On March 18, at a press conference flanked by high-ranking officials, President Trump described himself as a "wartime president" fighting an "invisible enemy" known as the coronavirus. The president, it seemed, was beginning to reckon with the extent of the economic, epidemiological, social, and psychological damage the pandemic would cause, and to act appropriately. "We must sacrifice together," Trump said, "because we are all in this together, and we will come through together."
An anxious populace welcomed the appearance of a strong leader at a time of national emergency. The president’s job approval ratings rose in the following weeks, reaching a high of 47 percent in the Real Clear Politics average on April 1. The gap between Trump and former vice president Joe Biden narrowed to five points.
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How long ago that seems. Some 122,000 deaths and tens of millions of lost jobs later, and in the middle of a cultural revolution sparked by the viral video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, President Trump finds himself backed into a corner. The rhetoric of a wartime presidency is gone. His coronavirus task force is barely visible. In a symbol of declining levels of support among white voters critical to his reelection, attendance at the Keep America Great rally in Tulsa failed to live up to expectations raised by Trump’s own campaign. The president’s job approval rating has fallen to the low 40s. Biden’s lead has widened to 10 points.
There is no shaking the coronavirus. It is the ever-present backdrop against which our national nervous breakdown is taking place. The good news is that deaths have declined to fewer than 1,000 per day. But that number is still higher than the casualties reported by other liberal democracies in Asia and in Europe, and it may rise in the coming weeks. Sclerotic bureaucracies, poor decision-making, and ill communication at every level of government wasted the opportunity to suppress the virus through relentless testing, contact tracing, and quarantine.
By the time testing ramped up to the point where it could become the centerpiece of a suppression strategy, Americans had grown tired of lockdowns enforced throughout the country without regard to local conditions and to basic freedoms, and weary of a public health establishment whose pronouncements—New York good, Florida bad; protests good, yeshivas bad—seemed driven by partisanship and ideology.
The virus exposed racial, ethnic, and class cleavages that inflamed elite opinion and increased demands for social justice. And the economic devastation left an environment permeated by anxiety and filled with bored and unemployed people, some of whom felt as if they had no stake in the system and no reason not to smash things. The civil unrest of the past month has analogues in earlier pandemics. Local, state, and federal leaders met the disorder with the same woolly-headedness, indecision, posturing, and lack of compassion that they have applied to this one.
Trump has tried to reinvigorate his candidacy by resuming a normal schedule. Recently, in addition to Oklahoma, he has traveled to Arizona and Wisconsin, but at each stop he has run up against the agent of his electoral distress: the plague.
The arena wasn’t full in Tulsa because of a justified fear, on the part of some who otherwise would have attended, of participating in a large gathering in an enclosed space. During his monologue the president remarked, as case numbers rose in 29 states, that he had told his team to "slow the testing down please." The content of his speech to a youth group inside a Phoenix megachurch had to compete with questions over how widely face masks were distributed among the crowd. As the president traveled to Green Bay for a town hall with Sean Hannity, Texas governor Greg Abbott paused his state’s reopening and halted elective procedures at hospitals in four counties.
The spread of the virus results in panic, and the panic results in economic losses, social isolation, and polarized media and culture primed for incitement. That is why 80 percent of registered voters say the country is out of control, why 68 percent say the country is on the wrong track.
What the coronavirus has done is rob President Trump of his ability to control events. The president has a knack for putting his human opponents on their toes, for establishing facts on the ground that are difficult to contest. But the coronavirus doesn’t read Tweets, doesn’t watch television, and doesn’t go away if ignored. It has to be defeated, or endured. America prides itself on having a government of, by, and for the people. But here, today, the virus rules.