Terry H. Schwadron
March 19, 2020
If fear is the biggest byproduct of the coronavirus, the runner-up seems to be trust.
As the numbers of identified coronavirus cases now are just beginning their logarithmic rise and lockdown routines are becoming ubiquitous, public fear are increasing along with the uncertainty.
In response, we expect that various public figures, starting with Donald Trump and his White House emergency team, but including governors, mayors and public health figures would work to tamp down the fear. The doctors and public health officials are using scientific fact; until the last day or two, Trump has used a general “there, there, just relax:” approach that has reflected actual contradiction and error as well as significant delays in government response outside of border shutdowns.
Of course, there is not a lot of trust that we are all in the soup when we see young Spring breakers at the beach while the rest of us are locked down.
Now polls are starting to show that Americans are not swallowing what Trump has been serving. A new poll from NPR, PBS News Hour and Marist finds that only 37 percent of Americans have a good deal of trust in the information Trump tells them about coronavirus. By contrast, 60 percent have little to no trust.
The financial markets have continued to tank even as Trump is speaking, most usually repeating what a great job his administration has been doing about the disease, even in the face of extraordinary monetary rate cuts by the Federal Reserve and announced infusions of more than a trillion dollar into the economy.
And Team Trump, along with conservative commentators on Fox News, have switched their main messaging about the virus as a “foreign hoax” to a new drumbeat about the heroic efforts of the president to protect us all. TrumpWorld is rewriting the last month’s history to keep Trump in a shining light.
As Greg Sargent of The Washington Post notes, “All this means that in addition to the threat it poses to the country, coronavirus also poses an existential threat to Trump’s presidency. This Trump-protection project will only grow more urgent — which will require more efforts to discredit aggressive media reporting on his handling of the crisis, and on his inevitable hailing of the success of his mitigation efforts.”
Sargent reviews the new poll results showing a partisan split in the president’s handling of the virus issues, with Republicans, as expected, much more likely to support Trump in this crisis. But overall, the poll results suggest a big leak in the trust bucket for Team Trump, which has political, economic, and social consequences beyond the virus itself.
He notes that the same poll shows more trust for the news media about virus information, still at about 50 percent, than for Trump. Sargent said, “Trump and his propagandists have absolute faith in the power of their magical lies to discredit the news media and to substitute their own version of reality for the one the media is reporting.”
This is a mostly circular argument, because the news media is busily chasing after the medical experts who either now are coordinating with Team Trump’s “whole of government” approach, or are trying to make the system work despite the checkered coordination efforts and misleading statements of the administration.
As he often does when he has made a mistake or revealed his ignorance, Trump changed course to claim that he knew all along that we were facing a pandemic. As columnist Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post noted, “The president has consistently downplayed, denied and misled the public about the seriousness of the threat. Moreover, since the first cases appeared in China in late December, he took few steps to prepare the country for the pandemic before it inevitably reached our shores. We are to believe that he knew there was a pandemic but willfully allowed the crisis to get worse. There are two possibilities here. The first is that he was ignorant, buying into the Fox News disinformation loop. The second is that he was thinking of his election — which he thinks is tied to the economy — so he refused to take action that would have spooked stock markets.”
For widespread lockdowns and preventive efforts to work, of course, requires bigtime trust. So far, America is acting — albeit out of self concern — to help the containment efforts without a lot of objection. That is a tribute to Americans and others around the world who see the value of working for a society goal.
Republicans in the Senate were putting sick leave provisions in the newly passed House bill at risk. Now Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is talking about embracing what essentially has been a Democrat-supported effort to send cash payments to those losing their jobs. In this context, that kind of program is an open attempt to win back lost trust.
So too has been public mention by Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House virus response team, of the influence of a single, comprehensive Imperial College study that is now guiding administration thinking. The study warns that 2.2 million Americans and 510,000 Britons could die from coronavirus if extreme action isn’t taken to change the course of the outbreak, and its publication has been part of the administration’s more serious attitude about the illness spread. Reports in Axios and The New York Times detailed the influence that this report has had in boosting restrictive policy, but in shoring up trust since more statements are being based on scientific research.
It will be increasingly important for the president and White House to cultivate Trust as we move ahead into much larger disease numbers. Trump must stop belittling a serious health problem, and it would be helpful to own up to delays and shortcomings.
As The New York Times editorialized, “It is remarkable what the country can do when the lives of its citizens are in peril, and the final outcome is uncertain. What it takes is leadership to summon that spirit to act in the national interest.”
Unfortunately it seems to be difficult for Trump to keep his attention on the problems at hand rather than the politics of the situation. In that regard, Trump should take note of the fact that there has been and is a serious leak in the Trust bucket.