Covid-19 makes Trump a wartime president

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS -- When U.S. President Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week, it wasn’t long before the chaos began. Those who lament the lack of transparency and the mixed messaging from the White House regarding the president’s condition are missing the point. This is Trump’s fog of war, and he has adopted the posture of a wartime president.

And, frankly, why not? For the better part of a year now, officials worldwide have been referring to COVID-19 in martial terms, claiming that the entire planet is at war with a virus.

American voters could reasonably denounce Trump’s antics as the kind of thing that you’d see in North Korea rather than in the U.S. There was the brief fan-bath outside the Walter Reed medical center with both the infectious disease and the Secret Service riding shotgun, for example. Or the sewing of confusion, with Trump’s personal doctor talking about how great he’s doing while his own chief of staff delivered a more sober assessment (to Trump’s reported dismay). Or even neglecting to immediately disclose a positive COVID-19 test, resulting in the possible infection of collaborators.

But again, this is war (or so we’re constantly told). And wars have casualties and collateral damage, including the truth. Trump appears to be taking that reasoning to its logical conclusion — and milking it for all it’s worth.

There’s an old trope in American electoral politics that incumbent presidents start wars to rally the country around them during an election campaign. Trump once claimed that his predecessor, Barack Obama, would do exactly that. “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran,” Trump tweeted in November 2011.

In fact, an American president has never failed to be reelected when the country was at war. Whether it was George W. Bush’s war on terrorism or James Madison’s War of 1812, voters have rallied around the flag and the president when America is facing a common enemy.

But Trump doesn’t have any interest in foreign wars. He campaigned against them. He may occasionally mouth off at the urging of the neocons who have plagued his administration, but he’s still the only president in the last 40 years who hasn’t launched a new war involving American troops. With war comes all of the propaganda that can be used to stoke patriotism and sell voters on the notion that the country shouldn’t be changing horses in a time of crisis and should instead leave the incumbent and his team in place to finish the job. (It’s a quaint idea in theory but a ludicrous one in practice, since the “job” never ends with modern-day forever wars.)

So what’s a president to do if there’s no war with which to rally the country and bolster his leadership credentials during a reelection campaign? Make COVID-19 the primary enemy. Frankly, it’s no more ridiculous than the war on terrorism or the rebooted Cold War. Nor is the virus any less questionable a designated enemy than the usual wartime bogeymen. So put on your combat boots, Mr. President.

The optics might even work in Trump’s favor. It’s not as if he’s sitting behind the Resolute Desk and ordering Americans to the front lines to fight his war. Instead, he’s thrown himself onto the virus grenade for the entire world to see. We’re all watching in real time, riveted, as the president does battle with the virus. Every move, every moment, is being analyzed and amplified, with one question looming large: “Will he win?”

We’ve never seen an American president personally go head to head with the biggest menace facing the planet. Meanwhile, the sensible opponent, Joe Biden, has successfully sidestepped enemy engagement. A wise choice — almost what one might call a no-brainer.

Who’s to say that Trump’s high-stakes COVID-19 battle — if he actually manages to survive it — won’t give him a political advantage? We’ve already seen Trump-style populists such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have used their personal battles with COVID-19 to burnish their images as a courageous fighters and offer proof of leadership.

Some are saying of Trump, “That fool should have been more diligent about wearing a mask!” But others are going to say, “This guy is hardcore! He isn’t afraid of anything! Look at him battling the virus right there on the steps of the White House while Biden hides from the enemy with his giant mask!”

Not that virus-wrangling is advisable from a risk-mitigation standpoint. But then, neither is conventional war, and that hasn’t stopped other American presidents from reckless engagement that they subsequently parlayed into an electoral boost. Trump is no different.