But he’s wrong about that, too. Trump has a fundamental misunderstanding about what Americans are thinking and feeling right now, a misunderstanding that has not only guided his decision-making throughout this crisis but helped cost the lives of untold thousands of Americans.
Let’s begin with some new results from a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll:
About half of states have eased restrictions on businesses, but Americans’ unease about patronizing them represents a major hurdle to restarting the economy. Many Americans have been making trips to grocery stores and 56 percent say they are comfortable doing so. But 67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store, and 78 percent would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant. People in states with looser restrictions report similar levels of discomfort as those in states with stricter rules.
In addition, 63 percent of Americans say they are worried about contracting the virus — a number that has increased since two weeks ago. We can see this in what people are doing. When Texas partially lifted its lockdown order, people went to parks and beaches but stayed away from malls and stores. “There’s absolutely no one coming around here,” said an employee of a clothing store at a mall in Austin.
If the president saw these poll results — and similar ones from other polls, which show broad support for social distancing measures and a public willing to wait to resume normal activities — he would no doubt decide that it’s all fake and that the public will tear out of their homes the moment they’re allowed, ready to save his reelection by quickly resuming economic activity.
Why is that? It’s not just about his understandable desire to see the pandemic end. It’s also because Trump has a particularly grim view of public opinion and human nature. He assumes that people are selfish, impatient, impulsive and governed above all by their darkest emotions. You might even say he thinks everyone is like him.
Perhaps that’s understandable, since focusing on what’s worst in people has gotten Trump pretty far. While he is a fool in innumerable ways, this is one area where he is indeed something of a genius: He has a kind of homing beacon for people’s darkest feelings and most vulgar impulses. He can locate and stimulate their fear, their resentment, their anger, their greed, their envy and their hatred like few public figures in history.
It made him a star, enabled him to get away with one scam after another and got him elected president.
From the beginning of this pandemic, Trump never believed that Americans could handle the truth or would be willing to sacrifice for the greater good. He had to tell them that everything was fine and then keep lying to them about how great he was doing. When lockdown orders became inevitable, he believed they wouldn’t be able to tolerate a collective effort to defeat the virus, so he had to appeal to their selfishness and resentment. He told them to get angry at Democratic governors and the Chinese government. He encouraged protests against stay-at-home orders.
Despite his efforts, those protesters you see on TV represent just a tiny minority of Americans. But when Trump turns on Fox News and sees a few dozen lunkheads screaming that their governor is a Nazi, he concludes that they represent the true voice of public opinion.
What he doesn’t grasp is that while people are tired of being stuck at home and want desperately to get back to normal, most of us also understand that the worst thing to do would be to resume all our old activities too early and risk a second wave of infections. We don’t want our neighbors to get sick. We can be fed up and also, having come this far, be willing to wait awhile longer. We’re not all selfish and cruel.
Trump can’t understand that because he is utterly without empathy. He almost never talks about the nearly 70,000 of us who have died or the families and friends they left behind. He doesn’t speak their names, or tell their stories, or explain what their loved ones have lost. It’s not only because he doesn’t want to contradict his message that everything is going great, it’s also that he’s terrible at expressing sympathy, let alone sharing the pain of others.
It’s why he can be such a ubiquitous daily presence on TV and simultaneously feel so distant. Even if some of us are affected far more by this pandemic than others, the whole country is feeling many of the same emotions: uncertainty, anxiety, sadness, fear. This pandemic is a uniquely shared experience, yet Trump emphatically refuses to even acknowledge what it feels like, let alone feel it with us.
If you’re in a rage and want to go scream at your elected officials (if those officials are Democrats, or Republicans who haven’t been sufficiently obsequious toward him), Trump will be right there with you. But if what you’re feeling is quieter and more complicated, he doesn’t want to hear it.
So he’s missing the fact that for all the suffering Americans are now experiencing, we can feel at least some measure of unity. That’s something a president who has staked everything on division and discord could never understand.