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OPINION

Trump diagnosis changes pandemic politics

Posted on October 3, 2020

Columns

A month before Election Day, President Donald Trump’s largest liability could become an asset.

In an early Friday tweet, the president said he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 and would immediately enter quarantine. Opponents couldn’t contain their ghoulish glee.

The White House “has plenty of disinfectant you can ingest,” Bishop Talbert Swan suggested on Twitter. And that’s among the milder putdowns lobbed at the first family. Many are too vulgar to print in a family newspaper.

Jenna Wadsworth, a Democratic candidate for state agriculture commissioner in North Carolina, courted controversy with a flippant video message celebrating Trump’s misfortune.

“On a scale of 1-10,” Wadsworth asked, “is this your favorite or most favorite October surprise in the history of electoral politics?” She deleted the video from her social media accounts, but opponents saved copies.

Online dictionary searches for the German word “schadenfreude” — “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others” — increased by 30,500% within 12 hours of Trump revealing his diagnosis, according to Merriam-Webster.

For Trump critics, the sense of irony was irresistible. The president’s muddled messaging on masks and goading of governors to end coronavirus lockdowns eroded confidence in his administration’s response to the pandemic.

A Quinnipiac poll released late last month showed 57% of likely voters don’t believe Trump has been truthful about the virus. Just 37% of respondents considered the president to be a trustworthy source of public health information on COVID-19.

Trump’s status as a coronavirus survivor could only increase his credibility, whether the brush with danger makes him a better pitchman for precautions like face coverings and social distancing, or whether he uses his recovery as a symbol of resilience and a metaphor for the nation.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden hammered Trump on the federal virus response during the candidates’ first debate in Cleveland, thundering that “a lot of people died, and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter a lot quicker.”

Biden backed off in the immediate aftermath, tweeting well-wishes to the Trumps hours after the positive test results were revealed. Attacking the president over his health now carries a considerable risk of backlash.

Suggesting Trump’s lack of caution is to blame for his bout with COVID-19 may earn praise in left-wing echo chambers, but Americans generally show empathy for people battling lifestyle diseases. Few dare to publicly diet-shame diabetics or castigate emphysema patients for being longtime smokers.

Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute media think tank, warned journalists and commentators against lobbing churlish taunts.

“I am starting to see the coverage move from a tone of concern for the president to a tone that sounds like ‘he deserves this because he was reckless,’” Tompkins wrote on Twitter. “Don’t do it. Use the opportunity to educate. Decent people do not gloat when others get sick.”

A two-week quarantine gives Trump the chance to recalibrate his message on COVID-19. The president was wrong to question public health guidance from his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and wrong to mock Biden for wearing masks and avoiding mass gatherings. But those mistakes don’t cancel out the work his administration’s done to fight the pandemic.

Through Operation Warp Speed, military and Department of Health and Human Services officials expect to distribute 300 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in January. Congress has funded the bipartisan research and development project to the tune of nearly $10 billion.

While critics accuse Trump of trying to rush a pandemic panacea to market, the public-private partnership to produce safe and effective vaccines in a year — shaving nearly a decade from the average R&D timetable — is nothing short of a moon shot. Campaigning on this massive, all-hands project is no more opportunistic than basking in the reflected glow of a booming economy or taking credit for military and foreign policy successes.

America is still in the coronavirus’ clutches as early voting begins and Election Day looms. Trump’s favorability rating may not surge, but his diagnosis and expected recovery all but neutralize COVID-19 as a winning issue for Biden.

Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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