It was close — for liberals, too close. And that closeness is reflective of an uncomfortable truth: had Trump done just a few things differently, he really would have won. And in particular, if Trump had stopped trying to wish away the pandemic, and started leading us through it, we’d quite likely have a second Trump term today.
American voters are not as fickle as the horserace polling outfits seem to imply they are. They tend not to change their minds except in reaction to big things, and many of those big things, from pandemics to recessions to wars and scandals, are often out of a president’s control.
But what can a president control? Often, it’s their response to these huge events: their speeches, their leadership style, their ability to connect with their citizens as they go through the upending historical experiences each presidency sees. These responses can transform them into a national hero — or a national zero.
On COVID-19, Trump did the latter.
With the pandemic, he was handed an opportunity to rise to the occasion on a silver platter — and he blew it with toxic positivity.
“Don’t let it dominate your life”
Trump had a few moments where he began to look heroic during COVID. He banned travel to and from China on January 30. His March 11, 2020 speech, where he declared COVID to be a national emergency, at the very least kicked open a door where the White House would take center stage during the pandemic. He let the health experts lead in late March, implying he supported the lockdowns then spreading across the country.
And surprise, surprise, his poll numbers went up.
Why was that? It was, in large part, because Trump, for perhaps the first time in his presidency, was flirting with actual national hero status. He seemed, for once, not to be taking cues from Fox News and the Alt-Right but from the experts who were worried that COVID could kill a million people by the end of the year. The undecided voter public began to rally to a president who seemed to be finding at least some heroic footing during a genuine national crisis.
But the man just couldn’t follow through. On March 13, just two days after his national speech, he shot himself in the foot when he said he “didn’t take any responsibility at all” for lagging testing in the United States. On March 24, habit reasserted, Trump said it would be “beautiful” to have packed Easter Churches just a few weeks away. By early April, despite the waves of lockdowns crashing down nearly nationwide, Trump had reverted to a strategy of minimizing the pandemic, ignoring his role in its consequences, and engaging in the toxic positivity that had helped in a prior life him sell everything from bad steaks to bad vodka.
When Trump himself got COVID — and was hospitalized no less — his return to the White House was not couched in a moment of humility that might have humanized him to the critical center of American voters, but rather became a brash anti-masker advertisement and he pulled off his mask and released a video that said COVID was, essentially, no big deal.
Why toxic positivity backfired
Trump partisans often defended his approach as “bringing optimism” to an otherwise dark era. That would have been welcome had it not careened off the rails of fireside chats and into the bizarre wishful thinking of a pyramid scheme sales pitch.
Rather than telling Americans that we can do this, he signaled they didn’t have to do anything. Rather than extolling the hard work and sacrifice Americans almost universally admire, he said that it would simply “go away” — up to 38 times, including after he himself got COVID.
Americans were not inspired by a disinterested president who would simply shrug his way through a once-in-a-century pandemic. They hadn’t been thrilled when George W. Bush had said FEMA Director Mike Brown was doing “a heck of job” as New Orleans remained flooded, either. When disasters strike, Americans expect their leaders to rise to the occasion and remind them of other epochs of national sacrifice, not for their politicians to go into denialism.
This is what many Republicans feared in 2016: that Trump, when faced with a national crisis, could not rise to the occasion. It made sense, given Trump’s track record. He has virtually no heroic record after 9/11 besides making up stories about Muslims dancing in New Jersey and claiming he now had the tallest tower in the city. He hardly handed out charity during the Great Recession; rather, he was busy going bankrupt again in 2009. The man had the ethos of an overconfident salesman down pat, and while that can often convince people to buy things they don’t want, it does little against brute realities like a pandemic. No matter how many times Trump says it, COVID won’t just go away.