Could it be game over for Donald Trump?
It is the ultimate "October non-surprise". US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania have tested positive for Covid-19, meaning that he will have to suspend campaigning for at least a week.
He reportedly has “mild symptoms” and is being hospitalised as a precaution. But if he becomes badly ill, his ability to continue serving as President and even heading the Republican ticket will have to be re-examined.
Four weeks out, all indications suggest that former vice president Joe Biden, who has tested negative, is strongly on track to win. The President's positive test could not have come at a worse time and strengthens the widespread understanding he has mishandled the pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
Early voting has already begun (full disclosure: I have voted by mail), and seems heavily weighted towards Democratic voters. Almost all polls seem discouraging for the President. He has been attempting to change the subject, but this election has inevitably focused on two themes: health care and jobs.
On both fronts, he is in big trouble.
Read More from Hussein Ibish
Since January, with rare exceptions, Mr Trump has consistently dismissed and downplayed the severity and danger of the virus. In February and March, he insisted it was completely under control and going away. In April and May, he was promising that the return of warm weather would make the virus suddenly disappear “like a miracle". And since June, he has consistently announced the imminent ending of the pandemic, denounced public health protocols, demanded the reopening of schools and promised a vaccine is almost ready.
In recent weeks, he has repeatedly flouted social distancing policies in several states by holding rallies of thousands of tightly packed people, usually unmasked, including indoors. And he has repeatedly mocked reporters and Mr Biden for wearing masks, including at the disgraceful “debate” fiasco on Tuesday night.
Despite the fact that he and everyone around him get tested constantly, Mr Trump’s infection was therefore probably a matter of time.
All decent people will wish the first couple a quick recovery. But a massive outpouring of national sympathy is unlikely given the President’s cavalier attitudes, including dismissing over 200,000 American dead from the coronavirus this year as "it is what it is". Mr Biden's best line at the debate was: "It is what it is, because you are who you are."
It is not even clear this will finally end the debate about the danger of the virus. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is one of the few world leaders who has been even more dismissive of the virus than Mr Trump, and his own bout with the illness did nothing to change his mystifying view that it is just "a little flu".
Indeed, it is possible that if the President has little personal difficulty bouncing back, he and his supporters will take it as proof that he has been right all along and that public health protocols are overblown and often unnecessary.
Yet the American majority will probably understand that the President's own conduct greatly increased the chances he would get infected despite the extraordinary protections he is afforded, and it will thus underscore the extent to which he has misjudged – or rather, as Bob Woodward's new book Rage demonstrates, deliberately misrepresented – the dangers to the American public.
Since early summer, Mr Biden has maintained a national lead of around seven points, and smaller but significant leads in most swing states. Early mail voting indicates a huge Democratic advantage, although that could shift in time.
The President’s last obvious opportunity to change the election narrative, in particular by making it something other than a referendum on himself, came with the first debate this week but he failed to take it. By shouting, raging and constantly interrupting both Mr Biden and moderator Chris Wallace, Mr Trump ensured that all attention focused, yet again, on his own personality which is not the key to a winning coalition. His standing was further damaged when he appeared to endorse and embrace a violent white supremacist gang.
That came on top of numerous other major blows.
The New York Times revealed that he paid only $750 in personal income taxes in each of the past two years and paid none at all in 10 of the past 15 years. While some may find this admirable, many will regard it as reprehensible and borderline criminal.
Additionally, he apparently faces over $400 million in soon-due debts to unidentified parties, raising serious questions regarding national security and conflicts of interest.
The Atlantic, backed up by AP, Fox News, The Washington Post, The New York Times and others, reported that Mr Trump considers slain US troops to be "suckers" and "losers". The latest jobs report was worse than expected. And a badly needed disaster relief bill to aid struggling families and companies is nowhere in sight.
The dire condition of Mr Trump's campaign was arguably embodied by his former campaign manager, Brad Parscale, who was recently arrested outside his home drunk and threatening to commit suicide.
The President’s last obvious opportunity to change the election narrative came with the first debate this week but he failed to take it
There is only one obvious piece of good news: Republicans in the Senate seem likely to confirm the ultra-conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, giving Mr Trump a strong sympathetic majority going into the election.
The President has repeatedly said that he expects the High Court to decide the election by ruling on the validity of ballots. That is only plausible if the results are very close.
Right now, there is every indication they will not be. Mr Biden is leading and outspending Mr Trump, and every development other than the Supreme Court appears to be weighing heavily against the President. Even some of his closest allies, such as South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, who once seemed untouchable, now appear to be facing possible defeat as well.
And now that the coronavirus has proved its undeniable reach and menace and, at a minimum, put him in quarantine and off the campaign trail in the coming crucial days, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how Mr Trump is going to avoid defeat in November.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National
Updated: October 3, 2020 02:29 PM