The October Surprise

Trump has COVID. The disinformation hurricane just went from Category 5 to.... wait, what's after Category 5?

The Topline

Welcome to the fourth edition of American Interregnum, the pop-up newsletter devoted to covering the issues, ideas and events that will shape what may be among the most consequential post-election periods in US history. 

Of course, unless you just returned from a media-free meditation retreat or landed on Earth for the first time, you have heard the news that Donald and Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19. At this hour the President is about to be flown on Marine One to Walter Reed Medical Center where he “may remain for several days”.

So, what does it mean for the election and its aftermath?

  1. There is legitimate uncertainty about how events will play out. 

“It’s good to accept you have no idea what is going to happen next," opined BuzzFeed politics editor Matt Berman. Certainly the Trump campaign is thrown into immediate disarray, as events are canceled and as the Vice President has had to step in for the President in planned activities. The schedule for the remaining debates is in question. And there are more profound questions about what happens if a presidential nominee can't finish the campaign, or what happens if the Vice President is also incapacitated. A number of contentious scenarios are under scrutiny. Unhelpfully, some media outlets are writing explainers on what could lead to a delay in the election (don’t worry- chances are next to zero). 

This is all, of course, made worse by the fact that we cannot trust this White House to be forthcoming or truthful. It was not from an official announcement that we learned of the spread of the virus in the President’s inner circle, but rather from news reports. And, there have been conflicting reports on the President’s condition. The White House Chief of Staff (refusing to wear a mask while talking to reporters, of course) reported the President was experiencing only mild symptoms; hours later Mike Pence stepped in for him on a conference call. We’re told Trump received an experimental antibody cocktail, and now he’s being hospitalized. Repeat: “It’s good to accept you have no idea what is going to happen next."

  1. The disinformation hurricane just went from Category 5 to... wait, what’s after Category 5?

The actual chaos in American politics is a major reason disinformation is thriving in the public discourse. COVID-19 and the election were already two major targets of bad actors seeking to sow discord. Put them together in this extraordinary way, and who knows what crazy conspiracies and opportunistic narratives will find purchase. 

BuzzFeed is collecting examples of some of the early attempts- “a fake fundraising email, conspiracies about the diagnosis, and a deceptively edited video are all making the rounds already,” reports Jane Lytvynenko. “Tweets shared thousands of times claimed Democrats might have somehow intentionally infected the president with the coronavirus during the debates,” reported the Associated Press, while The New York Times compiled tweets from liberals questioning the veracity of the diagnosis. American Interregnum co-editor Melissa Ryan told USA Today that “QAnon thinks Trump is laying low because the great awakening is finally about to happen.”

Buckle up. 

Before today’s news, I intended to focus on a string of pieces pondering the worrying possibility of violence in the post-election period. There is some of that in the links below- and we are sure to come back to the topic many times in future editions. Until then- read through these links, then try to put down the phone.

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Driving the Conversation 

“I’d spent months interviewing current and former Oath Keepers, attempting to determine whether they would really take part in violence. Many of their worst fears had been realized in quick succession: government lockdowns, riots, a movement to abolish police, and leftist groups arming themselves and seizing part of a city. They saw all of it as a precursor to the 2020 election. As Trump spent the year warning about voter fraud, the Oath Keepers were listening. What would happen, I wondered, if Trump lost, said the election had been stolen, and refused to concede?”

“Like a growing number of prominent American leaders and scholars, we are increasingly anxious that this country is headed toward the worst post-election crisis in a century and a half. Our biggest concern is that a disputed presidential election—especially if there are close contests in a few swing states, or if one candidate denounces the legitimacy of the process—could generate violence and bloodshed.”

“That a sitting president has become the chief sower of distrust in the elections process has added new levels of exasperation for the officials whose days have already been spent rushing from top-secret briefings on thwarting Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns to making sure enough hand sanitizer is available at hundreds of polling places.”

Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Thursday that President Donald Trump is ‘aiding and abetting’ Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to sow doubt about the American electoral system.

“Any efforts to throw out ballots or refuse a peaceful transfer of power are nothing less than an assault on democracy,” they wrote. “There is absolutely no excuse for promoting the intimidation or harassment of voters. These are all blatant attempts to deny our constituents the right to have their voices heard, as guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, and to know the will of the people will be carried out.”

“Joe Biden’s transition team named Jessica Hertz, until recently a Facebook executive focused on government regulations, as its general counsel on Wednesday and charged her with navigating conflicts of interest and other ethical issues for the Biden administration-in-waiting — a move that drew immediate fire from the left.”

Calls To Action 

More than 100 organizations from across the political spectrum have joined together in a coalition called Protect the Results to “ensure that every vote is counted, and show up to demand that the losing candidate put their ego aside and concede for the good of our country.” More information is here. 

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American Interregnum is a pop-up newsletter covering the Presidential transition period from November 3rd, 2020 to January 21st, 2021. It is written and edited by Justin Hendrix, Greg Greene, and Melissa Ryan. Got questions or comments? We love your feedback. Reply directly to this email. We read all responses and respond to most.