And so, faced with alarming new signs that the coronavirus outbreak is spreading and global markets are cratering, Trump unleashed a new set of outbursts that were audacious even for him.
Only minutes after a top health official vowed on Fox News that “nobody” in the administration is “trying to minimize” the impact of coronavirus, Trump himself tweeted that “life & the economy go on” despite the flu, and noted that the numbers on coronavirus are far lower, as though everything is totally under control.
Trump also blamed the plummeting markets in part on “Fake News,” when his own erratic handling of coronavirus surely is playing a far more important role. The president raged that the media and Democrats are unfairly hyping the crisis. He dismissed the sharp drop in oil prices as “good for the consumer.” And he bizarrely unleashed a blast at the supposed corruption of … the “Obama/Biden Administration.”
Upon that last tweet, millions of Americans helplessly turned their thoughts to the horrible depredations of the Barack Obama presidency, and were immediately seduced into the realization that Trump’s America is a comparative paradise. Such are the irresistible powers of Trumpian misdirection.
Or maybe not. Maybe all this deception isn’t doing much of anything at all, except further damaging Trump.
A new Quinnipiac poll finds that Trump’s numbers are pretty awful. Only 43 percent of registered voters nationwide approve of Trump’s handling of coronavirus, while 49 percent disapprove.
Among key voter groups that Trump needs to win back, those numbers are worse. Only 37 percent of independents approve of his handling of coronavirus, versus 50 percent who disapprove. Among college-educated whites, those numbers are 43 percent and 51 percent. Among suburban voters, they’re 40 percent and 54 percent. Among women, an abysmal 36 percent approve and 55 percent disapprove.
Meanwhile, the poll also finds that registered voters say by 56 percent to 40 percent that former vice president Joe Biden — the most likely Democratic nominee — would do a better job than Trump handling a crisis. Among college-educated whites, that’s 54 percent to 42 percent. Among independents, it’s 59 percent to 33 percent; and among women, it’s 63 percent to 32 percent.
The poll finds Trump badly lagging Biden on other qualities. On honesty, Trump is at a comically awful 33 percent who say yes to 63 percent who say no, while Biden is at 51 percent and 38 percent. On leadership, Trump is at 42 percent and 56 percent, while Biden is at 52 percent and 38 percent. On caring about average Americans, Trump is at 43 percent and 54 percent, while Biden is at 59 percent and 32 percent.
Trump is still rated highly on the economy. But that underscores how dependent he is on that subject to have a credible shot at reelection, and how precarious that will prove should the economy turn downward.
None of these numbers are necessarily predictive of this fall’s outcome, of course. But at exactly the moment when Trump’s handling of a major crisis afflicting the country is receiving its most intense scrutiny, he’s being rated abysmally by the public on his own terms, and fares terribly in comparison to his most likely general election opponent.
Yet, NBC News reports that Trump doesn’t see any problem with how he’s handling the politics of coronavirus:
Trump has been advised by some close to him to let public health officials, rather than the politicians, take a more forward-facing role, according to a person familiar with the conversation. But a person close to the White House said Trump thinks it helps him politically to keep doing what he has been doing.
So the president’s confidence in his ability to mold reality into whatever form he likes remains unshakable. But the widening schism between his efforts to exert these powers and the reality of the crises bearing down on the country is surely taking its toll, given how unavoidably bad the latter are getting.
As Jonathan Chait puts it for New York magazine, Trump appears “totally oblivious to the danger of hardening his public image as the national-level equivalent of the mayor in ‘Jaws,’ blithely ignoring reports of a gigantic shark because he didn’t want to hurt the tourism season.”
I would only add that Trump is also brushing aside a time-tested rule of politics. Leaders and their handlers often worry that asserting that things are just fine in the face of serious crises or widespread hardship carries serious risks: It makes the leader look out of touch with both reality and the continued suffering of ordinary people. So it is that then-President Barack Obama was reluctant to trumpet the recovery from the financial crisis too optimistically, out of fear of alienating millions of still-struggling Americans.
Trump is, in effect, operating from the assumption that his magical lying and chaos spreading powers can render such concerns a relic of a more innocent, pre-Trumpian time. But maybe, just maybe, Trump is failing catastrophically and the American people know it, and his sprinkling of chaos dust everywhere is only making it all that much worse.