By Mike Koetting April 10, 2020
Polls have been showing about 50% of the country approves of President’s Trump handling of the coronavirus pandemic. I was at first perplexed by how this could be in the face of what seems to me like egregiously poor performance. Then I decided I was confused by the wrong thing.
For the purposes of this post, I want to focus only on the non-substantive parts of his performance. Initial returns suggest that the administration made many substantive mistakes. But I want to set this aside for the moment. Plenty of people are writing on the specifics and the final evaluation will get hashed out over time. Even so, it is worth keeping in mind that, as much as we like to pretend we are non-biased, no one is immune. For instance, the Washington Post notes that the constantly quoted charge that Trump disbanded the office of global health affairs is substantively more complicated. More time will give us a better view.
I also have some sympathy with the fundamental problem faced by the administration—how do you balance immediate public health needs and the long-term economic well being of the society. Anyone who thinks this is an easy call isn’t thinking very clearly about the downstream effects of a broken economy. A Depression-like scenario in this and other countries will cause serious and continuing pain for many. Weighing these options, particularly given the paucity of hard information at the time when decisions had to be made, is beyond difficult.
That is not to say I am absolving the administration’s substantive handling of the crisis. Everything I have read points to serious problems with what they have and haven’t done. But, regardless of where that comes out, leadership in a crisis involves more than the substantive issues. There are “soften” aspects and he has massively failed in these aspects.
At a moment that calls for solidarity, he has continued to be divisive. When we need a leader to acknowledge that we are all in this together and model that behavior conspicuously, he routinely destroys any common space where people can come together and set aside differences. From failing to invite Democrats to the stimulus bill signing ceremony to infantile name calling, his every instinct is to divide.
In the same vein, when the message needs most to be about the common good, Trump has been transparently obsessed with his own concerns—making sure everyone knows he bears no fault, using circumstances for political campaigning, and crowing over his own TV ratings. Leadership is about focusing attention on the common mission. Trump shows no willingness to give more than occasional lip service to this aspect of his job. His ostentatious undermining of the CDC recommendation to wear face masks is a perfect example.
Another failed test is his inability to be consistent. Consistency in uncharted waters is not never changing your mind. In a circumstance unlike any other faced in recent time, changing understanding can well lead to policy evolution. But what is culpable is failing to anticipate the more likely outcomes, ignoring facts until they are utterly inescapable, being too anxious to tell people what they want to hear, discounting people with more expertise and creating fatuous expectations.
These are not esoteric criteria for leadership. I pretty much figured these things out as a Boy Scout shortly after becoming leader of the Thunderbird patrol at the age of 12. I had to. Otherwise the Thunderbird patrol wouldn’t have eaten.
So why the approval rating?
Mostly, this is just another reflection of the cultural divide we knew was there. For a material number of people in the country, a question about Trump’s handling of anything is a forgone conclusion. You might as well be asking if they were a homosexual immigrant or a socialist from San Francisco. I don’t know what percentage of the population this is, but I am guessing at least 25%, or half of the people giving high approval ratings.
This is totally consistent with why this group voted for Trump in the first place. They believe that there is a large, powerful group of people in our society who are determined to shift power to the elites and minorities. “Elites” in this context is not necessarily people who have huge amounts of money or power, it is people who intrude on their lives by telling them what to do—don’t eat so much sugar, integrate your schools, worry about endangered species, give up your guns, ignore what your pastors say about abortion and homosexuals, and be politically correct. These “elites” are enemies at a visceral level.
Donald Trump validates their view of the world. He speaks ill of whomever he wants to, he appoints traditionalist to the courts, and he is not intimidated by experts So, by definition, they support whatever steps he thinks appropriate.
Regional differences may also play into this. With the somewhat complicated exception of Louisiana—the southern states have been extremely reluctant to accept strong public health measures, although even within those states, there have been tensions between the larger cities and the states. I think this is a slightly less toxic version of the above– not wanting to be dictated to by the big [Democratic] cities. The largely defiant stance from southern governors has further muddied the signal, as has sentiment from the evangelical leadership. But it winds up in the same place—people supporting Trump without much consideration of the actual issues at hand. Of course, due the magic of our voting rules, it is unlikely that any answer in these states affects the presidential electoral outcome in November.
I have no idea how to fit into any paradigm the stunning statement by the Governor of Georgia on March 31 that he didn’t know the virus could be transferred by people before symptoms were visible. Was this a measure of the hypocrisy to which people will stoop when they feel cornered or was he really that unknowledgeable? And if the latter, where were his staff? Maybe there are people who approve of Trump for reasons that are utterly impossible to comprehend.
All of this raises the real question: what can we actually learn from opinion polls? Could be it’s a lot less than we’ve been thinking.
I’ve already suggested that at least two-thirds of Trump’s approval rating for his performance is purely reflexive and contains no information about how people think he’s actually doing. And those approval ratings don’t tell us anything about how people will vote in November that we don’t already know.
Perhaps there is a small group of people who give a higher approval rating for Trump’s handling of the corona virus than they have been for his performance beforehand. Is this an early warning? If this is a real signal, in a tight race, it could be significant. I don’t think it is. I am guessing they are people who aren’t really paying much attention and know Trump’s been on TV a lot and think it’s a time to “rally around the flag.” We are already seeing some of these approvals starting to drift down toward previous levels.
The same surveys also show that Americans have a far more favorable opinion about the response efforts by their state and local governments than their ratings for the President, suggesting that they are making discriminations. These higher approval ratings for governors are shared across the political spectrum and the differences are materially larger in the crucial swing states.
In short, I don’t see any evidence that the Trump campaign gets any significant boost from his handling of the crisis.
So why do we continue to be so fascinated by these polls? It seems like most of them are measuring things different from what they purport to measure. If people want to really understand what’s going on in the country, what we need is more qualitative discussion about why people have one opinion or the other rather than simply asking about the opinion. It’s unlikely we can ever address the deep social division in our country by coming up with new ways to prove that it exists.