COVID remains the one disruption that Trump has failed to harness

President Donald Trump arrives at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, on Marine One helicopter after he tested positive for COVID-19. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is at second from left. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

No operation in American political history has been able to manage, use and otherwise maximize disruption for its own interests better than the presidential administration of Donald Trump. But with a couple of recent disruptions, it’s hard to wonder if Trump hasn’t lost his touch.

You may not like him, but you shouldn’t underestimate him. He cut down the two great political dynasties of our lifetimes, Bush III and Clinton II, and maneuvered to great advantage for three years dividing, conquering, and Tweeting all the way.

When he stood before a joint session of congress on Feb. 4 for his State of the Union address, the Trump Show was on the doorstep of renewal. All the opposition could do was rip up his speech. But Trump was treading over the scraps. His approval rating was high. He had spiked the ball after a failed impeachment. The economy was surging.

Then COVID-19 happened. The disruptor in chief saw his reign disrupted. He has tried various tacks to try to outmaneuver it. He downplayed it. (He wasn’t the only one. Democrats in congress downplayed it. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci downplayed it, with a subtle difference. While Fauci in February said there was little danger to the American public “at that time,” he in the same sentence urged public health officials to be getting ready. Trump downplayed it, saying the virus would not be a problem for Americans in the future, when he knew better. That was at best overplaying his hand, and at worst negligent dishonesty.)

Trump tried to pivot quickly past it. He tried to declare victory over it (see, Bush, George W., “mission accomplished.”) And in recent weeks, he had basically begun to ignore it altogether. He said it “affects virtually nobody.”

He even began to gain ground by using the wedge of widespread protests, invoking the “law and order” gambit to make some inroads with Americans who grew were growing weary of watching protests on television. There is power in exploiting fears of Americans, and the race appeared to tighten.

But the coronavirus had its own response. It infected Trump. And the First Lady. And more than 30 others connected to the White House.

A coronavirus ‘gift?’

At the time, it was easy to wonder if that disruption might not have been a gift. Trump had blundered the first debate, leaving even many Republicans in dismay. The New York Times stories about his taxes (or lack thereof) was moving onto center stage.

COVID managed to disrupt the campaign, literally, and take those off the front pages. The Joe Biden campaign pulled some of its negative ads.

It was the kind of disruption that Trump generally is able to ride back into control of the narrative.

In the first debate, Trump was too amped up, he came out too “hot,” attacking, interrupting, and otherwise looking almost desperate to dominate everyone on the stage. After the shock of Trump’s positive COVID test and his subsequent trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he was still over-modulated. He insisted on a silly drive by to wave at supporters.

His return to the White House gave as much ammunition to his detractors as it did to supporters — the salutes from the Truman Balcony, the overly dramatic poses. Just get off the helicopter, smile and wave, keep your mask on and keep people guessing for the next act. He couldn’t do it.

He called Fox News and ranted against his own attorney general and Secretary of State. He called Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic candidate for vice-president, “a monster.” He actualy uttered this statement: “I’m back because I am perfect physical specimen and I’m extremely young, and so I am lucky in that way.”

He’s 74 years old. His last public physical checkup in 2019 listed him at 243 pounds, which would classify him as obese. There’s nothing wrong with that. But he’s trying to sell the notion that he’s physically perfect. And “young?”

None of his efforts have helped him in polls. Biden’s national lead has increased. And Trump has lent legitimacy to the polls by traveling to states he won in 2016, spending time on Biden’s battlegrounds, on the defensive, instead of trying to widen his electoral net.

And then there’s the biggest mistake he has made – not finding a way to take part in a second presidential debate.

That would have afforded him a national opportunity to change his narrative even more. Instead, the Trump campaign drew a hard line, would not debate virtually, and now winds up with nothing, locking the spectacle of the first debate in place, unless the two candidates square off one more time.

Policy, not personality

Trump would have been well served – as is the case with much of his presidency – by a touch of humility. He needed to address the nation, align himself with the victims of COVID, sound a sympathetic tone and then pivot to one of hope, using his physical recovery as a segue into national recovery, and his economic successes.

He said he “went to school” on COVID during his time at Walter Reed, but he came out appearing to have learned nothing.

There is a positive story to tell in his recovery from COVID, but not one of a “perfect physical specimen” overcoming the disease. He could have told an American story of great doctors and gifted researchers and the grace and generosity of millions of Americans who prayed for him. He could’ve thanked his political rivals for their words of support. He could have reinforced that America’s medical community is learning more about treating this virus all the time. Instead, he came out of the hospital crediting himself and celebrating himself, touting a “cure” and promising a vaccine that won’t be ready as soon as he is advertising. His first public speech was a campaign rally from the Truman Balcony, with the Marine Corps band playing. His staff said it was a White House event, not a campaign event. That, of course, is not true. Listen to the speech.

He resumed rallies, kicking off just outside Orlando, Fla., on Monday. But now, unlike before, there’s no way for him to put COVID out of the picture. He caught the virus. Positive cases are rising in 40 of the 50 states. Experts have long predicted a second wave, and the nation could be on the verge of it. In Nebraska, ICU beds are running short. The virus is reaching rural communities.

But even in the midst of the pandemic, a recent Gallup poll showed that 56% of Americans say they are better off now – despite everything – than they were four years ago.

If that is the case, forget everything else you’re looking at. Trump has a fighting chance when the votes are counted.

Trump, strangely enough, would benefit right now from a focus on policy. But he won’t allow the spotlight to stray from his own cult of personality. He is overwhelming his own message. Republicans around the country know this. At a time when he could be rallying the nation, he instead seems only interested in rallying his base. The cheering crowds might make him feel better, but he’s not running against Hillary Clinton this time. He’s facing a likable candidate who is unencumbered by his own personal baggage and laser-focused on Trump’s management of a pandemic that is threatening to regather strength.

It is a disruption that Trump has been unable to harness, and his time to do so is running short, though it hasn’t run out.

This time, Trump has not pushed the right buttons in the wake of disruption. Still, while COVID might’ve weakened this president and his re-election hopes, it hasn’t taken them out.