‘The Trump presidency is over’, said Peter Wehner, in the Atlantic. The great wizards of liberal punditry stroked their beards and agreed. These are suddenly serious times and the president is a joke. He cannot survive, surely.
‘The coronavirus is quite likely to be the Trump presidency’s inflection point,’ wrote Wehner, ‘when everything changed, when the bluster and ignorance and shallowness of America’s 45th president became undeniable, an empirical reality, as indisputable as the laws of science or a mathematical equation.’
Run that paragraph back through the journalistic ego-filter and it translates as: ‘I told you so! Why didn’t everyone listen to me?’
The trouble is, Peter, the public still won’t listen. Since Wehner’s piece came out, Trump’s popularity has surged — his job approval rating has jumped from 44 percent on March 13 to 47.3 on March 30 — hitting its highest point so far. Trump’s disapproval score, meanwhile, has dropped from 52 percent to 49.7.
Remember when Trump said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody and not lose any voters? He was right. He can mishandle an incoming pandemic, perhaps causing many deaths, and people only seem to like him more. He can say all sorts of stupid things about the disease, and double-down by bragging about his ratings on Twitter as old people splutter out their lungs in hospitals across the country, and the public don’t seem to like him any less.
Wrong-footed, the pundit wizards now speculate that populists — Trump is a populist, remember — are exploiting the crisis for their own ends. These vulgar demagogues specialize in playing on people’s fears. But it can’t last! Wait for the bodies to start stacking up and see how you like your authoritarians then! Don’t forget, we told you so!
But this crisis is so sharp that it has made whole populism debate redundant. It is now liberal pundits who are begging for a lockdown police state, and the public isn’t as interested in whether the elites are shafting them again. In fact, the real lesson of the pandemic is one we should all know by now: frightened people like their leaders.
It doesn’t matter if those leaders are centrists or radicals, populists or technocrats. It doesn’t even matter if they made good decisions or terrible ones. What matters is that they project strength: that is all people care about in a looming catastrophe: the worse the crisis becomes, the more people will worship the empowered, or those who project authority. That’s why Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, is enjoying such popularity — and being touted as a possible replacement Democratic nominee as the party gives up on the feeble-looking Joe Biden. He’s doing press conferences in which he projects himself as decisive and firm — the fact that New York is failing to contain the pandemic only bolsters the sense of drama and occasion around him.
Look at other leaders across the world, you can see their approval ratings ticking up — similar to those terrifying global COVID infection charts. Emmanuel Macron, the French president and darling of centrist Europhiles, has enjoyed an 11 percent bump in his approval ratings, even as his government faced massive criticism for its handling of the pandemic. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, has outdone himself by delivering robust video messages to the nation despite himself having COVID-19: his popularity just hit 52 percent. Angela Merkel’s approval rating has soared to 79 percent — 11 points up from February. Most striking of all is Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, whose popularity has reached hit 71 percent — 27 points above his score in February. That is despite (or perhaps because of) the appalling Italian death toll.
These patriotic, ‘rally-round-the-flag’ booms could easily go bust, especially if the pandemic death toll remains relatively low. If leaders are later seen to have destroyed their economies for years on the advice of a handful of scientists, we can expect the public’s relief to turn to anger. For now, however, the frightened sheep still look longingly towards their shepherds. Machiavelli said that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved. For the leaders in the corona-panic, perhaps, it is better to keep people afraid in order to be loved.