How in the world does Donald Trump have an approval rating for his handling of the coronavirus above 10 percent? It’s unfathomable. OK, maybe 10 is a little extreme. But 25, 28. That is, his normal approval rating has been in the 43 range, and he’s screwed this up so obviously and completely that he should surely have lost 15 points or so.
But here he is, up near 50. And now, at least according to Sunday’s Washington Post-ABC poll, almost caught up to Joe Biden?
You might say that we all have bigger things to worry about, but on the scale of potential disasters that loom before us, Trump’s re-election rates pretty high.
At least some of this is the inevitable and much-discussed rally-round-the-president effect. You want to exhale? Here, read this. Other world leaders have seen similar bounces, most of them a good bit higher than Trump.
Boris Johnson’s approval number rose 15 points from March 11 to March 24 (he announced that he contracted the disease after that, on March 27). He was screwing it up during that time almost as royally as Trump was. Angela Merkel went up 9 points. Emmanuel Macron 7 points. Justin Trudeau 11 points. Scott Morrison 13 points. Trump, according to this Morning Consult roundup, went up just 2 points.
That’s the reassuring news. At the same time, however, everybody didn’t go up in that poll. Shinzo Abe and Jair Bolsonaro dropped a couple points. So the rally-round effect isn’t inevitable, but it’s pretty close to universal, so it isn’t just Trump.
Beyond the rally-round effect, there’s also something I’d call the news-laundering effect. Trump has benefited from this since the day he became president, or probably the day he announced his candidacy. In a nutshell, it’s this.
The conventions of American journalism simply don’t allow for, say, The New York Times to write a lead like the following: “At a plainly frightening rally last night in Charlotte, President Trump told at least 58 documented lies and went off on totally bizarre jags about his political foes’ sex lives and mental states and said dozens of things that were far beneath the dignity of the office and otherwise embarrassed himself and the United States of America.”
Instead they write things like: “At a raucous rally last night in Charlotte, President Trump seemed to wade into murky waters as he alleged…” and so on. They can’t write what’s obviously true. It’s not “objective.” Thus, Trump’s actual words are laundered through the conventions of normal journalism, and he comes out looking far less deranged and dangerous than he is.
Saturday, Trump announced, out of the blue, that he probably wanted to quarantine New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It wasn’t clear what he meant, or what army he’d use to do that, but it was an insane thing for a president to just put out there. By Saturday evening, he’d taken it back. That is very hard for a newspaper, or anyone else, to cover. How in the hell do you cover that for the next day’s paper? The man is simply making it up as he goes along, and with our lives and livings on the line.
I noticed the other day that nightly news viewership is way up since the virus hit. Now, think about how the nightly news broadcasts must help launder Trump. I’m not saying they’re pro-Trump or anything like that. It’s just that these broadcasts are going to use about eight seconds of Trump tape, and it’s in their nature to try to use the sanest eight second of Trump tape they’ve got. They’ll report on the controversies around Trump’s actions, but they’re just not going to make him look like the blithering idiot and petty martinet that he is.
I think there are some other reasons. A lot of people probably default toward thinking this was something Trump couldn’t control and no one saw coming; just “one of those things.” That’s nonsense of course, and Trump and his people know it, which is why they’re trying to block that devastating ad that tells people the truth about his insanely irresponsible behavior. And Trump wasn’t the only one whose initial response was lacking. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spent a long time telling people to “go about their lives.” He’s not the president, and Trump is far worse, but maybe some people don’t see Trump’s failures here as unique.
It’s not that Republicans believe everything Trump is saying. An exclusive Daily Beast-Ipsos poll this weekend shows that 75 percent of Republicans know, despite what he’s said, that it was not true that “anyone who wants to get tested can get tested.” Only 25 percent of Republicans believe a vaccine will be available soon, which he’s promised. Notably, there wasn’t much divergence between Republicans and others on those questions, or whether or not the virus will just go away with warm weather, which few believe despite Trump’s talk about that.
But here’s what I think is the main reason, which no poll will pick up, that Trump’s numbers are so strong: Americans see so few examples of moral leadership anymore in any realm that they don’t even remember what it looks like. All we’ve had in the Trump era is a bunch of moral corner-cutting and worse. The “worse” category is obviously led by Trump himself, followed by Bill Barr, “Christian” right leaders, Mitch McConnell, Paul “Exquisite Leadership” Ryan, and all the rest of them. This category includes most business leaders too, whose basic attitude has been yeah, he’s a maniac, but look at that market.
The corner-cutters have been led by Robert Mueller, who had the moral authority to explain to American what manner of man Trump is, and what kind of president, but he punted on it, referring us to the report a hundred times over.
Even the best Democrats haven’t really found the right words with which to denounce Trump in any other than partisan terms. No one has really been able to explain to middle America why this man is a unique horror show. Some have tried. Biden did it pretty well in that announcement video, about Charlottesville. But it doesn’t get through somehow, I suspect because too many Americans have just reached a point of total cynicism, where they think they’re being hustled by everyone. They don’t think Trump’s that different.
The main job of Biden and the Democrats this year is going to be to show them that he is and that we can be a lot better than this; to convince them that the coronavirus has been a disaster that Trump has made far, far worse than it could have been. It’s a hard job, and people’s cynicism about politics—a cynicism constantly fed and driven by Trump and the GOP—won’t make it any easier.