Right now, we’re just trying to survive. Protecting the elderly and those with chronic illnesses, making sure our neighbors have groceries and medicine, and rallying around those who’ve lost their jobs. We can be forgiven for being a little single-minded at the moment. But at some point this will all end, and by that stage, Donald Trump could be well on the way to winning a second term in the White House. When this crisis is over, another catastrophe could be slowly unfolding for the Democrats.
Just a few weeks ago, it was unthinkable that even a day could pass without the Democratic presidential primary campaign making headlines. In some ways, it seems like no time at all has passed since Joe Biden seemingly swiped the Democratic presidential nomination from under Bernie Sanders’ nose, but by other measures, we’ve all aged a decade. In the face of a global shutdown, no one is thinking as far ahead as the November presidential election. At the moment, Biden’s and Sanders’ detailed, long-term plans for the country are certainly wasted on all of us. Only their healthcare plans are enjoying any airtime, and even those proposals get just a passing mention within the larger discussion of coronavirus and health insurance. In the meantime, Trump has had daily press conferences live broadcasted on all the networks – free advertising at a time when there is public appetite only for virus-related news.
Though Trump is a billionaire, on his unconventional path to the presidency in 2016, he did not have to reach too far into his own pockets or even the Republican Party’s. His campaign was spurred on largely by constant press coverage of his gaffes, insults, and those damn tweets. The more outrageous and offensive Trump became, the more media outlets – of all political stripes – played into his hands by incessantly replaying his outbursts. All told, Trump was the beneficiary of over $5 billion worth of free advertising throughout his primary and general election campaigns, according to MediaQuant, a data analytics firm which tracked coverage of each candidate and calculated how much the coverage was worth in dollar value.
There is a lot to be learned from what happened next. In 2016, most pundits were caught off guard by Trump’s win. They assumed that the widespread coverage of Trump’s nasty, often misogynistic or racist commentary, would rule him out of contention for the presidency. On the contrary, it seemed to endear Trump to a lot of people, who saw him as a straight-talker in a field of liars and cowards. Importantly for his campaign, even those who had some reservations about Trump’s more extreme policy positions had an excellent understanding of what those positions were – because they had seen them played and replayed on daily news for over a year. The same clarity of expression was not a hallmark of the Clinton campaign.
This year we have no excuse. We’re been forewarned that Trump’s bizarre communications strategies are effective, and utilizing the news media as a form of free advertising is all part of the plan. As horrendously as Trump is mismanaging the current crisis, questioning medical professionals’ requests for more ventilators and flinging insults at anyone who questions him, there is no guarantee that this will reflect badly on him come November. Trump poses a double threat: his skillful manipulation of the media and the fact that incumbents already enjoy the benefits of increased visibility, coverage, and the legitimacy of all the infrastructure of the state. Including the White House briefing room toting the seal of the President.
As horrendously as Trump is mismanaging the current crisis, questioning medical professionals’ requests for more ventilators and flinging insults at anyone who questions him, there is no guarantee that this will reflect badly on him come November.
In a public health crisis where outcomes are so heavily dependent on individuals changing their behavior, government messaging is everything. There is an unquestionable need for experts to regularly address the nation, and for the press to report their messages verbatim. Of course, this method of public information dissemination relies on briefings being conducted by experts. When Trump turns to discussing public health measures, between insulting reporters and claiming the virus will “disappear… like a miracle”, he provides at best mixed messages, and at worst misinformation. Were these statements coming from anyone else, they would be broadcast only on the most disreputable YouTube channels, not live on every network in the country.
Trump has broken the mould for a ‘Teflon politician’. It’s a term that’s been applied to many before him, but Trump’s ability to emerge unaffected from scandals is quite unparalleled – just look at how he boasted about sexually assaulting women and was soon after elected President. Or how he frequently engages in online abuse without consequences, and was impeached for soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election – only to avoid removal from office. We can be fairly sure that Trump’s dangerous behavior in this crisis will be explained away along with the rest of the muck in his history.
In politics, there are two reliable truths about a crisis: in the midst of one, voters don’t want to risk an unknown quantity, and once they’re over, voters’ memories are shorter than expected. Of course, Trump’s failure to deal with this unprecedented crisis may be so complete that the usual rules don’t apply. But banking on COVID-19 bringing down Trump at the 2020 election is a big risk to take in the fight against an incumbent on whom nothing has ever stuck.