Over the last 24 hours, President Trump has aggressively widened the circle of people or countries that are making it impossible for Donald Trump to handle the coronavirus. In a Thursday night interview with Sean Hannity, Trump complained about Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer (“She is a new governor and it’s not been pleasant”), Washington governor Jay Inslee, and the demand by various hospital staff for more ventilator machines (“You know, you go to major hospitals, sometimes they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”). Friday, on Twitter, he added General Motors CEO Mary Barra (“Always a mess with Mary B.”)
Trump happens to be enjoying his highest approval ratings at the moment. It is possible he will somehow maintain, or even enhance, his current standing. But his handling of the coronavirus — even from the narrow perspective of politics, which is how Trump himself views it — is doing almost everything to ensure that his bump is short-lived, and will eventually be followed by a long, steep decline.
Trump’s recent polling bump is real. The important context, though, is that every leader is getting approval bumps, and almost all of them are getting much bigger ones than Trump. In France, Emmanuel Macron’s approval is up 13 percent. In the U.K., Boris Johnson — who arguably bungled the crisis worse than Trump did, originally proposing to let the virus run its natural course before admitting he had miscalculated and reversing himself — has seen his job approval soar from about even to two-to-one in favor. (Even Jeremy Corbyn’s net approval is up ten points.) The government in Italy, currently enduring the worst coronavirus outbreak anywhere, has soared from net negative to over 70 percent approval. In the United States, more than 70 percent of Americans approve of the job their state’s governor is doing to handle the coronavirus.
The breadth and depth of the pattern strongly suggests people are rallying around their leaders in crisis, regardless of either the quality of the decision-making or the results to date. Rallying around a leader in the initial stages of a crisis is a well-known public-opinion phenomenon. After Iran took Americans hostage, Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings rose 30 points. Against a backdrop where every leader is enjoying soaring, almost rapturous levels of public approval, Trump’s step up to almost 50 percent approval should be seen not as good news, but as a devastating political indictment of his leadership style. It’s like a Major League Baseball player competing against high-schoolers and hitting 0.280.
It is very easy to imagine a combination of medical improvement (the deployment of effective testing or treatments) or a V-shaped economic recovery that positions Trump for reelection in the fall. If that happens, however, almost nothing Trump is doing will have contributed to that outcome.
Trump’s strategy, to the extent that he has one, has been focused entirely on the short term. His goal is to reopen businesses as soon as possible. Of course, all things being equal, a fast return to normal activity would be better than a slow one. But the countries that have enjoyed success have done so by implementing wide-scale testing and tracing that allow them to isolate cases. Trump seems to believe he can relax restrictions in parts of the country that have not yet suffered widespread outbreaks.
Trump told Hannity that social-distancing measures could be scaled back soon in low-density Republican states. “You’ll take the farm belt, you’ll take certain states that aren’t badly impacted,” he said, “They have it under control, they’re incredible governors, they’re incredible senators, they have it under control, they put people immediately under quarantine.”
It may be true that high-density cities have suffered much faster outbreaks. It is not true, as Trump implies, that the lagging pace of the virus in red states is caused by superior Republican governance. Red states are not identifying patients with the coronavirus and putting them in quarantine. They are experiencing the same unchecked community spread as blue states, and while the virus has taken hold more slowly, they are catching up rapidly. As Nate Silver points out, “Nine of the ten states that have seen the most rapid increase in coronavirus from Monday to Thursday are states that voted for Trump in 2016.”
Trump’s plan to relax social distancing in the states with the lowest levels of reported outbreak — without yet having widespread, fast-working tests in place — is a recipe to extend the outbreak and delay the recovery he craves.
He may well be persuaded to abandon his plans to do so. (Dr. Anthony Fauci is certainly working to dissuade him.) But that leaves open the question of just what Trump will gain by repeatedly promising the country that social distancing will end soon, and that the recovery will be rapid. Rather than prepare the country for a long, painful road to return to normal, he has ramped up expectations to a level even a highly competent president would have trouble meeting.
The double-edged sword of public opinion on the presidency is that Americans give the chief executive too much credit for good times and too much blame for bad ones. They expect presidents to solve all problems, even ones beyond the office’s capacity. Trump has conspicuously failed even to pantomime what that kind of leadership looks like. Mostly he talks about other things to blame: China, the Obama administration, various Democratic governors, General Motors, and the supposed (and clearly untrue) fact that “nobody saw this coming.” He said on camera, “I don’t take responsibility at all,” a line that will appear in almost every Democratic ad, because it violates Americans’ most fundamental requirements of their leaders.
Trump’s management of the coronavirus has been shambolic. Even the superficial communication of his management has been a disaster. His present, very modest high watermark in polling is a reservoir of goodwill that he is rapidly squandering. If he winds up winning reelection, it will be in spite of everything he has done so far.