How the coronavirus pandemic could get Trump re-elected

COMMENT

In what must be deeply disturbing news to the Democratic Party, 55% of Americans apparently approve of how United States President Donald Trump is handling the Covid-19 crisis. Given that US government officials, healthcare experts and the rest of the world might disagree with the majority of Americans on this issue, it is intriguing to wonder if the coronavirus might save Trump in a way that it is unlikely to save other people of his advanced age.

How might this happen?

Anger 

Trump is very, very good at anger. He is a fundamentally angry man, and that anger is a powerful way in which he connects with people. It got him elected — even though none of us thought it would. People were angry, and they saw in Trump an anger that resonated with them. Even if they didn’t agree with him on some issues (especially the charming issue about how/where one could “grab” ladies if you’re rich) they saw that he felt the way they felt — and they voted for him. 

The reality is that people are going to be extremely angry about coronavirus. Because it is going to mess up the world in ways that none of us are going to like. If Trump can channel and mimic that anger, perhaps by finding people (the Chinese, those foreigners who run the World Health Organisation and wear glasses, those bureaucrats who want to shut down the economy, or perhaps … er … cats? Or people named Roger?) then perhaps he can find common ground with these angry people, and get enough of them to vote for him. Again.

Money vs mortality rates 

The reality is that only a very small percentage of people who contract the virus are going to be in danger of dying: the rest are going to be fine. Yes, huge numbers of people will die, but at some point the people who aren’t in danger of dying are going to resent switching off the economy to save the (admittedly hundreds of thousands) of older people who we are quite rightly protecting. We all know (because he has told us) that Trump wants to reopen the economy as soon as possible. Ideally, next Tuesday; Wednesday at the latest. This approach could pay dividends with financially desperate people who aren’t yet dying as the Covid-19 recession or depression bites.

Materialism 

In our deeply materialistic society, there are significant numbers of people who think that they would rather be dead than destitute. They may well feel differently when they themselves are staring death in the face, but, at any given time, only a few people are engaged in that unpleasant staring-contest. And the rest of the population will contain more than a small percentage of people who will find themselves agreeing with Trump’s unspoken (but surely soon to be spoken, or tweeted) view that the economy is more important than lives. In a country with an astonishingly low savings rate and almost no national financial safety net, this view will find supporters.

A masked recession 

Trump has positioned himself as the business president — a leader who understands how to make the economy grow. In what would have been a challenge to this narrative, many economists were predicting a mild recession or readjustment in early 2020, just as the election year got under way. Even if that didn’t happen, the fact that this administration has openly supersized the budget deficit to achieve growth, was about to become a political issue. Both of these factors have been neutralised. Recession? It’s the fault of the coronavirus. Deficit? Same thing.

Wartime presidents tend to get re-elected 

It works every time. Leaders from Margaret Thatcher to George W Bush have had their careers saved by a conveniently timed war. Perhaps it’s the fact that they get to behave like Winston Churchill (with slightly less smoking, drinking and wandering around in the nude) or the fact that we are reluctant to turf out a leader during a crisis because we are a bit scaredy-pants. Who knows? 

But if the coronavirus debacle becomes really bad — and the way it is being handled in the US indicates it could — then perhaps Trump can become the most unlikely wartime president in the history of presidents? Remember, he only has to pull this trick with a small percentage of independent voters to stay in that house on Pennsylvania Avenue that he seems to like so much.

So, although the coronavirus may be seriously bad news for almost every other human on the planet, there is a small chance that it could be great news for Donald Trump. Perhaps. Or not. Time — as it generally does — will tell.

 John Davenport is the chief creative officer at Havas. He writes in his personal capacity

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John Davenport
John Davenport is the chief creative officer of Havas Southern Africa.

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