears impossible to advise and bullish to his core.
If Trump becomes sick with the virus, rather than asymptomatic, he will not play to the ‘survivor’ trope or admit fallibility. He’s far more likely to go the way of Brazillian leader Jair Bolsanaro, still showing up to press conferences and coughing in the faces of reporters. Trump has an inability to understand how vulnerability can sometimes catch more flies than an apparent display of power.
The President inquires about injecting disinfectant? https://t.co/75kGQkD0h7
What's more, unlike Johnson, his diagnosis hasn’t been delivered at the beginning of his pandemic response. Instead it’s arrived after months of pigheaded policy, constant denials of the severity of the situation and bizarre misinformation about spread and prevention of the virus. Will Trump be injecting himself with bleach? Unlikely.
Of course, this could become an ‘October surprise’, in the same vein as the second 2016 FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails that likely helped derail her presidential hopes. Frankly, who knows anymore?
But looking at Trump’s track record, it doesn’t seem like something he will wish to play on.
Of course, there will be the usual bluster about 'beating the virus' and so on, but Trump is old-fashioned, bull-headed and hypocritical to a fault. He’s the type to condemn a war veteran with a brain tumour as a ‘loser’ for getting captured during his service, but dodge the draft himself. He seems to believe solely in a powerfully toxic form of ‘manhood’ that doesn’t allow ‘weakness’ or admitting that actually, he might be sick. He likes to ‘power through’ and no amount of counsel from his press team will make him act differently.
Plus, the American population responds differently to their leaders than we do in the UK.
There is more individual hero-worship but also more outspoken challenge. It is the land of the free, home of the brave, rather than a tepid sort of acceptance of the status quo. The UK is a nation of ‘it is what it is’. The US errs more on the side of ‘I’m happy… but I could be happier”.
So, let’s press pause on the automatic comparisons of Trump and Johnson’s illnesses. At least until we have a clearer picture.