Why in the world do anti-Trump people keep thinking he’s going to change?

Like now with the coronavirus.

How has the “this time things will be different” view worked for you so far? It’s safe to say, “never.”

So all the invective, all the criticisms about the way the president is dealing with the pandemic that’s killing so many, all that talk about your anger, his soullessness and your despair — what has it gotten you?

It makes you angrier, more desperate, and more convinced. So what?

OK, I understand and sympathize. But I am not your therapist.

It’s time to get off the couch, free yourselves of that constricting combination of invective and wishful thinking and take a good, hard look at why things are going as they are.

It’s time for you to really pay attention, as the subtitle of Roderick P. Hart’s excellent new book puts it, to what Trump says and why people listen.

If you don’t, you will, angrily but tragically, underestimate President Donald Trump’s strength in the 2020 presidential race.

Here are fundamental facts about the president and the pandemic.

Trump’s approval rating has essentially remained the same even as public concern about COVID-19 has gone up.

About 45% of the public continues to approve of Trump’s actions, basically what it has been throughout his presidency.

Trump’s followers have shown they are unlikely to abandon ship. Flickr: Gage Skidmore

The president has not received the sizable handling-the-crisis bump that other nations’ leaders have, but same old, same old for Trump is good enough.

A recent ABC News poll indicated that the enormous partisan division over Trump is almost exactly where it’s been all along.

A recent CBS/YouGov poll finds that 80% of Republicans said they trust Trump for medical information about the coronavirus, while only 74% said they trust the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Republican trust for doctors and scientists like Anthony Fauci (85%) was higher than Trump trust, but not by much.

Those approval ratings suggest that, as horrible, unprecedented and life-changing as the pandemic is, the rule of thumb for understanding how it’s being handled is: Things remain the same.

There are two answers to why Donald Trump is acting the way he is.

First, he is a fully formed individual with a set of traits and behaviors, developed well before he became president, that remain the same.

His pandemic press conference answers, my friends, may seem to be blowin’ in the wind, but it has always been so, and he is proud of it. That’s how he rolls.

Second, essentially the same people continue to support him for the same reasons they voted for him in the first place. And that has a very great deal to do with the way he rolls.

Take another look at those reasons. Is there anything in there that you could not have said during any stage of the Trump presidency?

It’s misleading and delusional to see the 2016 Trump victory as a crazy electorate choosing a crazy president.

The answer is no, and that’s the point.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these reasons. But before we do so, a couple of words about my outlook and approach.

My perspective is very much influenced by Hart’s book, “Trump and Us.” Hart analyzed thousands of tweets, campaign and presidential speeches, as well as news articles and letters to the editor. He also paid close attention to what people actually say about Trump.

Compared to past presidents, Trump is unique in his faith in the power of his emotions. He is proud of his emotions, not afraid to show them, and, as Hart puts it, thinks non-emotional politics is not politics at all.

So it’s not surprising that given this faith, Trump hates complexity. Trump lives in the moment. He wants to keep things simple. He finds it hard to “rise above things because doing so elevates him to an airy, undependable space.”

He wants people to feel what he feels. The president also feels reverential about his supporters’ emotions.

Trump is also an effective and frequent storyteller. He thinks by means of narratives.

Storytelling is not so much about laying out facts or clear presentations. It’s about creating a community, a combination of making people feel what you feel and validating the listeners’ own feelings.

Historically there is a style of politics whose themes go like this: I have been cast adrift, beset by dark and malign forces, and I am outraged that this has happened. Trump uses this style more than any president since 1948.

Trump’s Emotional Connection With His Supporters

Those themes are also the overall beliefs of a large number of Trump supporters.

It’s misleading and delusional to see the 2016 Trump victory as a crazy electorate choosing a crazy president.

More accurately, a troubled electorate chose an outlier who has a surprising amount of cultural awareness.

They felt what Trump helped them to feel — to admit they were feeling — about being ignored, trapped by a destructive global culture, and dismissed by elites and the press.

Like Trump, many of them trusted their intuitions and were suspicious of experts. Trump’s bombast energized them. It gave them a voice.

They believed that when Trump lies, they can nonetheless determine his true intentions and forgive the lie accordingly.

As Hart puts it, Trump knew many Americans felt ignored. He acknowledged it with an accessible, populist style.

He knew many felt trapped. He uplifted them through emotional storytelling.

He understood that many felt weary of the political system. He used tweets to energize them.

All these links between the way a sizable part of America feels and Trump’s relationship to them remain in place today.

This relationship between the president and his constituency is not about a flimflam man playing Three-card Monte with a bunch of naïve suckers.

It’s a relationship with cultural roots, and it has become quite stable.

So what we have, on the one hand, is a strong and stable relationship between the president and the millions of people who approve of him, and, on the other, a strong and stable number of people who probably believe what Bernie Sanders says — that Trump is the worst president in history.

If Trump is blamed for making the pandemic worse, he could lose, but the opposite is also true. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

And that brings us to the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election.  As a writer for the website FiveThirtyEight put it, “If Democrats can successfully associate the substantial harm wreaked by COVID-19 with Trump, they win in November. But if Trump and the Republicans can deflect enough blame elsewhere and Trump gets credit for making things less bad than they could have been, Trump will win.”

The writer called this “the crudest of calculations,” and it is because the perceptions of harm and success will be filtered through what has become very stable partisan screens with strong emotional and cultural components leading people to see Trump’s handling the virus in totally different ways.

In other words: pandemic or not, Trump is not likely to lose that 45% who approve of him.

In other words: if you can’t imagine Trump winning, considering the preposterously incompetent way you feel he is dealing with COVID-19 — well then, you don’t have much of an imagination.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author