Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Like many of my cohort, I’ve been surprised and dismayed at recent reports indicating that the president’s approval ratings have risen in the past month, even as the pandemic has spiraled out of control, overwhelming our medical personnel and starkly exposing the myriad flaws of our healthcare system. And yet, even as we find ourselves under lockdown and mass layoff conditions, we are greeted with reliable polls indicating that Trump’s numbers are well above the 50% mark, possibly even 60% or higher.
“How?” we ask. “Why? Have you not seen and heard this buffoon?”
In 1970, political scientist John Mueller articulated a theory describing how Americans support their presidents in times of war or other crisis. Colloquially, this is referred to as a “rally ’round the flag” effect. Our most prominent example of this would be George W. Bush after 9/11, whose approval rating skyrocketed from around 60% to a high of 92% within four months afterwards.
But 9/11 was an act of military violence, to be met with a military response, and the United States decided long ago that militarism would be one of our chief industries and exports. We were so uniquely prepared to respond to an attack of this magnitude that even somebody lesser suited to handling the nuances of the response could pull the necessary levers to set a rudimentary version of that response in motion. That unsuited individual would then be able to bask in the glow of the machinery, and it would take years before we fully reckoned with the reality of how ill-prepared we were to prevent the attacks in the first place. It would take the catastrophic excesses and bloodshed of the Iraq invasion and the failure to subdue al-Qaida or the Taliban in Afghanistan before the vast majority understood that Dick Cheney’s cabal should have been kept far away from that sort of power.
A global pandemic is not a military problem. The enemy has no face to hate; no strategy to counteract; no agenda to be parsed, critiqued, and drowned in competing propaganda. Despite the best efforts of the Trump White House to control the story, internet communications are even more robust now than they were in 2001. It is harder now for even a con artist as audacious as Donald Trump to maintain all of his lies at once, and his success is most often because he has been enabled by sycophants and power brokers in Congress, as well as the practiced deception factory at Fox News.
The simple fact is that COVID-19 represents a test of Donald Trump’s leadership in a way that cannot be masked by our institutional strengths, because any institutional strength we might have had to deal with the pandemic as it began was already gutted by Trump’s team in a manner characteristic of their disdain for inconvenient facts. The speed with which the crisis is accelerating, and the fact that he’s now giving daily briefings in which he is unable to impress anybody but himself, are only making it more difficult for him to keep the bloom on the rose.
Trump’s high approval rating right now is built on our collective fears and uncertainty as the number of infected and dead continues to exponentially rise. We should show some generosity to our neighbors for that emotional response, as it is cousin to the terror of witnessing 3,000 people murdered in a span of mere hours. Trump’s campaign can and has pointed to the poll as a sign that they have the full backing of the American people. I’m going to argue that it is rally effect, an illusion, and those of us who have known all along that his presidency was primed for disaster should not let these numbers take our hearts from us. We will all need our hearts to keep fighting.