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analysis

U.S. President Donald Trump walks from Marine One after arriving on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington, on Oct. 1, 2020.SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Historians mining boxes of records at long tables in presidential libraries scattered across the United States know that some of the few truly reliable hints of a chief executive’s activities are in the daily log of White House telephone calls. Decades from now, biographers may encounter one significant notation in a preliminary log for Oct. 2, 2020: a call about “COVID-19 support to vulnerable seniors.”

Future chroniclers of the Trump years will discover that on that fall Friday, the ultimate vulnerable American senior had to cancel even that commitment.

The stunning announcement that U.S. President Donald Trump had contracted the coronavirus that has killed more than 200,000 of the people he was elected to lead has sent the White House, the political world and the country into yet another upheaval in a year in which upheavals have been like waves breaking across the seawalls outside his Mar-a-Lago club and estate: They just keep coming.

For months, Democratic strategists and news commentators have warned of an “October Surprise” – a devastating development from a presidential candidate with desperate prospects that upends a fall campaign only weeks from election day.

No one thought the victim would be Mr. Trump himself, so close to the election. No one thought that the man at the centre of the struggle for the White House would now be confined to Walter Reed military hospital. The President will spend a “few days” at the hospital, the White House said Friday, and had earlier received an injection of an experimental antibody cocktail.

Mr. Trump must now do three things contrary to every element of his presidential RNA, which has been assaulted by a virus that has been contracted by almost 35 million people worldwide: take orders from established authorities, in this case, medical staff; be a role model for behaviour; and stop in-person campaigning.

In the first major instance of Mr. Trump being victimized – the first true case of the President being brought to heel and the first example of presidential vulnerability since the 2016 election – he finally has been restrained, and it comes at a moment of extreme danger for him.

He now confronts an exquisite but existential choice, one faced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Does he show Everyman vulnerability (as Mr. Roosevelt did after contracting polio)? Or does he show grit and courage (as FDR did, even in his Second World War summits).

Already, it is clear that the 45th president does not have the option Woodrow Wilson had shortly after the First World War, when he hid the fact that he had suffered a stroke and effectively hunkered down in the White House for the remaining months of his presidency.

Wilson’s wife, Edith, blamed his Republican rivals – who had staved off the president’s efforts to win approval of the Versailles Treaty – for his illness. In a similar era of bitterness and bile, Mr. Trump’s critics may blame the President himself for his cavalier defiance of medical advice, his determination to campaign before large groups and his failure to wear a mask.

A major question: Will the President’s approval ratings rise, out of sympathy for his plight, as they did for Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, when the American people rallied behind him after his heart attack?

All that is days in the future. But for the short term, it is clear that the campaign has taken an abrupt and wholly unanticipated turn.

The dangers for the President are both medical and political. Mr. Trump, at 74, is especially vulnerable to virulent strains of the disease. And confinement will present him with a special challenge: how to run what in essence will be a “front porch” campaign, much like the ones four U.S. presidential candidates waged in the past, three of them in the 19th century and the most recent exactly a century ago.

The difference between Mr. Trump and James Garfield (1880), Benjamin Harrison (1888), William McKinley (1896) and Warren G. Harding (1920) is that these political figures did so voluntarily. But in his confinement, Mr. Trump might take comfort in the vastly more sophisticated means of communications he possesses – he has already tweeted and released a brief video about the disease – and the fact that all four previous front-porch campaigns were successful.

And if the President, broadly criticized for his interruptions and imprecations during Tuesday’s debate, were searching for a way to avoid a second confrontation with former vice-president Joe Biden, one is suddenly at hand.

The remarks of U.S. presidents, to paraphrase Shakespeare, live after them. George W. Bush will forever be remembered for declaring “mission accomplished” in overseas wars in 2003; U.S. troops are still being killed in battle. Hours before he was diagnosed with COVID-19, Mr. Trump declared that “the end of the pandemic is in sight.” This is not the last time that phrase will be invoked this campaign year.

For four years, Mr. Trump has been the conductor, choreographer and composer of the stage movements and the soundtrack in the contemporary American drama. Now, in perhaps one of the last acts of Campaign 2020, he is following a modern version of the most famous stage direction in the English-speaking world, from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: Exit, pursued by a bearish virus.

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