With the presidential election less than a month away, the hospitalisation of Donald Trump, after testing positive for Covid-19, has plunged American politics into a state of turmoil. The political uncertainty is further accentuated by a lack of transparency and conflicting signals from the White House over the President’s health condition. After being in a denial mode for months with his airy dismissals of the pandemic’s severity and even mocking those wearing face masks, Trump has to confront the reality now. With sheer recklessness and disdain for science, he has allowed the virus to wreak havoc on the country. Trump’s cavalier attitude has generated an entire movement, especially in Republican-controlled States, of people who defy basic precautionary methods of masks and social distancing. His handling of the pandemic will come into sharper focus in the coming weeks as the contours of the election campaign are set to alter dramatically. For months, the maverick Republican leader ridiculed the idea of wearing masks and made fun of the Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden for wearing a mask during the first presidential debate in Cleveland. Many of his key aides have been infected with the virus. Ironically, even the best medical ecosystem could not protect him from a danger that he insisted on belittling and ignoring. For someone who loves boisterous and outdoor rallies and specialises in deliberately discarding all precautions, it is difficult to restrict campaigning from the Oval Office or the living quarters of the White House.
There are fears in some quarters that Trump and his allies might use his illness to try to delay the election—a possibility that the President has already raised in the context of his unsubstantiated claims about mail-in voting, an old Republican ploy to suppress voting. However, under Article II of the American Constitution, only Congress has the authority to change the election date. This means the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-held Senate would have to approve any postponement. In all the national opinion polls in the last few months, Trump has consistently lagged behind Biden by at least 8 percentage points even while managing to keep a tighter margin in battleground States. The public has consistently given the President poor rating for his handling of the pandemic. So, anything that puts the focus on the disease is potentially damaging for his re-election prospects. Nothing will remind voters more about Trump’s negligent attitude than his own hospitalisation. The Democrats now have more ammunition to project him as an irresponsible leader who flouts basic science and medical advice. However, the news of Trump’s hospitalisation is likely to fuel desperation among Republicans who might push the election process into an uncertain and unchartered territory.
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