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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

COVID-19 trumps the culture wars

Healthcare workers administer tests at a COVID-19 testing

Healthcare workers administer tests at a COVID-19 testing site at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas, on July 9, 2020. Credit: AFP /AFP via Getty Images/MARK FELIX

A space ship could land on the White House lawn or a war could break out with Suriname. But absent that, two compelling national narratives are hurtling us toward Election Day — COVID-19 vs. culture — and COVID-19 is winning hands down.

Both issues are powerful, each a winner in the right hands. But President Donald Trump is bungling both, and former Vice President Joe Biden is content to sit back and watch.

The culture war should be a slam dunk for Trump politically. Masked mobs (ideally) are tearing down monuments and dumping them in rivers. Beloved national symbols are being desecrated with eggs and spray paint, and an atmosphere of chaos is descending on cities, with shootings up and police response times down. The average person doesn’t like that.

The situation begs for steady, law-and-order conservative leadership, but instead of focusing on the lowest hanging fruit — the crime, the destruction of a Frederick Douglass statue in Rochester, attacks on Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Christopher Columbus monuments to name a few — Trump attacks NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag at its race tracks and African American driver Bubba Wallace for questioning why a noose was hanging in his garage. From a purely calculative perspective, it’s political malpractice.

But that’s what Trump does. He inexplicably opens himself up to charges of supporting white supremacism when there are legitimate conversations to be had about hooliganism and preserving cultural heritage. Handled correctly — focusing on the objectively egregious and letting southern states self-determine what stays and goes through legal processes — Trump could be driving a winning cultural message through Election Day. It’s a message that talks to me, and I can’t stand the guy.

But there’s this little thing called COVID-19 to contend with, too, and on that Trump has totally dropped the ball. He’s acting as though the virus doesn’t exist, and that’s more than malpractice. It’s political insanity.

Nothing is more important to voters than their health, and it’s crazy to think their attention can be drawn away from an imminent life-and-death issue like COVID-19 by sleight of hand. Tweets that once distracted voters from unfavorable Trump news cycles are powerless while this virus runs rampant. Trump’s change-the-subject tactic, moreover, makes people feel he doesn’t care about them. COVID-19 was raging in Tulsa, but he had to have his vanity rally. Now he’s planning to drag the Republican National Committee to virus-raged Florida for his nominating convention.

Is there a single political adviser left in Washington that he listens to?

With COVID-19 alone Trump should be leading Biden comfortably. Why? Because the adage “you don’t change horses midstream” normally applies. As gross as it sounds, public emergencies are an enormous political opportunity for those holding executive office. The public is scared and dependent on leaders like at no other time. An executive who takes the reins — even if he errs — is rewarded, worshipped even. Ask Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Trump simply let the reins go and hoped for the best.

Those advising the president to focus on American culture are half right. Done carefully, it will drive voters into his camp. But things aren’t happening in a vacuum. The worst pandemic in a century is spreading virtually unabated across the United States, while other countries are tamping it down. Trump needs to acknowledge that and take charge — if he wants a second term.

COVID-19 trumps everything until it’s behind us. Only a fool would think otherwise.

William F.B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.