I’ve been meaning for a while to write something about how fitting it is that a man as self-evidently devoid of generous impulses as Donald Trump should wind up at the head of the Republican Party. The Republican elites who spent early 2016 baffled about what their base was thinking should have realized that an arrogant bully is the most natural symbol of a party whose message for about four decades now has been that the only proper role of the federal government is punitive. Has Donald Trump done anything good for his working-class and middle-class supporters? Not really, but they don’t expect him to. They take for granted the truth of Ronald Reagan’s message: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”
What can a politician offer people who don’t think he can use the government to help them? Well, he can cut their taxes, but Trump’s tax cut was so obviously tilted toward the rich (and the withholding changes involved so bungled) that the Republicans didn’t even bother to campaign on it during the 2018 midterms. What Trump did instead was to whip up fear about migrant caravans, which brings us to the main thing a Republican politician can offer his supporters: punishment for other people. Create the assumption that prosperity for those who aren’t rich is a zero-sum game, and you can make it seem like a crackdown on immigration (illegal or otherwise) is good for your supporters, even if the evidence for that idea is spotty at best. This is the modern Republican agenda in a nutshell: pursue policies that are bad for the vast majority of the population, and placate those who might notice by saying, “Yes, but I’m keeping women/non-whites/the lazy poor under control!”
Now, of course, we have a pandemic, a situation that by its nature demands federal rather than state leadership, and Donald Trump has proven himself as unequal to the task as some of us have spent the past four years warning he would be. Sadly, Americans’ sense of what a responsible government response might look like is so atrophied that Trump has retained not only the approval of his base but higher-than-usual numbers among Democrats and independents. Some of that is probably a rally-round-the-flag effect as people began to realize how serious this situation is; some of it is probably also grading on a curve, acknowledging that Trump has at least admitted a crisis exists and started taking steps, although there’s still plenty he could do be doing that he’s not, and his daily press conferences are the same mix as ever of unwarranted, petulant self-praise and exaggerations that competent officials immediately have to walk back.
I think a larger reason Trump’s coronavirus-response approval is somewhat high is that ordinary Americans, having by and large failed to take the situation seriously themselves, are inclined to give the president a pass for his lack of foresight. That might be a charitable impulse, but it’s the wrong one. The presidency is a job, and one of its qualifications is the ability to anticipate and prepare for national crises. Nothing in Donald Trump’s record suggested he would be any good at that, and he’s not. Indeed, he’s extraordinarily bad at it, so bad that, as is often the case during his presidency, a simple recital of the facts feels like an attack. You can see why many of his supporters, living within the bubble of Fox News (which is, these days, a very dangerous bubble), assume that reports from elsewhere in the press are malicious lies. It’s hard to believe that anyone could bungle things that badly. But he did. It’s what he does. The only question now is, as the case count increases and the economy teets on the brink, will he finally be held to account for it?