The “October Surprise” is the virus

Trump coronavirus

Citation Audrey Bowler / Media Matters

Every election cycle, political journalists and observers wait in anticipation for the “October Surprise” -- the unexpected news event that has the potential to shake up the race. In 2016, it was FBI Director James Comey’s announcement of a new development in the investigation of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, driving negative coverage that cost her the election. Four years later, President Donald Trump and his media and congressional allies have been trying to recreate that magic to boost his reelection odds against former Vice President Joe Biden.

But this year’s October Surprise isn’t about a candidate’s adherence to the Presidential Records Act or debunked allegations of public corruption. It’s something far more consequential and visceral to the public -- a third wave of COVID-19 cases bearing down on the country on Trump’s watch, in part because he’s been taking advice from his Fox News cabinet rather than listening to public health experts. 

Coronavirus cases are rising in virtually every state. The U.S. set a single-day high of 77,640 cases on Thursday, 12 days out from the election, according to NBC News. There were also more than 1,000 recorded deaths that day due to the virus, and given the expanding case load we are likely to see that tragic figure matched in the coming days. This “could become the largest coronavirus outbreak of the pandemic so far,” The Atlantic warns, with the virus now “found in every kind of American community, from tiny farm towns to affluent suburbs to bustling border cities.”

It didn’t have to be this way. Public health experts have long predicted an autumn wave of cases, as Americans spend more time indoors and become more susceptible to the respiratory virus. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top federal infectious disease expert, warned in April that the U.S. “could be in for a bad fall” if governments did not take sufficient precautions. “In my mind, it’s inevitable that we will have a return of the virus, or maybe even that it never went away,” he said. In September, he told the public not to “underestimate the potential of the pandemic,” adding, “We need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter, because it’s not going to be easy.”

But Trump wanted it to be easy, and he went looking for advisers who would tell Americans that it would be. He found them on his favorite cable news channel, with deadly results. For months, the network’s happy talk about the virus fueled the president’s skepticism about masks and other public health recommendations, his criticism of experts like Fauci, and his drive to focus on rehabilitating the economy rather than crushing the virus. He even plucked Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who echoed the Fox News take on the virus, from the network’s green room and placed him in charge of the federal government’s pandemic response.

We are seeing the fruits of Fox’s labor: Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead, the economy is in shambles, and the virus is still raging out of control, with no end in sight. 

But Trump is not changing course. “It will go away,” he said of the virus during Thursday night’s presidential debate, “and as I say, we're rounding the turn, we're rounding the corner, it's going away.” It’s a message ripped from a Fox prime-time show, not from reality. 

Trump and his Fox propagandists are desperate to change the subject away from his mismanagement of the pandemic. That’s why they are dripping out opposition research about Biden’s son and berating the press for not spending more time talking about it. They are done with the virus, and they want the American public to be done with it, too. But the virus isn’t done with us.