Over the past few weeks, President Trump’s “message” — if you believe he is consciously articulating one rather than simply lashing out impulsively — has consisted of several parts: He has handled the pandemic perfectly; former president Barack Obama and former vice president Joe Biden are criminals (for reasons he cannot explain); stay-at-home orders are a plot designed to prevent his reelection; and we should disregard expert advice on everything from masks to the drug hydroxychloroquine. His assumption that Americans would care more about reopening the economy and less about their own health has turned out to be dead wrong. It is little wonder that they are not feeling any better about the state of the country.

Gallup polling shows: “Just under a third of Americans, 32%, now say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. That is similar to the 30% recorded in April but down from the recent high of 45% in February.” Remarkably, Republicans are feeling worse with each passing month. “Republicans’ satisfaction with the country’s direction has fallen each month since February, including a 12-percentage-point drop to 48% in May.” Their approval rating for Trump was 10 points higher on average in 2019. Among all voters, concerns about the economy and governmental leadership have ticked up. (“[In] recent months, mentions of the economy or jobs/unemployment as the top problem have inched up, rising from a combined 7% in March to 9% in April and 12% in May.”)

After years of witnessing that nothing seemed sufficient to break Trump’s hold on his base, we are now seeing evidence of the first real divide between Republicans’ perception and Trump’s alternate reality. At least a couple of things might be happening here that distinguish the current situation from past episodes when Republicans maintained Trump’s sunny view of his presidency no matter the circumstances.

First, the economy has played perhaps a greater role in sustaining Trump’s popularity than was commonly thought. The Faustian bargain — Trump’s craziness and lawlessness in exchange for prosperity — crumbles when the prosperity fizzles. No amount of happy talk, blaming China nor conspiratorial blather can conceal the economic devastation that affects Republicans and Democrats alike.

Second, as much as Trump likes to attack his foes in Congress, it no longer serves as an effective foil. Americans like what Congress has been doing — voting to send them checks, ramping up testing, extending loans to small businesses. “For a second consecutive month, Congress’ job approval rating remains elevated, at 31%. Congress last had an approval rating of 31% or better in early September 2009,” Gallup finds. “Congress has passed four bills to address the public health and economic harm caused by COVID-19 and is considering further legislation. Gallup found roughly eight in 10 Americans approving of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed in late March to provide relief for businesses and individuals affected by the coronavirus situation. Congress’ approval rating for handling the coronavirus situation is 48%, well above its overall approval rating.”

To the extent Trump and Senate Republicans are seen as foot-dragging or, worse, obstructing this sort of legislation, the worse Trump and his allies might fare. (Likewise, Trump insists on going up against figures — governors, medical professionals — whom the public trusts more than him. It is not shaking the public’s faith in his rivals, but it might be further harming his own dwindling credibility.)

Overall, the country, including the Trump base, has gotten an extra dose of reality. Trump’s usual bag of tricks is ineffective in the face of widespread death, illness, disruption of normal life and economic hardship. Throughout his presidency Trump has worked furiously to get people to ignore what they see, hear and experience for themselves, but now he fails to sway even some Republicans. His performance finally must be viewed in the harsh light of reality. If so, Republicans might be heading for a harsh reckoning.

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