Say what you will about Donald Trump, the man knows how to read a room. Not a briefing room full of reporters, mind you, but certainly the rooms he’s eager to please. The president knows what his audience wants to hear, and he is always eager to give it to them.
Thus, Trump has recently adopted a contradictory posture. While his administration is issuing guidelines that redefine even the most personal aspects of American life, micromanaging everything from interpersonal relationships to the conditions that must be met for businesses and institutions to reengage with the public, the president has wrapped his arms around those who are hostile toward those same instructions.
On Friday, Trump shattered the pretense that he would defer to individual states by tweeting commands for respective publics to “LIBERATE” Virginia, Minnesota, and Michigan. Prone as it is to hyperbole, the press was wrought by the presumption that Trump was advocating insurrectionary violence against these Democrat-led state governments (yes, seriously). That’s a bit much, but the discrepancy between Trump’s public guidance and his public statements is hard to ignore.
Asked about his intentions on Sunday, and the handful of anti-lockdown protests that have erupted around the country, Trump appeared to side more with those who oppose self-isolation than with the governors enforcing proscriptions on social interaction. “They want their life back,” he said. “Their life was taken away from them. And you know, they learned a lot during this period. They learned to do things differently than they have been in the past and they’ll do it, hopefully, until the virus has passed.” When pressed about the protesters who seemed to be disregarding—even flagrantly violating—social distancing recommendations, Trump replied flippantly, “They seem to be very responsible to me.”
Now, the president has a point about individual mitigation efforts. If the nation is to reassume some semblance of normalcy in the year or more that it will take to develop and distribute a vaccine, it will be incumbent on individuals to act responsibly. Which makes Trump’s steadfast refusal to even cursorily reprimand these demonstrators that much more obtuse. These protesters were not flouting the heavy-handed diktats of Gretchen Whitmer. These are the president’s own guidelines that these pro-Trump demonstrators are rebelling against, and they are apparently doing so with his support.
What gives? The New York Times put its finger on the pulse of the White House when, citing two sources close to Trump, it reported that the president believes the “protests could be politically helpful to Mr. Trump, while acknowledging there might be public health risks.” The sordid implication here is that Trump has put his political fortunes above the imperatives associated with controlling the spread of the coronavirus. But playing both sides of this equation, insofar as he can, is also the shrewdest political option available to the president.
The handful of demonstrators who’ve made a display of their disregard for even the most sensible distancing guidelines are the subject of bottomless contempt from the commanding heights of media. And the polls do suggest that these people and those who may be sympathetic to them are a minority. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released over the weekend confirms the results of a Pew Research Center survey from last week, both of which found that 65 percent of respondents believe Trump was too restrained about taking firm and necessary measures at the start of this crisis.
And yet, that same WSJ/NBC News poll showed that 50 percent of registered voters approve of the president’s handling of this crisis, despite his early reluctance. The vast majority of respondents say they generally trust the guidance of institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Trump’s point-man for all things pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci. And while Donald Trump trails Joe Biden on the matter of who the public trusts more to deal with this health crisis, when it comes to the economy, Trump maintains a double-digit lead over his opponent.
What’s more, while this survey found that 58 percent of respondents are more concerned about states loosening their stay-at-home orders too quickly, 32 percent expressed more concern about the economic effects of failing to reopen businesses. That’s a far cry from the 81 percent of adults who supported stringent lockdown measures in poll Quinnipiac conducted in the first week of April. Even if it’s just one-third of the country that is more anxious about the economy than public health today, one-third of the country is still about 100 million people. And the trend is hard to ignore.
With the pace of daily life having slowed to a crawl, it’s easy to forget that these are still the earliest days of a crisis that is expected to be with us for many months. But even those who have placed a premium on containing this outbreak are now outlining the steps businesses can take to resume some operations within the next few weeks. This is a matter of necessity, albeit an inconvenient one, and that sentiment is only likely to grow as the pain of the lockdown migrates up the economic ladder to social strata more visible to agenda-setting elites.
The president has positioned himself on all sides of this issue. He presides over an administration that has taken a firm stance in favor of phased closures and a reduced social interaction even as he insists that the spartan conditions into which Americans have been consigned are intolerable. Trump has now staked out a position in which he can be all things to at least a majority of voters: cautious to a point, empathetic to another; responsible for the minimum safety standards and contemptuous of any state-level guidance that may come to be viewed as excessive in hindsight. It’s a gamble, to say the least. But it might work.