The problem for Trump, though, is that years of misrepresentations and falsehoods have led Americans to be skeptical of his claims. At a time when it’s imperative that people heed the advice of the president when he instructs them to stay home and prevent the spread of a highly contagious virus, a majority of Americans simply don’t trust Trump to provide accurate information. That’s not just my opinion; a poll conducted by Marist University for NPR and PBS NewsHour determined that 60 percent of Americans have not much or no confidence in the information Trump provides. Trump’s long-standing embrace of inaccuracy and misleading statements is a hindrance at a critical moment.
He was asked about this problem Wednesday during the White House’s daily briefing on the coronavirus.
“You tweeted this morning about your approval rating among Republicans,” a reporter asked, referring to an angry tweet from Trump seemingly criticizing coverage of the coronavirus response. “You have said that you give yourself a 10 in terms of handling this crisis. How do you reassure Americans at home who don’t trust you to handle a crisis of this magnitude?”
“Well, I think we’re doing a really good job,” Trump replied. “We started off with a termination of the border, the people coming in from China where this all started. That meant I took it very seriously.”
Journalist Marcy Wheeler speculated Wednesday morning that Trump’s insistence on identifying the origin of the virus might be a way of amplifying the importance of his decision to curtail travel from that country, an early step he took that’s become a focus of his defenses of his approach. (His narrative has some holes.)
After an aside about remaining calm, Trump returned to the question.
“But, yeah, 95 percent within the Republican Party and over 50 percent” approval overall, Trump said. “And I also have — we have very great approval numbers. I mean, people like the job that we’re doing.”
In the tweet, Trump claimed his approval was 53 percent. It isn’t.
Nor, for that matter, is his approval among Republicans at 95 percent. Trump has said that about a dozen times since October, when his months-long practice of claiming that his approval rating among Republicans was 94 percent suddenly ticked up a point. We’ve been over this repeatedly, but there is no public poll showing Trump with that level of support even within his own party, and it is not the case that poll numbers simply stay flat in the way that Trump has suggested. Poll numbers aren’t like cruise control.
Where does the number come from? It’s possible that it indicates some high-water mark in some poll somewhere that Trump simply decided to stick with. Maybe that’s where the 53 percent number comes from, too; that’s at the upper end of the polls that he himself has hyped over time.
His approval is not at 53 percent. Not even Rasmussen Reports, a pollster whose pool of respondents consistently leans in Trump’s direction, has Trump that high. In Rasmussen’s polling, Trump is at 53 percent disapproval. Gallup had shown a bump in his approval earlier this year, but he’s now back at 44 percent approval.
Perhaps you noticed that this wasn’t the question. The reporter wasn’t asking about approval, but that’s where Trump went anyway. Another reporter appears to have picked up on that discrepancy, raising it later.
“Your credibility ratings are very low,” the reporter said. “There was a recent NPR poll — ”
“Who are you asking that question? Because I see that they’re very high,” Trump replied. “You know, if you look, I’m 95 percent of the Republican Party.”
(We looked; he isn’t.)
“Credibility, sir,” the reporter replied.
“We just had a poll that was done by a very reputable group,” Trump continued. “We’re beating sleepy Joe Biden by a lot in Florida, in the state of Florida and in other states. So I don’t really know who you’re talking about.”
Trump mentioned this in his tweet, too, claiming that “according to the Daily Caller,” he was leading former vice president Joe Biden by six points in Florida.
The Daily Caller doesn’t do polling. It was reporting on a poll from Univision which had Trump leading Biden in Florida not by six points but by three, within the poll’s margin of error. His approval among Republicans in that poll, incidentally, was 90 percent.
But, again: What difference does it make how Trump is polling against Biden in Florida? While Trump has spent three years trying to convince the world and himself that winning states is preferable to winning popular support, it’s not the case that a poll conducted in one state last week tells us a lot about how America views Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
If you want national polling assessing Trump’s handling of the issue, we can look at that national Marist poll conducted in about the same period. In it, 44 percent of respondents approved of Trump’s handling of the outbreak, including only 40 percent of independents. That matched Trump’s overall approval, which was at 43 percent. (Among Republicans it was 87 percent.)
More significantly, confidence in the federal government’s response to the outbreak plunged since a poll conducted in early February. Then, 61 percent of respondents thought that the government was doing enough; now, only 46 percent do.
Among Republicans, though, there was no drop. Republicans maintain confidence in the government’s response and in Trump. They are also much more likely to trust Trump’s presentations on the virus than the media’s — and are more likely not to have taken precautionary steps that would limit the virus’s spread.
That’s really what Trump is talking about when he’s talking about his poll numbers: He’s doing well in the eyes of the people who like him. This is a moment when those people — and all Americans — need to hear difficult information about a dangerous threat, but it’s more comfortable for Trump to take refuge in their approval than to consider the effects of their acceptance.
Trump could have answered the reporters’ questions with something like, “regardless of how you feel about me, you need to listen to what the experts say.” Instead, he reverted to form, pretending that Americans broadly approved of the job he was doing.
There’s certainly a metaphor to be articulated in his choosing to do something comfortable rather than confronting an obvious threat.