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Op-Ed: Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis gives him a huge opportunity — if he can muster some humility

President Trump tours Ford Motor Co.'s Rawsonville Components Plant.
President Trump looks through a face shield while touring a Ford Motor Co. plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., in May.
(Daniel Mears / Associated Press)

The president’s COVID-19 diagnosis announced Friday makes one thing certain: The coronavirus will remain the central issue in the election.

This is problematic for the president because his job approval on this topic is low. And, as a matter of election framing, the tables have been turned. President Trump has argued that his opponent, Joe Biden, is too old, too sick and too senile to serve. Now, Trump is the sick one, and Biden is healthy.

But Trump’s illness also provides him with an opportunity to change the trajectory of the conversation on coronavirus, something he has badly needed. He can now cast himself with the people he governs, and offer at least a thimble-full of humility.

Essentially, for a president who has presided over a very divided country, there’s a simple message for this moment: We are all in this together.

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It’s a sobering moment for the world to see the U.S. president contract a potentially deadly virus in real time. From their president, the American people will want resolve, optimism and a sense of calm. And they will want — and need — to hear from him some acknowledgment that he is now experiencing the same disruption that American citizens have since early this year.

Trump’s usual style is to project that he’s uncommon — uncommonly wealthy, uncommonly suited to fix the nation’s problems, uncommonly credentialed (i.e. not a politician), uncommonly accomplished (“I’ve done more in 47 months than you have in 47
years …”).

Whether you believe these messages or not, this is the narrative he’s written for himself. But now he has the same virus that has afflicted the Americans he leads.

In other words, he’s just like the rest of us. Common. Human.

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Trump will hate thinking of himself this way, but he needs to embrace it and recognize the opportunity his diagnosis offers to show leadership and understanding.

It’s particularly important for older Americans, who are softer on the president than they were in 2016, to hear some humility from him now. He can show some kinship with them and offer understanding and comfort from a perspective of shared experience — and fear.

Audiences matter here. The committed #resistance to his presidency won’t come around, but seniors who were with him before just might. He’s struggling with them, I think, because they haven’t perceived him as taking their health seriously enough in this pandemic.

Seniors know they are the most vulnerable and most at risk of dying; now Trump gets that too, or at least he should. He needs to communicate as much to elderly Americans, who liked him better than Hillary Clinton but don’t necessarily like him better than Biden.

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This is a made-for-TV moment for a president who made TV for a living. He understands heroes and villains, story arcs and dramatic moments. Has there been a better opportunity in his presidency for something dramatic than there is now?

His coronavirus messaging has been uneven. He’s been recalcitrant in the face of medical experts telling him what to do and say. He simply hasn’t embraced the seriousness of this pandemic, at least publicly, as many people wanted him to.

But Trump, in some ways, has been one of the luckiest SOBs in American political history. And now at the 11th hour in a campaign he’s losing (at least according to the polls), he’s staring at a huge opportunity to show humility, understanding and kinship with his fellow Americans.

We’ve all been living this nightmare for months, and many of us didn’t have the luxury of “playing it down.” That was a phrase Trump used with journalist Bob Woodward.

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If the president didn’t fully understand the meaning of what he was saying before, he surely does now. And if he can step in front of the American people to acknowledge that fact, lay bare his missteps and shortcomings and demonstrate gratitude for the sacrifices made by all Americans in 2020, he just might turn a terrible diagnosis into a positive moment.

That wouldn’t just be good for his campaign; it would be good for the nation.

Scott Jennings is a longtime Republican advisor, former special assistant to President George W. Bush and CNN political commentator. He is a contributing writer to Opinion. @ScottJenningsKY


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