Addressing a traumatised nation, the US president fumbled. His Oval Office speech lacked command and old doubts resurfaced about his fitness for the role. Much of Washington sensed that a man elected in good times (while losing the popular vote) was out of his element in a crisis.
For all that, George W Bush’s ratings surged after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, such that his first words are now half-forgotten. The Beltway reviews had misjudged public sentiment.
After an infinitely worse speech two weeks ago, Donald Trump might be in the early stages of a similar if less extreme feat. His handling of the coronavirus outbreak has achieved positive ratings so far. According to Gallup, his general approval score has returned to its all-time high. What seemed to be career-ending ineptitude (a representative headline: “The Trump presidency is over”) is having the opposite effect. Eight months from a presidential election, the mystery of his resilience needs explaining.
Much of it is a nervous public’s reflexive deference to authority. In a crisis, there is no solace in the thought that one’s leaders are derelict, even if the facts invite exactly that conclusion. Note that Britain’s ruling Conservatives are also scoring well with voters. So is President Emmanuel Macron of France. Given their divergent response to the virus (in timing, if not content), all that links these governments is the fact of being governments.
Consider the lot of the opposition right now. Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive White House nominee, was an inescapable figure at the start of the month. He now struggles to cram a word in between the president’s two-hour press conferences.
Trump’s initial denialism, his misstatements of fact, his tension with the immunologist Anthony Fauci: these are dire signs, but they require effort to notice. In a visual culture, they do not match the optical immediacy of a leader at a lectern, disaster movie-style, day after anxious day. Such are the advantages of incumbency in dark times, the surprise is that Trump is not polling even better.
As his popularity is mostly a function of his office, the president can afford to sit tight, defer to public health wisdom and savour the free media coverage until November. At worst, he would be following the course of almost every other world leader.
Instead, he seems set on the most extraordinary gamble with his electoral prospects, and the health of his nation. What began as a coded reluctance to shut down normal life for the virus is becoming more explicit.
“Our people want to return to work,” the president tweeted on Tuesday. “THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM.” He told Fox News that he wants the country “raring to go by Easter”. This heedless impatience disturbs the experts. It troubles many eminent Republicans, too. But it is futile to pretend there is no audience for it.
Liberal democracies are asking their citizens to perform an act of social and economic self-denial unprecedented outside wartime. It is right. It should have started earlier. The idea that letting things run their course would entail much less economic damage is beyond sanguine. All the same, we can only guess at the public’s patience for it.
Trump is counting on the number of dissenters to grow as the lockdowns drag. A leader with rhetorical sway over nearly half the nation can help to make that happen. Indeed, the dread must be that going out versus staying in becomes a new partisan signifier, denoting membership of blue or red America. The mystery is why a man whose position has stabilised would take such a risk. Perhaps this stock market obsessive cannot conceive of his re-election in a sagging economy.
More likely, he just hates to ask grim things of people. If it is true that power reveals, and doesn’t just corrupt, this has been a revealing month. What Trump has in common with Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, is less ideology than a bone-deep aversion to being disliked. Tellingly, their nationalism tends not to appeal to duty and sacrifice as much as a can-do bullishness. It makes them both world-class boosters. And reluctant bearers of bad news.
The president bets there are lots of reluctant hearers of bad news, too. And this is before the quarantines really grate. It is plausible that his haste to get this crisis over with might finally do for him. But then, two weeks ago, it was plausible that he had lost the election before it ever started. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020