Before COVID-19 made it to U.S. shores, Donald Trump’s re-election was dangling by wire: He was down in the swing states needed for electoral victory, suburban women had squarely moved away from his column and his efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act were the greatest liability a president had created for himself in modern history. Trump really just had one play: the economy, the gross domestic product, the stock market, his “huge numbers.”
But in the wake of his failure to take the threat of this virus seriously, the infection and death rate among Americans is soaring and the economy is crashing — and could sink to its lowest levels in 50 years. The virus — which on March 15 the president told Americans was “something we have tremendous control of” — seems to be gaining steam, and at the wheel we have a president who repeatedly denied COVID-19 was a significant problem at all.
And yet, his approval rating is, according to both a Monmouth University and a Gallup poll, spiraling up. Yes: Despite his abject failure to wield the power of the federal government to stop this virus in its tracks months ago, Donald Trump’s approval rating has improved.
That should send shivers down the spines of the president's opponents — as should the Gallup reporting that both Democrats’ and independents’ approval of Trump shot up by 8 points since the beginning of March. Their poll shows that 60 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s response, including 60 percent of independents and 27 percent of Democrats.
It's likely that Trump's handling of the virus and the economic fallout will be the only issue in November's election. Whether Trump really claims victory against the virus on Easter Sunday and tries to send people back to work, it will be impossible to recover from the Fed’s predicted 50 percent GDP contraction and 30 percent unemployment rate this quarter. Trump's path to victory, without a strong economy to promote, is to use the power of incumbency, the full force of a sycophantic right-wing media and the historic tendency of Americans to rally around a commander-in-chief in crisis to project an image of an in-charge “wartime president.”
Democrats, then, must work to strip Trump of the hollow image he has tried to conjure of a president bravely conquering a foreign virus, rather than the leader of the federal government, ultimately responsible for enabling its accelerated spread.
After all, beyond his many ill-informed and contradictory statements that led too many Americans to take the unprecedented nature of this crisis less seriously than was and is required, in recent weeks we have learned that Trump was warned by intelligence officials of the nature of this virus months ago when he was still playing it down. We know that he slashed the pandemic office responsible for responding to crises like COVID-19. It is public knowledge that he fired the public health official stationed in China who could have tipped us off to the pandemic sooner. And, obviously, he’s told us, "I don't take responsibility at all."
Elected Democrats, though, are busy legislating — keeping partisanship to a minimum while attempting to pry out of Republicans the means to get Americans what they need right now. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, is walking a fine line between legitimate criticism and over-the-top attack — as he must, given how much the voters he needs to woo seem to be embracing Trump right now. The mainstream media is asking tough questions, but at times succumbs to advancing Trump's phony narratives by parroting them unquestioningly and lets inconvenient facts too easily slip down the memory hole.
And voters — especially in a crisis — can have short memories for political maneuvering.
So in a moment during which uncertainty reigns and emotions run high, what is the right response of those of us on the left who want to ensure that Trump and his administration are held accountable for both their actions and their inactions?
Last week, American Bridge (the Democratic Super PAC that I am chairman of) along with Democratic-aligned groups like Senate Majority PAC, Priorities USA, Majority Forward and others decided to step into the breach. American Bridge ran an ad we called "Failed to Act," which simply highlighted Trump’s own pronouncements.
We were accused, even by some Democrats, of playing politics with the crisis — but we couldn’t disagree more vehemently. The pandemic may not be political, but the president’s decision to downplay it and the dire consequences of those decisions certainly are.
Trump and his allies recognize that, too — and they are acting accordingly, with a concerted effort to bolster his standing and shore up his campaign. Liberals trying to elect Democrats this fall who fail to engage with the political issue of our time — or to hold Trump accountable for his egregious errors — are engaging in nothing short of malpractice.
Trump has proven to be an unfit president in so many ways over the last three years, but he has never shown more decisively how unfit he is for this role than while mishandling this crisis. Democratic groups like ours — dedicated to his defeat in November — aren't going to shut up while he pretends otherwise for a national audience. The stakes are too high for all of us.
- David Brock is the author of five political books, including "Killing the Messenger" (Hachette, 2015) and "Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative" (Crown, March 2002). He founded Media Matters for America in 2004 and then American Bridge 21st Century in 2011.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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