Donald Trump’s political career, thus far, has been characterised by his apparent invulnerability to any crisis or scandal he has faced.
Alleged campaign collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, sexual misconduct allegations, a rumoured affair with an adult film star, and most recently an impeachment trial for the abuse of presidential powers. Any of the above would have put an end to the ambitions of almost any other political candidate.
Trump’s success is predicated on his devoted base, which has maintained support for the president regardless of his controversies. He thrives in a post-truth political culture, where the facts behind stories are no longer paramount. Instead, political debates are framed on an appeal to voters’ emotions. The president’s skill is in his ability to manipulate stories to perpetuate particular narratives that attract voters, regardless of their truth.
Trump’s scandals, perversely, tend to increase his popularity among his base. They grow his appeal as an anti-establishment figure – a man of the people (ironic for someone estimated to have inherited over $400 million from his father). Collusion and impeachment proceedings were dismissed as Democrat conspiracies among Trump’s core followers. The political candidate with the lowest-number of low-dollar donations, those from normal American citizens rather than large corporations or interest groups, is not the socialist Bernie Sanders, but instead the billionaire demagogue Trump.
However, the consequences of Trump’s mismanagement of COVID-19 offers a profoundly different threat to the president. Trump cannot dismiss the effects of the virus as a construct of fake-news media like normal criticism of his administration. COVID-19 is currently devastating America. The recorded American death toll is set to reach 100,000 in the coming week with over 1.5 million confirmed cases – dwarfing the figures of any other nation. 36 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, as official figures now show that 40% of low-income families have lost a significant source of income due to the economic fallout of the pandemic.
The strength of American economy, with US unemployment at its lowest point (3.6%) since 1969 in October 2019, ensured that the previously chaotic nature of Trump’s administration was both detached from and irrelevant to the lives of many Americans. It was far easier for Trump to brush off criticism, when living standards were rising and the economy was booming. The failings of his administration are now being brutally exposed.
As a legacy of the Obama administration, Trump disbanded the Global Health and Biodefense unit of the National Security Council established by Obama’s National Security Advisor to prepare for future pandemics. Key government health officials – notably the health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar – advised Trump as early as 30 January about the need for pressing action to deal with the threat posed by the virus. Trump ignored such advice, labelling Mr Azar “an alarmist” and was instead apparently more concerned with a failed federal vaping ban during the conversation. His early statements belittled the virus, likening it to the common flu. Trump only agreed in mid-March to social distancing measures, by which time the virus had spread uncontrollably throughout America.
The USA’s testing capabilities have also been widely criticised. By mid-March, 11,000 tests had been conducted in America in total. South Korea, with a population less than one-fifth of the USA’s, had by that point been carrying out 10,000 tests per day for almost 2 weeks. Trump has consistently sought to undermine his scientific experts and their institutions due to his distrust for the so-called ‘deep state’, yet he requires their advice now more than ever. Only 36% of Americans say that they consider Trump a trusted source of information – a remarkably high figure for a leader who publicly questioned whether ingesting bleach could be a potential way to combat the virus. 57% view the president as doing a poor job in dealing with the spread of the virus.
Trump is already reverting to his old political playbook: blaming China, criticising the media and praising his own administration’s response. A Washington Post analysis of the three weeks of Trump’s coronavirus daily briefings calculated that Trump spent only 4.5 minutes expressing his sympathy and sorrow for victims, but over 2.5 hours attacking his political enemies and complimenting his own administration’s actions. Such behaviour, whilst usually popular amongst his base, may not be tolerated in the middle of a pandemic where lives are being lost every day.
Political leaders can often transcend their usual partisan loyalties by becoming the statesman, or woman, needed in a crisis. Following 9/11, popular support for President Bush increased from 56% to 88% between August and October 2011. This is not possible for Trump: partisan divisions are too firmly entrenched within American politics. COVID-19 has done more to polarise, than to unite, Republicans and Democrats.
But, the flipside for Trump is that election success in November will not require popular support. Clinton won more than 2.1% more of the popular votes in the 2016 presidential election – almost 3 million more voters than the president. Trump merely needs a sufficient number of his base voters to turn out in battleground Rust Belt states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Polling suggests that Biden is 6% ahead in Pennsylvania, 3% ahead in Florida and 8% ahead in Michigan. But, prior to the previous election, the same polls suggested even larger margins for Clinton.
The pre-existing anti-globalisation sentiment that Trump powerfully exploited in the 2016 election will be coupled with the economic devastation caused by the virus in such states. Foreign competition prompted mass outsourcing of manufacturing jobs accelerating the decline of industry. Factories were in some cases physically transported from Ohio and Michagan, to produce goods at a lower cost in China. Trump will now scapegoat China as the cause of American economic woes past and present. Alongside labelling COVID-19 as “The Chinese Virus”, his new favourite nickname for Biden is “China Joe”. He will continue to suggest corruption in the dealings between Hunter Biden and China, implying that only he can properly hold the Chinese government to account.
His supporters are unlikely to care about the specifics of his virus response strategy, regardless of its importance in reducing death tolls. Despite being almost universally criticized by experts, Trump’s opinion poll ratings initially rose in response to the virus equalling his highest ever rating of 49%. Voters are also unlikely to attribute blame for the arrival of a virus out of his control, but only if he can convey a sense of decisive action currently lacking. He is already using the rhetoric of a wartime president – focusing on his decisions to ban flights from China in January and travel restrictions from Europe despite early Democrat criticism.
If the virus can be contained, and the projected v-shaped economic recovery does occur before the next election, Trump will be difficult to defeat. The“America First” isolationist narrative will only be more attractive to his potential supporters – after a year where COVID-19 has devastated the global economy and exposed the frailties in our cherished international institutions.