Anyone who has been following President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis can probably discern three distinct (if sometimes overlapping) messages he’s put out there as the pandemic proceeded: (1) It’s Not a Big Deal; (2) It’s a Big Deal But Thank God We’re Handling It Well! and (3) It Will Be Over Soon and America Will Be Stronger Than Ever!
Phase two — when Trump began doing daily briefings (March 9) and then embraced extended social-distancing and stay-at-home orders (March 29) — was obviously when his message and that of his political opponents came closest to converging, at least in terms of what Americans should have been doing at that particular moment. Perhaps the peak of this less upbeat messaging was on April 22, the day he criticized Georgia governor Brian Kemp for prematurely reopening Georgia businesses. And not surprisingly, the partisan gaps on perceptions of the coronavirus — which were notably large during Trump’s denial phase — shrank, even though they didn’t disappear, as indicated in April 21 data from YouGov:
[W]e asked Americans about the steps they have taken to adopt 11 preventative health behaviours, ranging from washing their hands more frequently and wearing a face mask, to purchasing extra food and supplies. While a clear majority of people from both parties are adopting crucial health behaviours, such as washing their hands more often, we found notable partisan differences. For example, there is a 13% gap in the wearing of face masks: 67% of Democrats reported wearing them, compared to 54% of Republicans.
That’s nothing compared to the partisan gap currently evident now that Trump has shifted his focus from health measures to a post-pandemic campaign to revive the economy. Here’s the new, improved POTUS message, according to Peter Baker of the New York Times last week:
For a president who had staked his legacy on an economic record that was shredded by the crisis, moving on may seem like the best way to salvage his chances for re-election this fall. He tried to signal that this week by saying that his coronavirus task force would soon begin winding down …
At a news briefing later in the afternoon [of May 6], Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, described the task force’s battle with the virus as if it were largely past.
“They’ve gotten our country through this,” she said. “There were supposed to be 2.2 million deaths, and we’re at a point where we’re far lower than that thanks to the great work of the task force and the leadership of President Trump.”
The newly optimistic prognosis has spread rapidly among the president’s rank-and-file supporters:
Yes, these are binary choices in a situation where most of the experts are less than certain about what to expect next, but still, the numbers represent a starkly different perception of where the country stands. With 25 weeks left between now and Election Day, Trump could well benefit from even a very slow decline in coronavirus deaths and a very slow economic recovery, as long as these beneficent trends are steady. What’s unclear is whether Trump’s base will keep believing him if public-health and economic conditions continue to change in an unpredictable, herky-jerky manner that makes it unclear whether the “light at the end of the tunnel” Trump likes to talk about is in fact a mirage. Even the most erratic of political leaders can only backtrack and flip-flop so many times without losing followers along the way.