Election 2020

Why the Pandemic Didn’t Hurt Trump

Americans have no point of comparison for the coronavirus.

By James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

A woman wears a “Trump 2020” face mask at a rally for incumbent Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst in Davenport, Iowa, on Oct. 31.
A woman wears a “Trump 2020” face mask at a rally for incumbent Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst in Davenport, Iowa, on Oct. 31. Mario Tama/Getty Images

After what looks to be a narrow reelection loss for U.S. President Donald Trump and a worse than expected showing for Democrats in the House and Senate, several critics have bemoaned the fact that Democrats didn’t do better given the circumstances. At least 233,000 Americans are dead in a pandemic seriously worsened by Trump’s denialism and failed policies.

But this line of criticism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Populist leaders in other countries that mishandled the coronavirus, such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, have seen sharp polling boosts despite the calamity. Trump’s callousness may have cost him that polling boost—but Western voters aren’t judging ineptness around the coronavirus harshly.

There are several reasons for that. People still seem to see the pandemic purely as a natural disaster, not as one worsened by policy failures. And natural disasters—like wars—tend to boost incumbent support. Many Americans have no point of comparison for such a global crisis, and even those who do are largely looking to European countries that, as their second wave hits, have failed nearly as much as the United States. The numerous examples of successful control of the virus, from Australia to China to Nigeria, are almost all in the Asia-Pacific region and Africa, and simply aren’t on the radar of Western voters.

On top of that, for many people, the impact of lockdown is being felt far more harshly than the virus itself. Only a minority of people have close friends or family who have died, but everyone has been economically and psychologically affected by coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns. Trump’s anti-lockdown messaging catered to Americans’ understandable desire that the pandemic’s impacts simply go away. Republicans also frequently pushed the idea that those who had died were weak, unhealthy, or unworthy, tapping into the ableism that remains one of America’s most potent—but least commented on—bigotries. It didn’t help that Black and Latino communities were disproportionately hit.

And finally, never underestimate the power of good old-fashioned lying—especially when backed up with the weight of the presidency. Trump has lied continually about the coronavirus. Perhaps as a result, roughly half of Americans believe—falsely—that the pandemic is under control. That delusion may end as the virus roars into brutal new life in the winter—but probably not.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer