The New York Times reports that Donald Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization at Walter Reed Medical Center do not seem to be giving his struggling reelection campaign a boost.
The Trump campaign is hoping the nation will rally around the ailing president as he battles the coronavirus. But the first polls conducted since the president’s announcement of his diagnosis early Friday did not seem to show a sympathy bounce.
In support of this conclusion, the Times cites the Ipsos/Reuters poll released on Oct. 4, which includes polling conducted after Trump’s COVID-19 positive status was divulged, noting that “The poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans, including half of Republicans, think Mr. Trump could have avoided the virus if he had taken it more seriously.”
So there is an unusually broad consensus, extending across both ends of the political spectrum, that Trump’s misfortune is essentially his own fault.
The fact that former Vice President Joe Biden continues to maintain and extend his significant lead over Trump in the national polls, even in light of Trump’s hospitalization, coupled with many Americans’ belief that Trump himself is to blame for his own infection, are the factors the Times apparently relies upon to explain why no sympathy bounce is evident (presumably such a sympathy bounce would be reflected in a more narrow lead for Biden).
A president succumbing to a potentially serious—even lethal—illness is a rare occurrence in the modern era. The last time a president was publicly diagnosed with a critical medical problem was Ronald Reagan, who underwent surgery in 1985 to have some cancerous polyps removed from his intestines. The health issues of John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt were elaborately disguised to keep the public in the dark about their conditions as much as possible, so it’s not possible to guess what sort of sympathy they would have evoked. A less meaningful but still relevant comparison is the enormous approval rating bounce that George W. Bush received in the days immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks. Although Bush himself was not the victim of the attacks, the perception, right or wrong, that he was exhibiting leadership of the country directly in their aftermath led 90% of Americans to express, if not sympathy, a broad approval for his behavior, contrasting sharply with his approval ratings prior to the attacks.
But Donald Trump, despite the ominous ramifications of his diagnosis, is so far receiving nothing that would suggest either sympathy nor any increased approval from the American public. The explanation for this must lie beyond the merely political. Even if George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama—all quite polarizing figures in their own right— had been stricken with a malady as potentially debilitating or deadly as COVID-19, some ultra-partisans would doubtless have gloated with pleasure. Yet it’s difficult to believe that any of these presidents would not have generated a sympathetic reaction among the general public—sympathy which would have been reflected in the polling.
Politically, Donald Trump is not far removed from George W. Bush in what he has actually achieve. Enormous tax cuts for the wealthy, the appointment of rabid right-wing judges, deregulation and degradation of the environment—the list of similarities is actually quite long. But if we assume that the public would sympathize with such an illness striking George W. Bush, but refuse to do the same with Donald J. Trump, then the explanation must lie elsewhere.
Trump, of course, is unique among American presidents in that he has deliberately gone out of his way to publicly abuse, malign, and impugn so many segments of the American public. He first displayed this tendency during the 2016 campaign, when he denigrated undocumented immigrants, so-called “Mexican” judges, and members of the press, even going so far as to mock those with disabilities. His entire campaign against Hillary Clinton (whom he labeled as “crooked”) was rooted in such abuse and insults.
Since becoming president, Trump has doubled down on this behavior at every turn, maligning our intelligence agencies; calling fallen American soldiers and POWs “losers and suckers”; and attacking congresswomen of color, peaceful protesters, ethnic and religious minorities of all persuasions, Democrats, Republicans, women and men, and those outside the gender binary. With his busy Twitter fingers, he has spewed a relentless torrent of bile at nearly everyone in this country, even saving his private contempt for his most ardent supporters.
But beyond the verbal and Twitter abuse, Trump has also taken concrete, substantive actions to express his contempt and abusive feelings toward Americans as a whole, none more deadly and far-reaching than his sustained effort to minimize the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike his selective abuse of certain groups and individuals, this malevolence was directed in effect at all American citizens. He offered them a stark choice—believe what he said about the seriousness of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or face demonization and more abuse. He directed that abuse and mistreatment toward Democratic governors and by implication, toward the citizens who had elected those governors to manage their states, for their efforts to resist his blanket exhortations to reopen their businesses. He directed that abuse toward teachers who repudiated his edicts to reopen the schools even in the face of clear danger, and by implication toward the children and young people forced with no choice but to abide by the premature and ill-advised school reopenings that he himself pushed for.
Meanwhile, Trump steadfastly ignored the mounting death toll resulting from his casual disregard of Americans’ lives. He ignored the individual tragedies of those Americans coping with not only the sicknesses and deaths of their loved ones, but also with a devastating economic crisis that threatened their very lives and their families’ futures. And while all this was occurring, he continued to lie to and mislead Americans about the lack of progress being made. So Americans find themselves, in October, no better off than they were in March, when the nation shut down, expecting that the federal government would take some type of effective measures to combat the pandemic.
And all the while, the abuse, the insults, the arrogant self-aggrandizement continued. It never let up, in fact. It manifested itself most recently in an appalling debate performance that significant majorities of Americans condemned as self-serving.
Into this befouled environment—teeming with sheer, wanton disregard for American citizens—came the unsurprising revelation that the Trump White House has now become a bubbling petri dish of COVID-19 infection, entirely as a result of its inhabitants’ own arrogant behavior. Trump himself is among the infected. But as the polls reflect, Americans by and large simply don’t care. That’s not a reflection of the president’s political positions, but a reflection of the very behavior he has exhibited toward Americans during his entire tenure in office. Americans know that this president doesn’t care one whit about their lives, so there is no reason for us to care about him, his family, or anyone else in his administration.
So it isn’t simply that Trump clearly brought this on himself that’s behind the lack of a sympathy bounce. It’s that he’s never exhibited the slightest shred of human empathy toward American citizens, either through his words or actions. Put bluntly, Americans are tired of being shit on over and over by this shameful excuse for a president, and as a result, most don’t care whether he gets sick, or sicker than he is right now. The polls reflect the fact that a clear majority of Americans want him out of office, and at this point they don’t give a damn what condition he’s in when he leaves.
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