The Calamity of Trump's COVID Show

Michael Shifter


Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, regularly asked his constituents: “How Am I Doing?” Such a question would never occur to Donald Trump, another New Yorker who now occupies the White House. For him, his performance as president has been flawless. 

When asked in March what score he would give himself, on a scale of 1 to 10, he unhesitatingly said “10.” Day after day at his press briefings, the president boasts that he has done a stellar job in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. 

What is striking is that Trump’s self-promotion and self-congratulation come against the backdrop of a devastating health and economic crisis. There have been over 75,000 deaths in the United States, more than the number of Americans who lost their lives in the two-decade Vietnam War. 

More than 33 million American workers have already applied for unemployment insurance. Job losses in the past two months exceed all the new jobs created since the 2008-09 recession. Many other countries have similarly alarming statistics.

The president has been unwilling to assume his share of responsibility for the calamity. He has been particularly incensed by news accounts that make it clear he dismissed warnings from senior officials about a coming health crisis, even early on in his administration. Reports show that, more egregiously, Trump was in denial and squandered a lot of time before reluctantly agreeing to a lockdown. His leadership qualities have been wanting in confronting this unprecedented crisis, which some compare to the Civil War or Great Depression. But he is no Lincoln, or FDR.    

As the US entered the worst phase of the crisis, his position on the pandemic has been notably incoherent and contradictory. While on the one hand Trump realizes that he needs to be surrounded by some respected health experts, on the other hand he resists accepting their advice, worried that extended shut-down policies will destroy the economy, tarnish his image in the eyes of his supporters — that he is a tough, take-charge leader — and, most of all, jeopardize his reelection prospects in November. 

Through tweets such as “Liberate Michigan,” “Liberate Minnesota,” and “Liberate Virginia,” Trump has encouraged protesters demanding to re-open business to essentially defy his own administration’s lockdown policy. To be sure, as the crisis continues, there is growing pressure to get back to business.   

His populist impulses are irrepressible and on full display in this crisis. Consistent with his style and behavior since he became president and even before, Trump blames others — in this case, the Democrats, the Obama administration, the media (“enemy of the people,” “fake news”) and especially China — for all of his troubles. 

No longer able to hold rallies to get the regular doses of adulation that he desperately needs, Trump has used the bully pulpit to hold daily press briefings that have been become heavy on political propaganda, touting his achievements as president (“I was first US president to take on China”), and light on being measured and honest, backed by scientific evidence, trying to calm an anxious and frightened nation. 

On the contrary, Trump has openly recommended hydroxychlororoquine, which is clinically untested, to treat Covid-19.

Trump’s stumbles, irresponsibility, and misinformation reached a low point last week when he suggested that those with coronavirus might consider injecting disinfectant. The crazy idea would be laughable if the consequences were not so serious and dangerous. Several governors have reported receiving hundreds of telephone inquiries asking whether they should follow the president’s advice. Trump’s political advisers and GOP elected officials, fearing dimming reelection prospects, have tried to rein in the president and leave the daily briefings to the professionals.   

How is Trump doing? Is his usual formula for dealing with crises —ƒ distractions, lies and personal attacks – working this time? The pandemic might prove to be a tougher foil for the combative president. 

As David Axelrod, Obama’s political strategist, commented, it’s hard to “spin” a pandemic. And as New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg recently wrote, the cult of personality that Trump fosters (his signature appears on the checks being sent to recipients of the stimulus package passed by Congress!) might have its limits with the pandemic. 

While Trump initially got a modest bounce in the polls, his level of support has come down to what it has been during his presidency, approximately 44%. No matter what Trump does, that number is unlikely to drop much further. It has been remarkably stable. Trump has never been interested in broadening his support beyond the base and uniting the country. Rather, he thrives on polarization. 

Trump is simply unable to show real leadership in responding to a profound crisis that offer, if managed skillfully, would redound to his political benefit. 

After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001, George W. Bush’s support exceeded 80%. Today, in the midst of this pandemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approval has jumped significantly, and President Emmanuel Macron has also improved his standing. In Latin America, Argentine president Alberto Fernandez and Peruvian president Martin Vizcarra have generally gotten high marks for their intelligent handling of the crisis and have been rewarded politically. Higher approval levels could, however, prove fleeting, as the economic and social costs mount.  

In the United States, in the context of such confusion and chaos at the national level, a number of local officials have stepped in to fill the void and found their political moment. Democratic governors in New York and California, and Republican governors in Ohio and Maryland, have risen to the occasion, inspired citizen confidence, and have effectively balanced the imperatives of saving lives and rebuilding the economy. The president could take some lessons from them.  

As in 2016, given the nature of the electoral college system, this year’s presidential race will likely be fought in a handful of critical, swing states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Florida. In several of those states, Trump’s numbers are slipping and turning in favor of Joe Biden, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee. The economic impact of the health crisis in those and other states has been severe. Trump clearly does not want to hear and won’t accept expert opinions that now say the pandemic could be even worse in the fall — when the election is scheduled — than it is today.   

Still, although it is hard to imagine that any incumbent in a democracy could be reelected with 30% unemployment, as some economists are predicting, the chief lesson learned after 2016 is that it is a mistake to underestimate Trump. He retains a core, loyal base, has a lot of money, and seems willing to do whatever he needs to do to win reelection. If the economy is in terrible shape in November, Trump will blame it all on Democratic governors and mayors, the Democratic House of Representatives, the media, and misguided scientists and “experts.”  

One already clear line of attack against Biden will be that he has long been weak on China, whereas Trump has stood up for the United States against its main global competitor. The nation is bracing for a nasty campaign, the kind that Trump enjoys running. 

Biden will try to make the election a referendum on Trump, and particularly his mismanagement of the pandemic that has cost lives, damaged the economy, and further divided the country. He will make the case that only a leader with a measured approach and steady hand can be trusted to steer the country through the tough times ahead.

Despite warnings from his advisers, Trump will remain the consummate showman and dominate the political scene. After a one-day pause in his participation at the press briefings following his crazy and costly suggestion about injecting disinfectant, Trump was back at center stage. He simply cannot help himself. Amidst such uncertainty, at least we can continue to count on the “Trump Show.”

Michael Shifter es presidente de Diálogo Interamericano, un tanque de pensamiento con sede en Washington, D.C. 
Michael Shifter es presidente de Diálogo Interamericano, un tanque de pensamiento con sede en Washington, D.C. 

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