WASHINGTON ― Having sold himself as a great business and military leader despite bankrupt casinos and bone spurs, President Donald Trump faces his greatest challenge yet: making Americans forget the two months he dismissed concerns about a deadly pandemic as a “hoax.”
If recent polling showing a significant bump in his approval ratings is any indicator, though, Trump may well be succeeding ― setting himself on a path to reelection.
“No question that the president’s job approval has increased as a result of his handling of the coronavirus crisis,” said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. “Already about topped out among Republicans, President Trump has made gains among both Independents and Democrats.”
To make this work, Trump has been pushing the biggest lie of his adult life ― a revisionist history in which he did everything correctly, that nobody could have anticipated such an outbreak, and his leadership alone is saving millions of lives.
“It’s hard not to be happy with the job we’re doing. That, I can tell you,” he said last week.
“Nobody could have predicted something like this,” he told Fox News Monday morning.
“I can’t tell you what the unfortunate final toll is going to be, but it’s going to be a very small fraction of that,” he said Tuesday afternoon of expert estimates of 2.2 million dead if the country had done nothing to stop the virus. “So we’re doing an awfully good job, I think, with what we’re doing.”
Each of his claims is false. Trump scrapped the pandemic response team that President Barack Obama created after the 2014 Ebola outbreak, part of an overall effort to undo everything that his predecessor had accomplished. Trump ignored warnings from his own intelligence community that China was covering up the severity of the coronavirus epidemic in the city and province where it originated. Trump even ignored a step-by-step pandemic “playbook” the Obama administration had written.
Instead, Trump discounted the threat the virus posed from Jan. 22, when he told CNBC that “we have it totally under control,” straight through until March 15, when he called it “a very contagious virus” but again claimed it was one “that we have tremendous control over.”
Trump had based his re-election campaign on the strength of the economy, and feared that worries about a pandemic would hurt the stock market. “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” he wrote in a Feb. 24 tweet. “Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
“History shows that it takes a personal experience of catastrophe to see that the leader has been telling lies.”
Nevertheless, thanks in part to his ability to command a nationwide audience in press briefings broadcast live each day, Trump has been able push his new message to replace the old one.
“History shows that it takes a personal experience of catastrophe to see that the leader has been telling lies,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an authoritarianism expert and history professor at New York University. “In this case, Trump has artfully ‘dosed out’ reality, telling people everything is fine, then gradually telling them it’s not, with lackey medical professionals to back him up. So he may weather even this crisis.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham did not respond to a query about Trump’s new messaging. Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh cited China travel restrictions that Trump imposed at the very end of January as showing he took“decisive action” from the start.
“Throughout this crisis, the president has always sought to keep the public calm, but has listened to his medical and scientific advisors in making firm decisions about keeping the country safe,” Murtaugh said.
Revising History From Two Months Ago
Key to turning Trump’s actual performance in those critical early weeks into electoral success likely hinges on two efforts underway.
First is redefining success. Trump early on promised Americans that he had “stopped” the virus from spreading in the U.S. through his ban on foreigners who had recently been in China from entering this country. That morphed into claiming that those few cases here were rapidly shrinking to zero, and that the virus itself would disappear on its own with April’s warmer weather.
Those goalposts have now been moved clear across the planet. From the Feb. 26 boasts of having only 15 cases and zero deaths, Trump this week said success would mean hundreds of thousands of dead Americans.
“If we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — that’s a horrible number — maybe even less, but to 100,000; so we have between 100- and 200,000 — we all, together, have done a very good job,” he said Monday at a press briefing in the White House Rose Garden.
And if Trump’s past is a guide ― he has claimed that running his casinos into bankruptcy starting in the early 1990s somehow represented a business success ― he will keep claiming he handled the crisis well, regardless of how many Americans wind up dying.
“I think he can move the numbers as high as he needs to with his base because he has primed them to accept whatever he tells them and to disbelieve everyone else,” Ben-Ghiat said.
The other piece of Trump’s strategy is relentlessly attacking those who point out his previous statements. Trump has done this repeatedly in his daily briefings, attacking reporters when they read his earlier remarks back to him verbatim.
“Instead of asking a nasty, snarky question like that, you should ask a real question,” he said to a journalist Monday.
His campaign, meanwhile, had set upon the mission of trying to block Trump’s most egregious downplaying of the pandemic: His Feb. 28 description of the coronavirus fears as “a hoax” ― the most recent in a line of Democratic attempts to hurt his presidency.
