Over the past few days, Trump has offered what amounts to a remarkable and dumbfounding double-down on his coronavirus messaging: downplaying it, having his doctors hide information, taking a joyride that could endanger the people riding in the car with him, demonstrably removing his mask upon returning to the White House, and sending tweets urging people not to be “afraid” of the virus and rekindling his long-abandoned comparisons of it to the flu.
The thing is, though: None of it was working before. And there’s precious little reason to believe it will now.
Not only has Trump this week been treated to two of his most brutal 2020 polls to date — an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows him trailing by 14 points, while the CNN poll (the first conducted after his diagnosis) shows him down 16 — but also the president is resuming much of the same behavior that made the coronavirus a particular liability to begin with. Trump seems to believe what the moment calls for is a show of strength from him personally, a fearless leader defeating the virus and emerging even less cowed. But the polls repeatedly suggest people would prefer steady leadership, honesty and a real plan.
And the new polls reinforce that this episode has cast a spotlight on what people view as Trump’s irresponsible handling of the pandemic.
The CNN poll shows that 63 percent of people say Trump acted irresponsibly in handling the coronavirus risk to those around him, a posture which has included largely business-as-usual in the White House and largely maskless events and rallies. One of those events, the announcement of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court last week, appears to have become something of a superspreader event, with more than a dozen infections connected to it. Just 33 percent polled said Trump had been acting responsibly.
Arguably the more stunning result from the CNN poll, though, was this: Just 12 percent of people said they trusted almost all of what they heard from the White House about Trump’s condition. Another 18 percent said they trusted most of it, but fully 69 percent said they trusted only some of it or none of it. This echoes other polls that have repeatedly shown even many Republicans don’t completely trust what the White House says more broadly about the virus, but it’s even more pronounced here — and about something with huge national security implications.
Trump’s overall gap on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been a yawning one. Not only has his approval rating on the virus been 40 percent or lower, but also polls repeatedly show that people prefer Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on the issue. Both the CNN and the NBC/WSJ polls reinforce that: Biden leads 52 to 35 in the NBC/WSJ poll and 59 to 38 in the CNN poll — slightly bigger even than Trump’s overall deficit.
Trump’s posture toward masks also continues to be particularly dumbfounding. Upon returning from the hospital on Monday night, he made a big show of removing his mask while standing on the White House balcony. (The White House has claimed nobody was near him, although a photographer was behind him and at least two people were nearby.) But it was the latest provocative nod to the anti-mask crowd — an infectious president unnecessarily removing the face covering he has so frequently questioned and rarely urged people to wear.
But even for a president who takes pains to appeal to his base, this is appealing to a very narrow sliver of it. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in July showed nearly 8 in 10 Americans said they wore masks most or all of the time outside their homes. Other polls show mask-wearing is increasing. A New York Times-Siena College poll released last week showed people don’t just wear masks, but two-thirds supported making them mandatory — including 40 percent of Republicans — despite the constitutional issues involved. A recent Wisconsin poll showed something similar: 7 in 10 people supported a mandate, including 43 percent of Republicans.
Exactly how poorly people judge Trump for what he does with and says about masks isn’t clear, but the vast majority of Americans not only believes mask-wearing is important but also would support being required to do so. Meanwhile, Trump continues to be photographed at events with the majority of people eschewing masks. Combine that with the CNN finding on how many people view his internal handling of the threat as irresponsible, and it begins to become evident that Trump is only reinforcing this liability by refusing to change his approach.
The new CNN poll was conducted before the scenes of Monday night, but while Trump was taking his joyride to wave to supporters on Saturday. He and his team seem to believe that beating the coronavirus and displaying something amounting to strength will prove to voters that he’s the one to handle the situation and could right the ship.
But pretty much everything he has done in the course of trying to project that strength rehashes all the things that made this a liability in the first place.