“Don’t be afraid of Covid” was Donald Trump’s message on leaving hospital this week. To say he was tempting fate would be an understatement. The US president could not know where the disease would leave him. He ought to know that the only way he could win re-election is by focusing on anything but the pandemic. The polls are unequivocal on that: a clear majority of Americans do not trust what he says about the disease. That was true long before he fell sick and is likely to remain true on November 3.
It follows that Mr Trump must change the subject or take radical steps to make Americans trust his pandemic-management skills. He has instead chosen to do something solipsistic — tell Americans the pathogen can be defeated by sheer force of will. This is a rash mix. It is further depressing his poll ratings on coronavirus while making it harder for him to change the subject. Mr Trump’s decision to pull out of next week’s presidential debate after organisers said it would be held remotely because of Covid concerns only reinforces that.
It should be no surprise that Joe Biden’s poll lead over Mr Trump has hit double digits in Florida where a lot of retirees live, according to one recent poll. His averaged overall national lead is now near double digits. Even if those margins were halved, Mr Trump would be facing a heavy defeat. It will take more than heroic willpower to reverse that. No US presidential candidate has entered the last month of the election with a deficit that wide and gone on to win.
So why is he pushing on a failing strategy? Much has been made of the fact that Mr Trump is taking a steroid, dexamethasone, which can cause wild mood swings. Doubtless, the drug can induce euphoria. But there is little to differentiate Mr Trump’s post-hospital and pre-hospital behaviour. He did not suddenly chance on the notion of issuing torrents of capitalised tweets after checking out of Walter Reed. Nor did the idea of publicly stripping off his mask come in the wake of his drug treatment. He has been taunting social distancers all year. The only seeming effect of Mr Trump’s treatment is that he became even more like himself.
Use the FT’s interactive calculator to see which states matter most in winning the presidency
The fact that the president is ignoring advice is also in character. In a hypothetical world, Mr Trump could have used the fact that he caught the disease to reset the narrative. “My fellow Americans, the fact that the US president could be struck low by this disease means all of us are vulnerable,” Mr Trump could have said. “I am fortunate enough to get the best care available on the planet. I know that most of you are not so fortunate. So I urge you to join me in taking this disease seriously and follow the best scientific advice so we can flatten the curve. Together we can beat Covid and make America great again.”
That would be the rough idea of how to create empathy with the legions of older voters who are abandoning Mr Trump. Such a pivot seems as improbable as Mr Trump taking up ballet. Which leaves him with a change of subject. The one issue on which he still leads Mr Biden is the economy. The problem is that it does not respond to his command. America’s much-promised V-shaped recovery floundered on the failure to flatten the coronavirus curve. Mr Trump did not help matters this week when he pulled out of talks for another coronavirus relief bill. That dealt a heavy blow to the prospect of more relief for ordinary Americans before the election.
His preferred line of attack has always been law and order. But that has three drawbacks. First, it has not worked yet. Mr Biden consistently leads Mr Trump on law and order. Second, last summer’s protests have died down. Third, the antifa — the loosely organised anti-fascist movement — is not playing the suburbia-threatening role it has been allotted.
Mr Trump has thus built himself a maze. He wants Americans to be afraid of something that does not seem particularly lethal — the radical left — yet be unafraid of a disease that has so far claimed more than 200,000 American lives. It does not feel like a winning strategy.
This column has been updated to reflect the fact that Donald Trump has pulled out of the next presidential debate