What Happens When Politics Goes Viral?
Don't count out the Falstaffian Trump until this fall.
I realized that the shutdown had finally gotten to me on Friday, May 23. Castaways on desert islands dream about food and drink. On May 23, when I woke abruptly at three in the morning, I was dreaming about getting my hair cut in a barbershop. Sigmund Freud would probably have called it a tonsorial wet dream.
To me it was an annoying reminder of how easily people can be stampeded—and their lives and livelihoods disrupted—when politics literally goes viral. The original argument for drastic shutdown measures was that, based on purely theoretical number-crunching, only a shutdown could prevent our hospital system from collapsing and millions of Americans dying needlessly. The projections proved false. But by that time the shutdown crowd had come up with an alternative rationale for cutting off oxygen to the economy.
The hard numbers showed that the overwhelming majority of those suffering serious consequences from the virus were the (often ailing) elderly and others with pre-existing health problems, e.g. heart disease, respiratory conditions, diabetes, and compromised immune systems. But instead of concentrating on protecting—and if necessary, isolating—the relatively small segment of the population at serious risk, the mainstream media and the liberal political establishment converted a dubious short-term shutdown measure into an open-ended, economically crippling embargo on many aspects of normal human behavior. Scare predictions dominated the headlines. When they failed to materialize, they were replaced by new scare projections that also proved false. Meanwhile, millions of people lost their jobs, family, community, and social life were suppressed, and many small businesses closed their doors forever.
Obviously, those who led the charge to shut down America have a vested interest in trying to discredit anyone who pointed out how wrong they were. Ironically, they will try to exploit the very economic suffering they brought on to scapegoat their opponents. Some of the pundits—including a few I ordinarily agree with—are predicting that, because of this, the ultimate virus victim could be the Trump presidency.
I’m not so sure. This election is far from settled. Both presumptive nominees are almost grotesquely flawed. The outcome will hinge on which of the two seems most glaringly out of sync with reality and voter concerns this fall when ordinary Americans start focusing on the election. The presidential debates could be a major game changer in 2020 just as they were in 2016 when a supposedly more qualified, experienced Democratic contender with overwhelming support from the mainstream media was expected to trounce Trump.
Against expectations, Trump won the debates and then the election.
Of course, Joe Biden’s handlers—keepers might be a better word—may decide to lock him in the basement and forego debates. But that would be the ultimate acknowledgment that goofy old Uncle Joe isn’t up to the job of a few hours on camera with the Donald, much less four years as commander-in-chief. Assuming there are debates, don’t expect many edifying moments. We’re not dealing with Towering Titans here; sad to say, it’s more a case of Dueling Dorks. But Donald Trump is likely to think quicker, respond faster, and land more successful punches than Joe Biden. Trump’s brash, louche, but energized Falstaff should take out Biden’s deluded, babbling King Lear, probably with a TKO.
Much, of course, will depend on what’s happening—and how the voters perceive it—this autumn. If confidence and the economy are both trending upward and most of the country is back to work, Trump will enter the last lap of the race as successful, a president on the rebound in a country on the rebound.
Another irony: the liberal media establishment, arm-in-arm with Pelosi and company, could actually contribute to the rise in Trump’s standing as their repeated, hysterical attacks seem more and more detached from reality. Voters are unlikely to forget—and Trump will keep reminding them—that the Donald was pushing to get America back on its feet while his opponents were demanding that we stay locked in, unemployed, and out of toilet paper.
Of course, none of this is a sure thing. On the debit side, as some intelligent observers have pointed out, Donald Trump is now at the head of the government he ran against as an insurgent outsider four years ago. Another significant difference between then and now is that in 2016 he enjoyed the priceless advantage of having Hillary Clinton as his opponent. Joe Biden, who already had a long history of lying and flip-flopping before he started losing his marbles, may be a pathetic old hack, but he isn’t loathed by as many voters of both parties as Hillary was. This is another reason why so much may hinge on the debates, when voters will have a chance to see two highly flawed contenders interacting face-to-face for the first time.
Anything could happen, but if I had to bet on the outcome today, I’d probably put my money on Falstaff.
Aram Bakshian Jr. is a former aide to presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. His writings on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts have been widely published in the United States and abroad.