There has never been a president felled by a serious illness this close to an election. Pandemics don’t care about partisan politics, but Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis shakes up the 2020 race in fundamental ways — and not only because he will presumably be unable to aggressively campaign down the stretch.
It’s a karmic irony, given that the Trump campaign has deployed the politics of sickness in this campaign against Joe Biden as well as against Hillary Clinton in 2016, trying to stir rumors that the Democratic nominee was seriously ill and would be unable to discharge the duties of the office. Now, the shoe is uncomfortably on the other foot.
It’s a desperate, despicable and now predictable tactic.
Let’s not forget that the politics of sickness affects all American lives through health care, an ongoing concern that is ratcheted up during a pandemic. After all, the Trump administration is preparing to argue in front of the US Supreme Court — the week after the election — that the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is unconstitutional.
And 10 years after the passage of the landmark law, Trump and his fellow Republicans have still not put forward a comprehensive plan to replace the law with something else, despite near constant claims that Americans with preexisting conditions will be covered (they are already under Obamacare). If the law is killed, millions of people could be left without coverage during a pandemic, and any lingering effects of Covid-19 will likely be considered a preexisting condition. From a public policy perspective, that outcome would be truly sick.
It’s possible that Trump’s illness will benefit him politically through an outpouring for sympathy directed at a man who does not often extend sympathy to others. But it is also possible that some of Trump’s anti-mask fans and assorted Covid-denialists will take the President’s hospitalization for Covid-19 as a wake-up call. The one-time reality TV star has run smack into scientific reality. Maybe this is what it will take to make his supporters take the virus seriously and literally.
There is a common, underlying condition beneath the politics of sickness and the politics of personal destruction. Both flow from the sickness of hyper-partisanship, which too often elevates cruelty and justifies lies, through a vision of politics as a version of civil war.
It’s got to stop.
Illness should inspire compassion, a recognition that we are flawed and broken in different ways. Demonizing political difference is a virus that is deadly to democracy. It won’t happen in the next 30 days or even the next 30 months, but we need to start healing from hyper-partisanship — and address its root causes — if we’re going to see something resembling real healing in the American body politic.