Some pundits argue that his Lysol comments are the last straw for supporters. But he could still successfully change the conversation
Many liberal and centrist pundits seem to believe that the Covid-19 crisis is the dawn of a new progressive era or at least the end of the populist wave that has swept the world in recent years. The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently argued that President Trumps handling of this crisis, particularly his Lysol moment, has caused a psychological turning point that could force even Trump diehards to face up to his essential unfitness.
Weve been here before. Trump has been declared dead as often as hes been declared newly presidential, but pundits somehow believe this time is different. After all, populists cannot lie and cheat their way out of a deadly pandemic right?
Maybe they dont have to. While Trump clearly botched his response to the pandemic, he has found a successful way out of it: refocusing the debate on Reopening America. By downplaying the health costs of the pandemic and emphasizing the economic costs, Trump hopes to come out of the crisis as the savior of the US economy. While the grim unemployment numbers might not seem to support this strategy, there are reasons to believe it might work.
It is true that, compared with other democratic leaders, Trump has received a smaller and shorter electoral bump from this pandemic. He has, however, benefited from the usual rallying-around-the-flag effect. He has also benefited from the relative invisibility of the Democrats, most notably the partys presumptive presidential nominee, Joe Biden, who has a hard time establishing himself in the debate as he holds no political office at the moment.
Many anti-Trump pundits take hope from public opinion polls that show that a majority of Americans, including a plurality of Republicans, support the current lockdown measures and oppose the anti-lockdown protests. But, as time passes, the US will inevitably have to reopen as even Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo have argued and Trump will be able to claim, with some credibility, that he was the one to put this on the political agenda.
Moreover, Trump has always been vague enough about the details of reopening America that he can easily distance himself from possible outbreaks of new cases in the most irresponsible states. For example, he criticized Georgias governor, Brian Kemp, who, ironically in an attempt to please Trump, reopened the state in defiance of both the data and the White Houses recommendations.
Recent polls already show that the mood is shifting, particularly among Republicans. Three weeks ago, 55% of Republicans were more concerned about the pandemics public health impact than the economic impact; that number has dropped to 44%. Although majorities of Democrats (72%) and independents (57%) are still more concerned about the public health impact, we are starting to see some shifts there, too.
There is no doubt that Biden will make Trumps poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis a key part of his campaign. The opening salvo was a much-praised, but also criticized, video that argues that Trumps incompetence, ignorance and soft position on China has made the crisis worse than it should have been and would have been, under a President Biden.
Although this is probably true, I doubt this message will resonate much beyond the Democratic base. Even with over a million Covid-19 cases in the US, and almost 60,000 deaths, Trump will find a way to argue that he prevented a worse disaster, perhaps by pointing to actual predictions of millions of deaths.
And if that does not work, there is always Trumps most effective backup card: racism. Like all far-right politicians, the president has emphasized the foreignness of the virus from the beginning. He has consistently used the term China virus and increasingly blames China for the whole pandemic a strategy enthusiastically endorsed by the Republican party.
But it could get uglier. With a disproportionate number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in New York and California, the far right is working hard to characterize coronavirus as an urban, coastal disease that does not threaten so-called Heartland America. This fits perfectly into an existing far-right narrative that casts California and New York as multicultural dystopias.
The Democrats are caught in a classic catch-22. Faced with a misinformation campaign from the White House and conservative media, they might be tempted to overemphasize the Covid-19 threat in an attempt to ensure that even reluctant Americans follow public health guidelines. Yet Democrats have to be careful not to raise the bar too high, and thereby give Trump an opening to trumpet his Reopen America policy despite severe casualties. After all, populists dont need to be correct. They just need mainstream politicians to not be correct either.
Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist and the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor in the school of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia. His latest book is The Far Right Today