Belatedly, Trump has begun to speak the truth about the virus, which by some estimates could kill more than 2 million Americans without attempts to control it. After an abrupt change of tone Monday afternoon, Trump continued to say the right things, using the same word on Tuesday that former vice president Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron have used: war.
“We have to get rid of this, we have to win this war, and ideally quickly,” he said in the White House briefing room. “Because the longer it takes — it’s not a good situation. And I’m not even talking about the economy, I’m talking about the lives of a lot of people.”
But Trump’s late conversion to reality has left behind one group of Americans that will be difficult to convince: his own supporters. Their alternative-facts diet has left them intolerant of anything the government and the media feed them.
An alarming new poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist shows that the number of Republicans who believe the virus is a real threat has actually fallen over the past month, from 72 percent in February to just 40 percent now. A majority of Republicans now say the threat has been blown out of proportion — more than double the 23 percent who said so last month.
Naturally, they’re not so inclined to cooperate with efforts to slow the virus’s spread. Only 30 percent of Republicans plan to avoid large gatherings (vs. 61 percent of Democrats), a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found just before Trump proposed such limits. Republicans were half as likely to say they were rescheduling travel and a third as likely to stop eating out at restaurants.
Key Trump allies aren’t cooperating, either. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) recommended on Monday: “If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat.”
Also Monday, Ron Paul, the former presidential candidate and father of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), said, “People should ask themselves whether this coronavirus ‘pandemic’ could be a big hoax, with the actual danger of the disease massively exaggerated.”
On Sunday, former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik — recently pardoned by Trump — speculated that “this hysteria is being created” to “destroy” Trump’s economic success. And Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a key Trump ally, said “it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant. … Go to your local pub.” (He later tried awkwardly to recant that advice.)
Then there’s Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who tweeted (and later deleted) a photo of him and his children at a “packed” food hall (Trump expressed his disagreement); Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), tweeting a photo of a freshly poured Corona beer at a restaurant and the message “Be smart. Don’t Panic”; and former Milwaukee County, Wis., sheriff David Clarke, once considered for a senior Trump administration job, who speculated that George Soros may be behind the virus panic and suggested: “GO INTO THE STREETS FOLKS. Visit bars, restaurants, shopping malls … ”
After weeks of false reassurances and disinformation, Trump abruptly shifted this week. At Tuesday’s briefing, he lavishly praised the government scientists and public health experts he had until lately been contradicting, and he celebrated recent bipartisanship. Though he let slip an occasional shot at Democrats and the media, he made the rare admission that “we’ve done a poor job in terms of press relationship.”
For once, he put his priority where it should be: on the human toll. “For the markets, for everything, it’s a very simple, very simple solution. We want to get rid of it. We want to have as few deaths as possible.”
He spoke to those inclined toward vacation travel: “I would recommend that they just enjoy their living room.”
And he admonished those not following social-distancing guidelines: “I’m not happy with those people.”
There can be no doubt who “those people” are: Fox-News viewing Trump supporters who, until this week, had been encouraged to believe Trump’s claims that the virus was well under control.
At one point Tuesday, Fox News’s John Roberts asked Trump to move closer to the microphone so the “people at home” could hear him.
“You’re right, those are very important people,” Trump said to Roberts. “Especially your people.”
He’s got that right. After encouraging his Fox fan base for weeks to scoff at the virus, Trump now finds that his presidency, the U.S. economy and countless lives depend on him convincing them otherwise.
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