Donald Trump is likely to survive his infection with the coronavirus. But it's hard to imagine how his reelection campaign can. The president has trailed Joe Biden in national polls for a year, and his performance in the first debate did nothing to close the gap. The news that he has a virus that can be debilitating and even deadly can only give any undecided voters a push toward Biden.
Many people are already voting, or will be before the full effect of the disease on Trump is known. He's possible his symptoms will remain mild and he will make a quick recovery. But the alarming uncertainty around his health is an argument for the calm and stability that Biden represents.
You can say that karma is wreaking vengeance on Trump in all sorts of ways. His dishonest downplaying of the pandemic contributed to its spread, generating unnecessary infections and deaths. From the start, he has been a model of misinformation, false promises and groundless complacency, and Americans have paid a price. Now he has joined the victims.
In the debate, he had the gall to ridicule Biden for his scrupulous efforts to minimize the risk of getting or transmitting the virus. Trump has been doing that for months, trying to shame his opponent for his strict adherence to health protocols. He thought defying risk made him look strong, while Biden's prudence betrayed a pathetic weakness.
Trump derided Biden for hiding in his basement while he himself appeared at rallies — some indoors — before closely spaced, mask-free supporters. Herman Cain, co-chairman of Black Voices for Trump, attended one of those events and tweeted a photo of himself, shoulder-to-shoulder with other rallygoers, who, like him, were unmasked. He soon tested positive for the virus and died.
Trump has also been personally careless about his health and the health of those around him. Time and again, he's appeared barefaced close to aides who also declined this simple safeguard. He has always behaved as if he were invulnerable — eating a diet of fast food, spurning exercise and finding doctors willing to attest to his extraordinarily sound health.
The president's main protection, it appears, was regular testing for COVID-19. But testing by itself is a porous shield. It's useful mainly to prevent those who are infected but asymptomatic from passing it on to others. In Trump's case, that wasn't enough.
His reckless conduct was also a disservice to the nation. It was the height of arrogant irresponsibility, creating a real risk that he will be incapacitated and obligated to transfer power to Mike Pence. Not only that, but Reuters reported that Trump's "gender, age and weight are all factors that make him more vulnerable to developing severe COVID-19, and give him a notional risk of around 4% of dying from it, health experts said on Friday."
The chance of death makes the potential disruption at the top of the executive branch even greater. And there is no guarantee that Pence won't test positive. Next in the line of succession for the presidency: Nancy Pelosi. Shouldn't Republicans be furious at Trump for making that development even remotely possible?
The suspicion in some quarters that Trump's infection is a ruse is too outlandish to take seriously. For months, the president has suggested his opponent is suffering from the ravages of old age, making him physically and mentally unfit for the nation's highest office. How would feigning a case of the coronavirus fit with that theme? For anyone casting a ballot in the next few days, if not longer, a sick Republican nominee is an argument for voting Democratic.
Yes, this alleged hoax would serve to get him out of additional debates. But Trump had already gotten an excuse for boycotting when the Commission on Presidential Debates said it would make changes "to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues." And if his plan is to pull out of the race to avoid a humiliating defeat, he also has an excuse - namely, all the voter fraud that he claims will occur.
If his symptoms remain mild and he makes a quick recovery, some skeptics theorized, it would vindicate his approach to the pandemic and validate his calls to reopen the economy. But in that case, millions of Americans will never believe he had the virus. His reputation for lying could nullify any benefit he might hope to gain.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has tempted fate and courted self-destruction. His luck, it appears, has finally run out.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.stev