How a pandemic becomes political theatre
Donald Trump - back at the White House after three days in hospital - is using his TV skills to turn his brush with COVID to his political benefit.
Of all the many professions Donald Trump has practised - property magnate, host of 'The Apprentice', author, hotelier, wrestling promoter, statesman, president - the only one he has truly mastered is reality TV. And it shows. He turned being leader of the world's most powerful nation into a performance. And now he's made being a COVID patient a performance too.
Last week, President Trump - who has for so long downplayed the pandemic and resisted wearing a mask - tested positive, along with his wife and quite a few of his staff. The White House was revealed as a COVID hot spot. While all Americans (well, almost all) wished their commander-in-chief a swift recovery, many felt that their president's illness was a reflection of his irresponsibility. He is seen as culpable for the loss of thousands of his own citizens by undermining his own government's advice on how best to prevent the spread of the virus.
He turned his misfortune into a media extravaganza. The TV cameras were present as Donald Trump boarded a helicopter on the White House lawns last Friday for the nine minute journey to the Walter Reed Medical Centre. Once installed, he posted videos about how well he was - how great his medical team were - and how he would 'never forget' the display of support by his diehard followers.
On Sunday, he briefly ventured out of the hospital in a presidential motorcade to greet those well-wishers who had been camping outside the gates. He was wearing a mask, for once, and waving and giving a thumbs-up. His driver and the security service agents next to him were masked as well - but the chances of COVID transmission in such a confined space, and in a vehicle which is not only bullet proof but tightly sealed against chemical attacks, are significant.
'Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential "drive-by" just now has to be quarantined for 14 days', tweeted a clearly furious Dr James Phillips, a senior medic at the medical centre. 'They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.'
Political theatre, of course, is what Trump does best. There was more on display on Monday evening, when he was discharged from hospital and hitched another helicopter ride back to the White House. On disembarking, he took the stairs up to a White House balcony. Flanked on both sides by the Stars and Stripes flag, he turned to face the cameras that were taking the event live to millions of TV viewers and ostentatiously removed his mask. The message seemed to be that the warrior leader had triumphed over the pandemic.
'Don't be afraid of Covid', the president tweeted. 'Don't let it dominate your life.' His comments have been described by medical epidemiologists as 'crazy' and 'utterly irresponsible'. 210,000 Americans have been confirmed as dying from the virus - more than in any other country - yet America's president continues to suggest that the pandemic is no big deal.
'You're going to beat it', he urged Americans in a video message. 'We're going to be out front. As your leader, I had to do that. I knew there's danger to it, but I had to do it. I stood out front, and led.'
It's as if he's suggesting that there's personal - and political - valour in succumbing to COVID and overcoming its effects. Donald Trump had the advantage of bespoke medical care, the best doctors and access to experimental drug therapies. Not many other Americans would be quite so fortunate. Still, he sees 'defeating' COVID as a sign of personal resilience which he wishes to turn to his advantage in the four weeks remaining of the presidential election campaign.
The polling evidence to date suggests that Trump's support base has rallied to his side at a time of personal emergency - but that there has been no broader sympathy wave. The Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, remains ahead in the opinion polls, though not by enough in the key states to be confident of victory.
President Trump's illness has focussed the final stages of the campaign on the issue on which he is weakest - his handling of the pandemic. Common sense suggests that American voters will echo Donald Trump's TV catchphrase back to him: "You're fired!" But his illness has also allowed him a new stage on which to stride and perhaps salvage a chance of securing a second term.