Trump forced Republicans into the dumbest corner

Trump forced Republicans into the dumbest corner
Schadenfreude over Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis was more about cosmic justice than joy in another’s pain
President Donald J. Trump greets supporters during a drive by outside of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Bethesda, Md. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Republicans are stuck on the wrong side of public opinion on Covid-19, and that's probably the biggest reason why they've struggled to make up any ground against their Democratic opponents. Back in March, I noticed a trend that was unusual in our polarized times: GOP voters were telling pollsters that they believed Donald Trump's various claims about the origins of the pandemic and bought that the media and Democrats were exaggerating its danger, but when asked about how they themselves were responding to the outbreak, majorities made it clear that they took it very seriously. They were concerned about its impact on their families and communities, were taking precautions to avoid contracting the virus and supported most if not all public health measures to contain it.

That disconnect has persisted throughout the course of the campaign. Trump and others have mocked Joe Biden for "hiding in his basement" and wearing a mask when out on the campaign trail, but a survey released earlier this month found that, "despite noisy no-mask protests, 92 percent of 2,200 Americans polled say they wear a face mask when leaving their home, with 74 percent saying they 'always' do." Another survey released this week found that voters favored a national mask mandate by a 20-point margin. While Trump assures Americans that the coronavirus is nothing to fear, another recent poll found that two-thirds of respondents "say they are worried that someone in their family will be exposed to the virus."

Any minimally competent campaign strategist would tell you that it has always been imperative for Trump to project a seriousness about Covid-19 to the American public and, if possible, shift the conversation to more friendly ground. But he and his party seem intent on doing the opposite. They've created a steady stream of news stories about their own carelessness--from the Rose Garden reception for Trump Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett turning into a super-spreader event to picking fights with Anthony Fauci to multiple elected officials violating airline mask mandates. Conflicting reports about Trump's health status, that goofy ride around Walter Reed Medical Center and now Trump touring the country holding rallies, many in Coronavirus hotspots, have all assured that Covid and the regime's reckless and anti-scientific responses to it would remain the media's primary focus in the final stretch of the campaign.

And even as numerous prominent Republicans and White House staffers tested positive for the disease, the conservative media continued to relentlessly downplay the severity of this historic public health crisis and openly mock those who take it seriously. It's hard to overstate how wide the divide between the movement and a significant majority of the public--voters Trump needs to win over--has become.

For a party that was once hailed for its messaging prowess, it is confounding. But it makes sense in context. Trump set the course for his party to navigate the pandemic months ago, and he simply does not have a plan B.

Way back in March, when Trump was calling warning about the severity of the pandemic a "hoax," I wrote that his "[Covid] strategy is clear."

He's incapable of even considering any political approach other than firing up his base, and he hopes to deepen the existing partisan divide on the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then blame the media and Democratic governors for the economic tsunami that's about to break over our shores... This is all about laying the groundwork to claim that he desperately tried to keep the economy humming but was thwarted by others.

When I wrote that, 602 Americans had died, and while I thought the strategy was doomed from the start, it made at least a modicum of sense at the time. If the outbreak did turn out to be less widespread than the experts were saying it would be, Trump might have been able to shift responsibility for the economic downturn to Democratic governors and the media, and run on his stewardship of the economy prior to the pandemic hitting.

That he hasn't made a course correction as the death toll rose through the thousands to the tens of thousands and ultimately to over 210,000, is no doubt related to the fact that Trump is ensconced in the same conservative media bubble that has defended and protected him since he won the Republican nomination in 2016. He believes in his mythical political skills, and knows better than any advisors and pollsters who tell him he's making serious strategic errors, if any of them do.

But a simpler explanation would be that Trump just doesn't have another strategy to which he can pivot. He has always been a bullshit artist whose carefully cultivated image obscures a lack of substance. The coronavirus crisis was a test that he couldn't spin away but PR is really all he knows. It has seemed from the start that he's thoroughly overwhelmed by circumstances and has frozen up like a deer in the headlights.

And having settled on a remarkably self-destructive strategy early on, Trump has taken virtually the entire Republican Party--and the broader conservative movement--with him. They've persistently downplayed the pandemic, cheered all of Trump's claims about miracle cures and portrayed those popular public health measures as acts of tyranny. It's an example of the deference they've given Trump throughout his time in office, but it's important to keep in mind that isn't only a result of their instincts. They are feckless in large part because Trump has wielded the most effective tools of quelling dissent within his own party of any president in modern history. Not only can a tweet storm from him lead to elected Republicans being ousted in primaries, but it also unleashes a torrent of abuse from his belligerent hardcore base.

The enduring irony of this bizarre election cycle is that Trump decided early on to wish the pandemic away in order to prop up the markets and maintain his positive ratings on handling the economy, and if he'd taken it seriously would probably be in a much stronger position today. It isn't the only reason that he's running a historically awful campaign, but it's a big one.

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