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America’s twin crises are highlighting Trump’s biggest weaknesses

With crises of public health and racial reckoning engulfing the country, and millions unemployed, a series of polls show Americans don’t trust Trump to lead the way through.

President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20, 2020.
President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20, 2020.Read moreEvan Vucci / AP

For political leaders, the coronavirus crisis demands attention to detail, patience, a trust in experts, and a willingness to learn. The protests against systemic racism scream out for voices of understanding, unity, and reconciliation.

Both call for steadiness and empathy.

None of those qualities are usually associated with President Donald Trump — and the result has plunged his reelection prospects to the lowest depths of his presidency.

With the two crises engulfing the country, and millions unemployed, a series of polls show that Americans don’t trust Trump to lead the way through. He is now trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden by huge margins nationally, and by smaller but substantial deficits in critical swing states, including Pennsylvania.

The surveys, numerous and consistent, show the toll on a president whose personality has proven uniquely ill-suited to events that have upended the country months before Election Day.

Biden led Trump by 14 percentage points in a New York Times/Siena College poll released this week. It’s an eye-popping margin, and people in both parties believe it will get tighter. But it wasn’t an outlier. A Reuters-Ipsos poll found Trump trailing by 13 percentage points. Fox News? Biden by 12.

The movement has trickled down to decisive swing states, too. The Times found Biden ahead by 10 in Pennsylvania and by 11 in Michigan and Wisconsin. A Quinnipiac University poll in Ohio found a near tie in a state Trump won by 8. Fox News had Biden narrowly leading in Georgia and Texas, two states that would usually fit comfortably in the Republican column.

In Erie County, a swing county that helped deliver Pennsylvania to Trump in 2016, a smaller but more in-depth focus group on June 16 illustrated how the president’s actions have repelled even some one-time supporters. In a panel of nine swing voters, seven said they would support Biden if the election were held now, according to Engagious, a public-opinion firm that has surveyed swing voters around the country.

The focus group included six people who supported both President Barack Obama and Trump, and three who voted for Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. Four of the six Trump voters now favor Biden.

Asked for one word to describe life between now and the election, the nine people offered: unbearable, turmoil, s—show, chaotic, exhausting, financial crisis, cautious, stressful, anxious.

Biden has hardly run an innovative or exciting campaign, but his sober promises of stability, seriousness, and kindness may fit the moment.

One Erie woman who supported Trump told Engagious that, “with each passing day there’s more negativity and we need change.”

Usually during a crisis, presidents take on “the priestly role,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a communications professor at Texas A&M University. They seek to heal, unite, calm, and offer sympathy.

“So far in Trump’s presidency he has not been able to perform the priestly role,” said Mercieca, author of Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump. “He doesn’t seem to know how to speak the language of communal values. He’s much better at speaking about division and polarization, what we don’t have in common rather than what we have in common.”

Instead, Trump has responded to anguished protests by threatening a violent response and lumping in protesters with looters and “thugs.”

While the country racks up new records for daily confirmed coronavirus cases, he has all but declared victory and focused on reopening the economy. He has recently referred to the virus as “Kung flu,” in one phrase fostering the racism so many are denouncing and making light of an illness that has killed more than 120,000 Americans.

The Times poll found that 62% of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the protests that followed the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, and 58% disapprove of how he has handled the coronavirus.

Many of his supporters love that Trump is a wrecking ball in Washington, but these crises can’t be resolved with bluster or brute force.

“A sense that things have gone out of control under your watch does not help incumbents,” the conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote this week in a scathing Wall Street Journal column.

Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, put it more delicately, telling Politico that for Trump to win back independents, he’ll likely need “a message that conveys perhaps a different tone.”

The early days of the coronavirus, when Americans were home and tuning into the president’s then-daily news conferences, exposed many people to the flaws that critics already saw in Trump, said Elaine Kamarck, author of the book Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again.

“They saw basically rank incompetence,” said Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former aide in the Bill Clinton White House. “He didn’t have any clear plan, he didn’t have a mastery of the facts.”

The virus would have presented any president with difficult decisions, and only bad choices. But the U.S. has lagged behind other major countries, and other world leaders and U.S. governors have largely won praise for the seriousness of their approaches, even when they have made mistakes.

Previous crises have created some other presidents’ most indelible moments. A new ad by a group of anti-Trump Republicans, the Lincoln Project, is now running in Pennsylvania and Midwestern battlegrounds. It features clips of Ronald Reagan speaking after the Challenger explosion, Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, George W. Bush in the rubble of the World Trade Center, and Obama singing “Amazing Grace” in a South Carolina church where a white supremacist had killed nine Black people.

Then the ad cuts to Trump declaring that law enforcement would “dominate” the streets, images of police attacking protesters, and the president posing with a Bible after protesters were violently cleared from outside the White House.

He has hammered ideas that even many Republicans reject.

Almost two-thirds of voters expressed sympathy with protesters in the Reuters/Ipsos poll. Trump has repeatedly tweeted “LAW & ORDER!”

A mid-June Fox poll found 80% of Americans, and 68% of Republicans, had a favorable view of people who wear face masks. Trump has refused to do so in public and suggested that people who wear them to limit the spread of the virus are actually just signaling their disapproval of him.

Only 23% thought an indoor political rally was a good idea. Trump held one in Tulsa days later.

Trump seems driven by validating his hard-core supporters, said Andrea Benjamin, an associate professor of African American studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“The president knows who he’s talking to,” Benjamin said. “He is not trying to change minds.”

That was enough for him to win in 2016. There’s still a chance he’ll repeat the feat this year. Recent events show how quickly the world can flip upside down, and there are still four months until Election Day.

Trump is still more trusted than Biden to lead an economic revival, polls show, and the president’s supporters argue that a rebound is coming. This could prove to be Trump’s low point in support.

“We put no stock in public polls of any kind,” Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh told reporters this week. He said voters will sour on Biden once they hear more about his policies and see him in action. “The great American comeback is already underway, and they are thanks to the Trump policies.”

A perfect storm helped Trump defy dour polls to win in 2016. Americans were sick of stale politics, and he was the ultimate outsider running against a woman who embodied the insiders. He lost the popular vote but won just enough in just the right swing states.

This year there’s another storm, and so far Trump is steering right into it.