“It's looking like we will come far under even these lowest numbers,” Trump said. “Thanks to our all-out military operation and the extraordinary devotion of our people, we believe we will experience far fewer deaths than even the optimistic projection.”
The coronavirus task force’s Deborah Birx then walked through the data showing the national improvement and detailed the recommended benchmarks that states would want to set before reopening. Some states would be able to “go literally tomorrow,” Trump said, thanks to how well they’d done combating the virus.
Since that date, the number of cases in the United States has increased more than five times over. We’re now seeing more than twice as many new cases each day as we did at the time of the reopening announcement. On April 16, about 35,000 Americans had died of the virus. Now, nearly four times as many have. In fact, more than 100,000 have died since Trump made that prediction — belying Trump’s assertion that the total would not exceed 100,000 in total.
That the predictions were wrong is a crisis. That they were overly rosy, and overly rosy in a way that allowed the White House to convince itself that all was well — thanks to Birx’s internal advocacy, as the New York Times reported over the weekend — is a failure of its own. That Trump’s urgent focus on reopening the country was spurred by concerns about the economy and, by extension, his own reelection chances is as stunning as it is obvious. That he tried to have it both ways by shifting responsibility from himself to governors, then pressuring them to reopen, is an abdication of his role.
But there's little that's harder to understand in the abstract than the simple fact that all of this has made his reelection far less likely. That every indication suggested that his actions would exacerbate the crisis, as it has, and that he would be on the hook for failures — as polling consistently shows that he is.
Politicians are criticized for focusing too much on their own electoral chances. In this case, though, Trump's inability to understand how the pandemic was evolving and what that would mean for the country — and for himself — has meant that he's embraced strategies which not only allowed the pandemic to resurge but obviously severely undercut the prospect of his own reelection.
The reason Trump was happy to accept Birx’s optimistic assessments of how the pandemic would evolve from April onward is certainly in part because of his willingness to think that it would just sort of resolve itself. He likes to tout his position as optimistic, that he embraces positive assessments of what’s likely because he sees that as his job. But optimism unfettered by realism is often simply denial.
What’s the optimistic utility of insisting that the virus would go away when the weather warmed? Or in consistently saying it will just go away even after spring and summer arrived? In his interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace over the weekend, Trump repeatedly indicated a lack of familiarity with or acceptance of basic mechanisms underlying the pandemic. He overstated the ability of people to rebound from infection, again embraced reopening schools while shrugging at the risks and claimed that the European Union has far fewer cases than the United States not because it has actually tamped down on its spread but because it hadn’t tested as much. It’s the unserious approach of a cable-news panelist, making it hard to assume that Trump’s just making a positive case rather than fundamentally misunderstanding what’s actually happening.
That he simultaneously also rejected polling as “fake” when talking to Wallace is telling in its own way. The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen interviewed Trump in the Oval Office earlier in July, when the president offered up some poll numbers showing how well he is doing in his reelection bid. The polls were a mix of iffy and useless, but Trump figured they showed him doing well enough that he could consider them a pat on the back.
Since May, our polling shows, his approval rating on the economy is about the same. Since March, though, approval of his handling of the pandemic has dropped 13 points with 1 in 5 Republicans now disapproving of the job he’s doing. While he and former vice president Joe Biden were separated by only two points four months ago, the gap has widened to 15 points.
The Fox poll shows how confidence in the government’s approach to the crisis has collapsed since earlier in the year. In March and April, most Americans said they approved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. In polls since May, that figure has hovered around 43 percent. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s leading infectious-disease expert whom Trump described as “a little bit of an alarmist” in his interview with Wallace, is viewed with approval by about three-quarters of Americans.
It’s that chart on the right, though, that ties into the broader point. Most Americans now see the pandemic as completely out of control. That includes much of Trump’s base: a quarter of Republicans, a third of white evangelical Christians and nearly half of white men without college degrees. Many might see it as out of control as a function of failures by others, but those numbers generally align with the percentages who say they disapprove of Trump’s handling of the emergency.
The challenge of the pandemic has consistently been that reducing its spread has meant enacting restrictions of varying unpleasantness. Other countries that have managed to control the virus — and, therefore, begun to return to normalcy — have introduced rolling shutdowns of economic activity and mandated face masks or other tools aimed at limiting the virus’s spread. Trump continues to resist doing so — despite the Fox News poll finding that 6 in 10 Americans support a national stay-in-place order and 7 in 10 support a national mask-wearing mandate.
During his interview with the president, Wallace asked specifically about a comment made by the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that wearing masks for a few weeks could bring the pandemic under control.
“I don’t agree with the statement that if everybody wears a mask everything disappears,” Trump told Wallace — though, at another point in the interview, the president said that the virus would disappear anyway.
“I want people to have a certain freedom, and I don’t believe in that,” Trump said of a national mask mandate.
The president has long been convinced that he would win reelection by building massive enthusiasm from his base of support, enough to overwhelm backing for his opponent. He clearly understands that many vocal supporters of his hate masks and like to talk about mask mandates as being an overreach by the government. It’s rhetoric that he can see on Fox News itself, which he watches religiously.
But, again, this is a misread of the politics. Even most Republicans support a national mask mandate. Two-thirds of evangelicals and two-thirds of white men without college degrees do, too, according to the Fox News poll. There’s broad support for doing the things that will contain the virus, and containing the virus will clearly boost Trump’s approval both on that issue and overall.
During the interview that aired Sunday, Wallace pointed out that Biden was leading nationally and was seen as more trusted on the pandemic by 17 points. Again, according to a Fox News poll.
“I’m not losing, because those are fake polls,” Trump replied. “The Fox polls,” he added later, “whoever does your Fox polls, they’re among the worst. They got it all wrong in 2016. They’ve been wrong on every poll I’ve ever seen.”
In 2016, the final Fox News poll showed Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by four points. She won by more than two points, making the poll quite accurate.
Trump would do well to heed it. But, then, denial has been central to Trump’s response to both his popularity and the pandemic that continues to blanket the country.