To win in November, Trump should seek inspiration from President Alexander Lukashenko, the 65-year-old autocrat who has ruled Belarus since 1994. He trounced his liberal opponent in the presidential election in August with 80 percent of the vote.
I’m not suggesting Trump emulate Lukashenko’s methods. Among other things, the man dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’ disqualified his three main political opponents at the beginning of the race, imprisoning two of them. He has never won an election with less than 75 percent of the vote, although none have been found to be free and fair by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an election monitoring body. His defeated opponent this time round — Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — was initially detained by the authorities, during which she recorded a hostage video conceding defeat, before fleeing the country.
But in one respect, at least, Trump should take a leaf out of Lukashenko’s book. The barrel-chested populist is an unapologetic COVID skeptic. Belarus was one of only two European countries that didn’t impose a full lockdown, Sweden being the other, with Lukashenko urging his fellow citizens to avoid infection by drinking vodka and taking saunas. The Belarusian football league was the only one in Europe not to shut down, providing soccer fans across the continent with a much-needed weekly fix. In May, with Belarus’s COVID death toll still in double digits, Lukashenko congratulated himself on not succumbing to the global panic.
‘You see that in the affluent West, unemployment is out of control,’ he told supporters at a mass rally. ‘People are banging on pots. People want to eat. Thank God, we avoided this. We didn’t shut down.’
This was the rallying cry of Lukashenko’s presidential campaign: that the threat posed by COVID-19 had been wildly exaggerated by his bedwetting opponents and it was thanks to his innate common sense that Belarus was weathering the storm better than other countries. And Trump could make a similar argument. True, he wasn’t able to prevent Democratic governors from imposing severe lockdowns in states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan. But insofar as he was able to stay the hand of Republican governors and use the bully pulpit of the White House to pour scorn on the panicky pronouncements of public health panjandrums, he showed real leadership.
Of course, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are trying to portray Trump’s handling of the crisis as a catastrophic mistake and pin America’s high COVID death toll on him. But if you look at deaths per capita, the US fares better than Belgium, the UK, Spain, Italy, Peru and Chile. Yes, America’s economy shrunk in the second quarter of 2020, but by just 9.5 percent, the second-lowest contraction in the G7. (The UK figure was 20.4 percent.) Trump can claim, with some justification, that the US has fared better than most during this global pandemic and that he’s entitled to some of the credit.
None of that will fly if America is in the grip of a second wave in November, but that looks unlikely. The mainstream liberal media has leapt on rising case numbers in Florida, Georgia and Arizona as ‘proof’ that a second wave awaits those states that reopen too early. But it now looks as though those were just continuations of the first waves which were temporarily suspended thanks to shelter-in-place orders.
At the time of writing, the vast majority of US states, particularly the seven that avoided lockdowns altogether, have either achieved herd immunity or are fast approaching it. One of the many things the epidemiologists and virologists got wrong about the virus, leading them to exaggerate the risk, was that herd immunity wouldn’t be reached until about 80 percent of the population had been exposed. Turns out, the threshold might be around 20 percent, thanks to T cell cross-immunity and other immunological dark matter.
From Trump’s point of view, the ideal scenario will be that Biden and Harris spend the campaign bleating about the grave danger posed by the resurgence of COVID-19, and set out their plans to keep America safe until there’s a vaccine, which means school closures, shuttered shopping malls and compulsory Hazmat suits on public transport. There will be little public appetite for this supine cautiousness, particularly with tens of millions of Americans out of work, and Trump can win by campaigning on a platform of getting the economy back on its feet — Make America Normal Again. I look forward to the moment in the first debate when the President thrusts out his hand and Biden refuses to take it, muttering something about social distancing.
If Trump doubles down on his COVID skepticism just as Lukashenko did, he can also bring up the censorship of dissenting views about the virus by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and run against Big Tech. Forget about Mike Pence. Trump’s running mate should be a bottle of hydroxychloroquine. Indeed, he could begin each debate by gulping down a dose of the antiviral medication. All the big clinical trials of the drug are still underway, but I suspect the results will end up vindicating the President, at which point he can hammer the social media companies for suppressing information about a genuine cure: ‘You wanna know who’s responsible for all those senior citizens that were so cruelly taken from us before their time? Twitter. Blame Twitter.’ OK, Trump probably won’t sweep to victory with 80 percent of the vote. But the last of the Soviet autocrats has come up with a winning strategy. Don’t run from your record on coronavirus, Mr President. Turn it into your biggest asset.
This article is in The Spectator’s September 2020 US edition.