The rise in Donald Trump’s approval ratings – it would be misleading to call it a surge – appears to have shocked his opponents. Critics in the Democratic party and the media have noisily condemned and ridiculed his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, as have some scientists and economists.
But it seems a growing chunk of the America public does not agree.
The latest national poll, for ABC News-Washington Post, puts Trump within two points of Joe Biden, on 47-49%, assuming the latter is the Democrats’ nominee in November’s presidential election. That’s seven points up on February. Other polls also suggest a tightening race, especially in swing states.
While Biden still leads the race for the White House by a national poll average of just under six points, Trump’s overall approval rating is also up on previous record lows, to around 47%, according to the Real Clear Politics website. Given the storm of mostly negative comment surrounding Trump’s coronavirus performance, how can this be?
One obvious explanation for what is dubbed the “Trump bump” is that he is, after all, the president – and Americans, like citizens in other countries, tend to rally round their leaders at times of national emergency. In Italy, the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, is up 27 points in one poll. France’s previously deeply unpopular president, Emmanuel Macron, is up 14.
George W Bush saw his ratings go through the roof after the 9/11 attacks. His father, George HW Bush, hit 90%+ approval after the first Gulf war and held a parade to celebrate. By these measures, Trump should actually be doing much better in the polls. In fact, when asked whether the country is headed in the right direction under Trump, Americans say no by 55-38%.
Such comparisons suggest the “Trump bump” phenomenon should be handled with care – and a lot of hand sanitizer.
There are other reasons, too. Since the Covid-19 crisis erupted, and especially since the White House started holding regular, much-watched televised briefings, Trump has enjoyed something approaching a monopoly of media coverage, dominating the news cycles with dramatic policy announcements and updates.
Rarely has the White House bully pulpit been so powerful. But his dominance of the public arena could yet backfire on the president.
The fact that Trump’s announcements have often been contradictory, ill-thought-through or plain false, and the fact he has reversed himself with alarming regularity – the latest U-turn being Sunday’s decision to extend social distancing measures until the end of April – does not seem to put off many viewers. What they think they see is a man in charge.
Yet by casting himself as an all-powerful, all-seeing “wartime president” calling the shots in the biggest national health and economic emergency Americans have experienced, Trump is setting himself up for a fall. Many experts predict the measures he has taken so far will prove to be too little, too late and Covid-19 will spread more widely and for longer, and the death toll will begin to rise exponentially.
The impact of Trump’s monopoly on messaging has been strengthened by the the political reality that Biden, for now, appears irrelevant – and risks being eclipsed by figures on his own “side”, such as New York’s vigorous, tough-talking governor, Andrew Cuomo. That’s good news for Trump.
Trump’s claim to be on top of things has also been helped by the uneven, patchy spread of the virus as of late March. So far at least, the main hotspots are urban, predominantly in the north-east, and in Democratic cities such as New Orleans, Detroit and Chicago. Large swaths of mid-western and southern rural America are relatively unscathed at this point.
This is where a lot of Trump supporters live. Many of them, and perhaps some independents and Democrats, too, may sympathize with Trump’s barely repressed scepticism of recent weeks about the virulence and longevity of the pandemic, and with the importance he has attached to limiting economic damage to people’s livelihoods (and Wall Street).
Trump’s gut instinct to dispute expert medical advice, without any evidence, plays into the anti-establishment, anti-science and Christian fundamentalist sentiments nurtured in Trump’s Republican base. So, too, do his xenophobic attempts to blame the virus on foreigners and foes, principally China’s communist leaders, immigrants and Europe.
Ironically, the level-headedness, good judgment and common sense shown by a key adviser, Anthony Fauci, a leading infectious disease expert, have made up for Trump’s lack of those very qualities. Fauci has added gravitas to Trump’s rambling, incoherent performances in front of camera. But vicarious leadership of this sort cannot work indefinitely.
The real problems for Trump and his national savior act will begin when it becomes clear the administration’s failure to instigate a nationwide testing regime, coupled with its refusal to order effective lockdowns of virus hotspots and tardiness in delivering life-saving equipment, is increasing the likelihood of a protracted, rolling nightmare of sickness and misery through the summer and fall.
Based on a growing body of evidence from China, Italy and Spain, and prospectively the UK, an ineluctable, lethal spread of the virus may await Americans everywhere if such measures are neglected. With Fauci now warningthat up to 200,000 US citizens could die, Trump’s phoney war is coming to an end.
The “Trump bump”, like the so-called post-election “Boris bounce” in Britain, could soon be a bad joke – a grim memorial to incompetence at a time of existential need.