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COVID Isn’t the Black Swan that Beat Trump, It’s the Black Swan that Could Have Saved Him

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It looks as if Biden is solidifying his support in the Upper Midwest, apparently taking advantage of Trump’s utter inability to grapple with the fact that the ‘Rona is getting worse, not better. This has me thinking about the brute fact that Biden’s lead over Trump was apparent in July of last year, and that while it has waxed and waned over the past eighteen months it has remained remarkably stable. Under normal circumstances, there would be nothing particularly surprising about this; the President is already a known quantity, and Joe Biden is the best known challenger since at least Bob Dole, and probably since Walter Mondale.

But of course the circumstances are not normal. 2020 has already last eighteen years, and while we’ve mostly forgotten impeachment, the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl, and the end of Bojack Horseman, it feels like COVID, at least, should have shaken the race a bit.

Why didn’t it? One potential answer is that it has; COVID has taken off the table a set of arguments and plays that Trump could have used to narrow the gap and even to overtake Biden, thus offering an illusory sense of stability. I slightly prefer a different answer: voters on both sides had effectively baked in Trump’s epic incompetence before the pandemic hit, and so the race has remained stable because nothing about the pandemic is all that surprising to anyone.

In this context, it’s worth thinking about the road-not-taken in the sense of a Trump who responded to the pandemic with even the barest level of effectiveness. Generally speaking, the pandemic has resulted in rally-round-the-flag effect around the world, with incumbents able to enjoy popularity boosts akin to those resulting from decisive action taken in international crises. Duterte’s popularity is staggering; Orban’s popularity spiked as Hungary went into response mode; even Bolsonaro, who botched things almost as badly as Trump, has seen a bump.

In this line of thinking, the pandemic is not the Black Swan event that killed Trump’s chance at re-election. Rather, the pandemic is the Black Swan event that could have put Trump over the top, if only it had been handled with the most minimal degree of competence. Given the rogue’s gallery of idiotic right-wing populists who managed to derive political benefit from COVID response, this wasn’t even a particularly tough job, but the unique ineptitude of Trump, his henchmen, and his family (thanks, Jared!) have made it impossible for him to take advantage of a situation that might have helped any other incumbent President.

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