Heather Cox Richardson
People are asking how it is that Trump’s approval ratings are higher than ever: an average of all the polls has him at 47%, a three-point increase. Two things: it is completely normal for a president to get an approval bump during a national crisis, and Trump’s is actually smaller than the bumps other presidents have gotten in crises. Leaving aside the extraordinary 39-point bump President George W. Bush got from 9-11 because it skews everything, President George H. W. Bush’s approval rating jumped 16 points at the start of the Gulf War, and that range is pretty typical. Trump’s bump still leaves him within the realm of his usual support levels, and, in any case it is unlikely to last.
The second point is more interesting. Why are some ordinary people supporting Trump more and more fervently, when most observers think his presidency has been, at best, troubled?
Over the course of today, a story began to emerge that illustrates the answer to that question. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), who took Russian money from indicted political operative Lev Parnas,* began to argue that the reason the novel coronavirus is spreading rapidly in Florida is not because he refused to close the beaches, which are still crowded, (but not as crowded as they were during spring break, when masses of young revelers flocked to the state), or because he has refused to issue a statewide lockdown, as other governors have done. [ . . . ]
Instead, DeSantis is blaming Florida’s troubles on New Yorkers flying to Florida and “seeding” the virus there. “How is it fair to them to just be air dropping in people from the hot zones, bringing infections with them and seeding the communities with new infections that they’re trying to stamp out?” DeSantis said. DeSantis has deployed the National Guard to seven major Florida airports to identify New Yorkers who fly in, and has ordered travelers from New York City to “self-declare” and to agree to a 14-day quarantine when they arrive. Now he is apparently setting up a checkpoint on I-95 to screen for New Yorkers.
Later in the day, Trump also began to talk of a quarantine over the entire New York area, tweeting, “I am giving consideration to a QUARANTINE of developing ‘hot spots’, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. A decision will be made, one way or another, shortly.” He later said: “We might not have to do it, but there’s a possibility that sometime today we’ll do a quarantine, short-term, two weeks on New York. Probably New Jersey, certain parts of Connecticut. This would be an enforceable quarantine. I’d rather not do it, but maybe we need it.”
This was news to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who pointed out the move would paralyze the nation’s financial sector, was likely illegal, and that it “would be a federal declaration of war on states.” Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe tweeted that it is legal only to quarantine “any individual reasonably believed to be infected with a communicable disease,” not states, and that the president has no power to do so. Shortly afterward, Trump backed off and said that “a quarantine will not be necessary.”
This attempt to blame New Yorkers for the crisis when, in fact, it is unclear that there is any great exodus to Florida from New York as few people want to fly, contrasts strikingly with the approach of Maine’s Democratic Governor Janet Mills, whose state is indeed facing an influx of people. She has closed all nonessential businesses and restaurants, and simply asked all of the summer people jumping the gun on the season to self-quarantine.
The attempt to blame New Yorkers for the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Florida illustrates the political rhetoric that has kept Trump’s ordinary supporters so fiercely loyal to him.
Key to Trump’s popularity has been a rhetorical strategy identified in 1951 by political philosopher Eric Hoffer in a book called The True Believer. Hoffer noted that demagogues needed a disaffected population whose members felt they had lost the power they previously held, that they had been displaced either religiously, economically, culturally, or politically. Such people were willing to follow a leader who promised to return them to their former positions of prominence and thus to make the nation great again. But to cement their loyalty, the leader had to give them someone to hate. Who that was didn’t really matter: the group simply had to be blamed for all the troubles the leader’s supporters were suffering.
Trump has mastered this technique. He has kept his base firmly behind him by demonizing immigrants, the media, and, increasingly, Democrats, deflecting his own shortcomings in office by blaming these groups for undermining him. But the coronavirus crisis is making it hard to do. Immigration stories are running against Trump as his own acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has said that immigration authorities will stop most of their enforcement efforts during the crisis. The media is pushing back hard against his lies and Americans seem to be on the media’s side as the administration’s response to the coronavirus has been scattershot.
But New Yorkers represent Democrats and the urban life so many of Trump’s supporters distrust. Identifying them as the cause of Florida’s troubles both deflects attention from DeSantis and Trump’s missteps and reinforces loyalty to the president.
According to Hoffer, there’s a psychological trick to the way this rhetoric works that makes loyalty to such a leader get stronger as that leader’s behavior deteriorates. People who sign on to the idea that they are standing with their leader against an enemy begin to attack their opponents, and to justify their attacks, they have to convince themselves that that enemy is not good-intentioned like they are, but evil. And the worse they behave, the more they have to believe their enemies deserve to be treated badly.
According to Hoffer, so long as they are unified against an enemy, true believers will support their leader no matter how outrageous his behavior gets. Indeed, their loyalty will only get stronger as his behavior gets more and more extreme. Turning against him would force them to own their own part in his attacks on those former enemies they would now have to recognize as ordinary human beings like themselves.
It was learning about Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower that introduced me to Hoffer. Eisenhower, who had battled both fascism and communism, passed out copies of The True Believer to friends, including to a former veteran, Robert J. Biggs, who begged Eisenhower to stop “hedging” and tell people firmly what to think. Eisenhower warned Biggs that while such authoritarian leadership was important for the military, it was fatal to a democracy in which “debate is the breath of life. This,” Eisenhower wrote, “is to me what Lincoln meant by government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’”
Lincoln also made an appearance in Hoffer’s book. Not all who rose to lead a mass movement were dangerous, Hoffer said. “[R]are leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, even FDR, Churchill, and Nehru… do not hesitate to harness man’s hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in service of a holy cause; but unlike a Hitler [or] a Stalin…” they did not demonize their opponents. “They know,” Hoffer said, “that no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind.”