October surprises as the US presidential election enters its home stretch

Any casual follower of US politics anticipates the dreaded October Surprise at the tail end of a Presidential campaign. Just four years ago, Donald Trump’s now infamous Access Hollywood tape was seen as the turning point that would end his candidacy,  until Democratic rival Hillary Clinton was confronted with further accusations of dodgy email activity during her time as Secretary of State by the then FBI Director James Comey.

Well… this year’s surprises are making 2016 look positively mundane, and the month has only just begun. In a twist of fate typical of 2020, our first October surprise actually happened in September. Indeed, the untimely death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg blew open the floodgates of partisan political conflict. On the one hand, Democrats drew parallels to Barack Obama’s experience in 2016 where his attempts to install a Liberal Justice after the death of Antonin Scalia were stifled by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell. The excuse on paper seemed valid: in an election year, it is more appropriate to allow whoever wins in November to nominate their pick to the court. Yet Republicans are prepared to throw consistency to the wind when met with the opportunity to fill Ginsburg’s seat with a staunch conservative constitutionalist, thus subjecting the foreseeable future to a bench with a 6-3 Republican balance. Even moderate anti-Trump senator Mitt Romney couldn’t resist the temptation to assert Conservative dominance in the highest court in the land. It’s the kind of partisan fighting that defines US government; a twist of the political knife so theatrical it reads as stranger and more thrilling than fiction.

Nonetheless, less than two weeks after the death of Ginsburg, so much has happened to influence the race that the news feels like a footnote in what is turning into an earthquake of an election. Besides the (predictable) nomination of Catholic Amy Coney Barrett, this week saw two huge tremors in the political scene: arguably the most chaotic Presidential debate in history, and, the sudden diagnosis of President Trump with Covid-19, the disease which he has sought to minimise for so long.

First, the debate: rarely has political argument been so aggressive. On the one hand, there was the typically bullish Trump, whose strategy was clearly to rattle the admittedly feeble looking Biden. The ‘sleepy Joe’ nickname may not be anywhere near as successful as ‘crooked Hillary’ ever came to be, but it seems to be the only hit that the Trump campaign can land on the broadly well-liked former Vice-President. Democrats will have no doubt been holding their breath in the hope that Biden could string a few coherent points together, but few would have predicted that his biggest choice would be whether to match Trump’s aggression, or take the high road. In the end, the Democratic nominee found a steady middle ground, not interrupting nearly as much as his rival, but throwing a few jabs in there to keep an even playing field. Biden’s attacks included “will you shut up man?” and accusations that Trump is a “clown”. Undoubtedly, these statements would have been debate taboo less than a decade ago, but the Trump Presidency has completely redefined the executive office, and wider campaign tactics. Biden is right to adapt, and on the whole, he performed satisfactorily.

Yet that didn’t take away from the enormous shadow that Trump’s performance cast over the whole affair. Immediately following the broadcast, commentators were jumping to the superlatives. The Economist described the debate as “dismal”, commenting on Trump’s sinister instruction that far-right extremist group Proud Boys “stand back and stand by” and his continued reluctance to promise to concede defeat should he lose in November.

Whether or not this performance will derail his election campaign remains to be seen, but one thing that’s certain is that the events that closed out this week won’t help. In a stunning development, after months of downplaying the virus, Trump himself contracted Covid-19, in effect taking him out of the election theatrics for at least a couple of weeks. On Friday, he was taken to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC, having to be oxygenated at one point. While his doctor Sean Conley insisted that the President is “doing much better”, the constitutional ramifications of a president out of action deepens a sense that this election is exposing the vulnerabilities of the American constitution. First the imbalance of the court; second, the refusal of Trump to commit to an eventual concession; and finally, the question of Presidential succession and the transition of power. This election is proving to unearth the long-gestating vulnerabilities of US democracy. Rarely has the American identity- both domestically and on the world stage- faced such an existential threat.

Image: The White House on Flickr

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