You have heard of the “October Surprise,” that unexpected turn of events, sometimes manufactured or timed, sometimes just random, that has out-sized influence on the results in November due to its close proximity to the election. Think Comey’s 2016 announcement of reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, or Kissinger’s announcement that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam in October 1972.
An October Surprise is something that haunts all election front-runners in the lead-up to November polls. But this time around, you do not need to give a thought to Hurricane Laura upstaging the Republican Convention, or the shooting of Jacob Blake echoing through professional sports. This year’s “October surprise” came early… in January.
It seems like a long time ago, but toward the end of January, just as the polls started to show the inevitable narrowing between the emerging challenger and the White House incumbent, the biggest political, economic, and health shock in generations swept across the planet. Within weeks, it was clear that we were in the midst of a major change in how we all live, and work, and vote.
There was a world with a certain predictability that was BEFORE, and there is a new world AFTER, that is subject to a new set of rules.
Before the pandemic, the prospect of another four years of maladministration and the systematic destruction of the constitutional system looked good: good that is, if you are a Trump supporter. A win in November was not guaranteed for Trump, but against the backdrop of a booming economy and historically low official unemployment numbers, the surging Biden candidacy was sure to face a stiff uphill battle the whole way.
And compared to 2016, this time around Trump has the power of incumbency at his disposal, something – the Hatch Act be damned – he has not shrunk from abusing.
After the coronavirus hit, however, the old calculations went out the window. The polls did something unusual: they froze in place, as tens of millions lost their jobs and the economy crashed into a brick wall. Instead of the “inevitable” tightening of the race, Biden has held, and strengthened, his lead.
But whatever the polls are saying – and we only need to look to 2016 to be reminded how wrong they can be – an unprecedented wave of raw energy has been unleashed in the political sphere. People with unwanted time on their hands are hurting, and they expect a competent government to do something about it. The broadness of the Black Lives Matter protests, reaching far beyond the impoverished inner cities, attests to that energy.
Both before and during the pandemic, hard-core Trump fanboys and fangirls have continued to thrive on their sense of victimization, and resentment at a world that has not given them their due. While Trump stokes their righteous grudges, they indulge in the fantasies they are fed that make it easy for them to dismiss the gross incompetence of the federal administration’s response to the coronavirus.
Somehow, they have no interest in holding the government accountable for the 175,000 – and counting – dead. That said, if it was a different government, one lead by a Democrat, a black person, or, shudder the thought, a women, the outrage would be white hot. But the politics of resentment acts in a strange way, so Trump and his cronies are off scot free.
That group of cultists aside, the coronavirus has forced many others to confront the reality of a federal administration that not only does not care, but does not even pretend to have a plan on how to deal with the biggest threat to the country since World War II.
The coronavirus has been a terrible tragedy, but if you are looking for a silver lining, it just might be the October Surprise that saves the form of constitutional democracy we were brought up to believe was the special birth-right of Americans.