There is a certain irony in seeing Trump – who personalizes everything, whether concerns or problems, while looking for scapegoats – bump against an enemy that has no face, a virus that, though called “Chinese”, still remains inevitably anonymous. In the 2019-2020 winter, pre-COVID-19, the odds for Trump’s reelection were good. Not only is it rare for a candidate seeking a second term to be defeated, but the upbeat to the American economy (job growth and stock market’s performances), was playing in his favor. The failure of the impeachment procedure started by Democrats in December 2019 had mobilized his electoral base and showed the unity of the Republican camp. Finally, the rise of Bernie Sanders among Democrats was a boon: the Democratic party leaning more to the left gave Trump the opportunity to organize a campaign of “capitalism” versus “socialism”, which would have given him an open electoral field.
Unfortunately for him, the Covid health crisis reshuffled the deck. And so Democrats have accomplished a major feat in unifying and rallying around a consensual and moderate figure like Joe Biden, whose running mate, Kamala Harris, a California Senator of mixed background, has the potential to mobilize women and minority voters. The economy’s collapse and the rapid move toward a sort of “emergency social democracy” with a colossal stimulus plan (2.2 trillion dollars) adopted early in March have deprived the outgoing administration from its choice campaign topics. Especially since COVID-19 is exposing all of the American healthcare system limits, its racial, social and geographic inequalities, thus post factum validating the projects carried by the Democrats since the beginning of Obama’s presidency.
The murder by a white police officer of an unarmed African-American man, George Floyd, powerless, pinned to the ground and choked while being arrested, triggered a wave of discontent throughout the country. It also illustrated a presidential leadership in disarray that purportedly used the deep-seated divisions existing within American society.
In this new context, Trump is spinning despite his continued search for scapegoats, from China to the World Health Organization, not to forget Democrats and the media. Trump’s approval ratings are low, unlike many other foreign leaders confronted with the sanitary crisis. His highly personalized and controversial communication is in line with the media personality he has always been and has systematically undermined the occasions offered him by daily press conferences. Public omnipresence has thus backfired and public opinion seems weary of a president that probably imagines himself as Captain America, but whose reckless statements show his ignorance, his hesitations and the limits of his vision.
Trump’s press conference suggestion to Americans that they should inject with disinfectant to beat the virus is likely to remain the most regrettably revealing symbol. This stands as a stark and troublesome contrast with efforts made by Democratic governors such as Andrew Cuomo (New York), Gavin Newsom (California), and Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan), who made transparency their motto when dealing with the epidemic, and who did not hesitate to impose strict confinement measures.
About the author
François Vergniolle de Chantal is Professor of American Politics and Government at Université de Paris. He is the author and editor of several books on the US presidency in both French and English. He is the author of L’impossible présidence impériale: Le contrôle législatif aux États-Unis (CNRS Éditions Paris, 2016). His research focuses on US political institutions, American Congress, and ideologies and political thought. You can find out more about his new book Obama’s Fractured Legacy on our website.