Campaign officials, realizing the seriousness of Trump’s riff at a rally in South Carolina that evening, soon afterward began attacking journalists who described Trump’s use of “hoax” as misrepresenting what he said.
“Will she apologize for lying?” wrote a Trump campaign staffer on March 23 after Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker accurately described Trump’s use of the word in an NBC News report.
The campaign has even threatened to sue TV stations that were running an ad by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA that used the audio clip of Trump saying “hoax” in a montage of his statements downplaying the virus.
“We will not stand idly by and allow you to broadcast false, deceptive, and misleading information concerning President’s Trump’s healthcare positions without consequence,” the campaign said in a letter.
Of course, the response to that letter may foreshadow the steep hill Trump faces more broadly in re-writing the history of his coronavirus response. According to Priorities USA, not a single TV station complied with the campaign request to pull the ad, and the super PAC recently released a revised one, using the much higher number of coronavirus cases.
When The Big Lie Fails
Indeed, while Trump may be enjoying a bump right now in the public support, that newfound popularity could fade as his repeated lies about his performance come up against the reality of the coronavirus’ lethality.
Trump confounded the political class in both parties in 2016, seeming to suffer little consequence for repeated and readily disproven lies about himself, his opponents and the world at large.
Trump falsely claimed he had built “a massive empire,” a “phenomenal company,” starting with just a “very small loan” from his father. He boasted that he knew more about war than “the generals.”
In fact, Trump lost millions of dollars running an airline, vastly overpaid for a midtown hotel he wound up losing and bankrupted his casinos ― a near impossibility, given their business model ― nearly squandering the fortune his father had left him of nearly $1 billion in today’s dollars.
And when the prospect of serving in the Vietnam War presented itself, Trump claimed the ailment of “bone spurs” to avoid the military ― even though he later could not recall which heel had suffered the malady.
“At some point, reality intrudes on the ‘Big Lie.’ But at this point we don’t know when.”
Trump countered endless media “fact checks” of his dishonesties by attacking the media instead ― a strategy he openly admitted to in an interview with Lesley Stahl of CBS News in 2016. “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you,” he said.
Yet Trump was able to get away with all those lies, as well as a torrent of fresh lies since becoming president, because they did not directly affect the lives of most Americans, NYU’s Ben-Ghiat said.
That will not be the case with the pandemic. In a span of just 30 days, 3,440 Americans had died by Tuesday afternoon, with 1,000 of those happening in the past two days. Which means that even Trump’s most loyal supporters, who crave his professional wrestling-style attacks on Democrats and the news media regardless of their accuracy, are likely to wind up personally knowing someone who has become gravely ill or died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“The ‘Big Lie’ is not applicable in this case,” Ben-Ghiat said, referring to the maxim that people are more prone to believe a massive falsehood than a smaller one, because they do not want to accept that their leaders are capable of telling consequential lies. “For example, saying the virus was a hoax, because people will personally get sick and communities will be devastated.”
She said she believes Trump can continue to hold his base supporters by gradually increasing his assessment of the pain and loss it will cause ― but she and others doubt that his message will fly with anyone beyond that group.
“At some point, reality intrudes on the ‘Big Lie.’ But at this point we don’t know when,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute think tank. “One interesting part of this is that the people who bought into the hoax idea, who are still resisting social distancing, are in the red states and in red areas in other states. They may be the ones who will really catch a wave that overwhelms them, especially in rural areas, with the virus a little bit later on.”
If that happens, Trump could quickly lose the “rally around the president” lift he has seen in recent polling. That boost has helped other presidents ― from Jimmy Carter in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 taking of American hostages in Iran, through Obama in 2012 with the landfall of Superstorm Sandy in the northeast. But it can fade away if the president is seen as failing to rise to the challenge.
“Read these polls with a most careful, cautious eye. They reflect the present in a time of crisis,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart about Trump’s higher numbers, pointing out that Carter wound up losing in his reelection bid in a landslide. “The election is far ahead of us, but the challenges facing Donald Trump are as formidable as those that faced Jimmy Carter in 1980.”
Newhouse, the Republican pollster, agreed that Trump’s improved numbers now do not guarantee anything. “As others have said, we are in the early stages of this fight against coronavirus, and the president’s approval score will continue to reflect his handling of this crisis,” he said. “Unlike the recent impeachment inquiry, this crisis is likely to have a significant impact on the November election.”
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