Since he stormed into politics, Trump has promised to protect Americans against many alleged enemies: immigrants, criminals, secularists, environmental regulators, job outsourcers, unfair foreign competitors, and above all, those corrupt, condescending, incompetent liberal elites. Throughout his first three years in office, his supporters have celebrated him as doing just that, energetically and with signal successes.
Will Trump’s response to the Covid-19 crisis at last damage his claim to be his constituents’ Great Protector? The answer is not obvious. While Trump’s approval ratings first surged, then dropped, as the crisis grew, he has not fallen below where he has been through most of his term. Most Americans think he will be re-elected. Trump’s base still believes in him because he has made clear that he strives to protect some Americans more than others. Those “others” are the ones who have borne the brunt of the crisis so far. But that is changing, and Trump’s political future, along with tens of thousands of lives, may well rest on how far these changes go.
Our recent comprehensive review of Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and administrative policies shows that Trump rose to power by replacing the conventional Republican embrace of the free movement of goods and labor with robust protectionist tariff, trade, and immigration policies. These policies helped him advance a narrative portraying Americans—but particularly traditionalist, white, Christian Americans—as vulnerable and in need of protection against the economic and social policies of selfish globalist elites. These protections include new barriers to immigrants, especially Muslim and Latin American immigrants, encouragement of militaristic police tactics, including racial profiling, and support for initiatives against “vote fraud” that suppress voting by poorer, predominantly non-white Americans.
Trump has otherwise governed much as conventional Republicans did in previous periods when they controlled both chambers of Congress and the presidency. He cut back public programs providing health care, food, and shelter, and before the crisis, his administration proposed to cut more. He cut taxes, funding for regulatory enforcement, and innumerable business, health, and safety regulations. Previously, in the 1920s and the 2000s, such policies encouraged irresponsible corporate conduct that left the country unprepared for the Great Depression and the Great Recession that resulted.
The failure to prepare for the pandemic predated Trump, but it was aggravated by his administration’s dismissal of scientific expertise, its pursuit of social policies leaving millions without health care or unemployment benefits, and its cutbacks in governing capabilities—as when it transferred the National Security Council’s pandemic protection functions to officials chiefly charged with combating bioterrorism.
Most serious were the ways in which the president, committed to a campaign slogan of “Keep America Great,” encouraged denial and neglect during the crucial period when America should have been protecting and preparing itself. We should have followed the example of South Korea, undertaking massive testing, tracking, acquisition of medical supplies and equipment, and necessary quarantines to limit the need for widespread economic shutdowns and sheltering in place.
There is no doubt that Trump’s initial dismissal of strong warnings from his advisors has cost lives. It is not possible yet to estimate the impacts of his contradictory and frequently false statements about national and state powers and duties, the supply of medical resources, the scope and duration of shutdowns, and the prospects for treatments and vaccines. Unless you are Jared Kushner, you will find it hard to call America’s response to the crisis a success.
With well over a million Covid-19 cases and more than 77,000 deaths, the United States is far and away the world leader in both categories. The stock market has lost all its gains during the initial Trump years and is far from recovery. Unemployment applications have reached unprecedented heights with frightening speed, as eleven years of continuous job gains have crashed virtually overnight. Even some White House economic advisors admit unemployment and economic hardships could rival the Great Depression.
Unsurprisingly, both the health and the economic impacts have been far more severe for those Americans whom Trump seeks to protect against than for his “fellow Americans” he claims to protect. Communities of color and young people are disproportionately jobless, as work in service industries and the gig economy has shut down. The poorer and non-white residents of the nation’s cities have suffered most. Though racial data are available for only about 35% of reported Covid-19 cases, the rate of infections and deaths for African Americans appears to be at least three times that of whites, while Latinx American and Asian American rates are also higher.
Shocking as these disparities are, the data show why Trump voters feel comparatively protected. That may soon change. Senior citizens—many formerly ardent Trump supporters—are most vulnerable to the disease, and some are beginning to turn against him. The virus is now spreading from beyond the predominantly Democratic cities to predominantly Republican rural areas, causing factories to close. Trump’s response so far has been to order meatpacking plants to stay open, while plant workers remain inadequately protected. The Trump White House has now had to report that it has not even adequately protected itself. As Trump’s critics hammer hard at his handling of the crisis, the everyday experiences of suffering may persuade some of his supporters that this time, not all the criticisms are fake news.
Still, it is only mid-May. There is time for President Trump to govern better. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has already negotiated relief and stimulus bills of historically unprecedented scale, matched by equally unprecedented massive Federal Reserve market intervention. Congress and the president are likely to do more. The initiatives have placed more emphasis on direct aid to those most in need—not just banks and corporations—than any major programs since the 1960s. Trump has also begun speculating again about a major infrastructure plan—which must include public health care, sanitation, water facilities, transportation, and communication systems if it is to help meet the current crisis. Ideally, such an infrastructure plan would go much further, although it remains in doubt whether Senate Republicans will commit to anything substantial.
The protectionist themes that Donald Trump ran on in 2016, and their confinement to predominantly white and traditionalist Americans, are both profoundly challenged by the coronavirus crisis. Of course, a great president would commit to protecting all Americans in this time of crisis. But if President Trump does not now show that he can at least protect the white, conservative, and predominantly rural Americans who form his electoral base, then the Great Protector of 2016 may be seen as the Great Pretender in 2020.
Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Desmond King is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford. They are co-authors of Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America (2011).