As an immense new surge in coronavirus cases sweeps the country, President Donald Trump is closing his reelection campaign by pleading with voters to ignore the evidence of a calamity unfolding before their eyes and trust his word that the disease is already disappearing as a threat to their personal health and economic well-being.
The president has continued to declare before large and largely maskless crowds that the virus is vanishing, even as case counts soar, fatalities climb, the stock market dips, and a fresh outbreak grips the staff of Vice President Mike Pence. Hopping from one state to the next, he has made a personal mantra out of declaring that the country is “rounding the corner.”
Trump has attacked Democratic governors and other local officials for keeping public health restrictions in place, denouncing them as needless restraints on the economy. And venting self-pity, the president has been describing the pandemic as a political hindrance inflicted on him by a familiar adversary.
“With the fake news, everything is COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID,” Trump complained at a rally in Omaha, Neb., on Tuesday, chiding the news media and pointing to his own recovery from the illness to downplay its gravity: “I had it. Here I am, right?”
Earlier the same day, Trump ridiculed the notion that the virus was spreading rapidly again, falsely telling a crowd in Lansing, Michigan, that the reported “spike in cases” was merely a reflection of increased testing. The 74-year-old president pointed to his teenage son, who was diagnosed with the virus earlier this month, to suggest that many of those cases were of only trivial concern.
“Do you ever notice, they don’t use the word ‘death,’ they use the word ‘cases’?” Trump said. “Like, Barron Trump is a case. He has sniffles. He was sniffling. One Kleenex, that’s all he needed, and he was better. But he’s a case.”
As a political matter, the president’s approach amounts to an Obi-Wan-like attempt to wave his hand before the electorate and convince voters that they are not experiencing a pandemic that is tearing through their neighborhoods and filling hospitals. His determination to brush aside the ongoing crisis as a campaign issue has become the defining choice of his bid for a second term and the core of his message throughout the campaign’s endgame.
There is considerable evidence it is not working. The stock market, long the focal point of Trump’s cheerleading efforts, plunged by more than 900 points Wednesday, suffering its worst drop in months as investors grappled with the mounting disruptions wrought by the pandemic. Polling and interviews with voters show that most are not inclined to trust Trump’s sunny forecast.
Trump’s description of the disease is ungrounded in fact, and his theory of countering it has clashed with the preferences of medical officials at every level of government. The country has reported more than 8.8 million cases of the coronavirus, including a 39% increase in new cases over the last 14 days. More than 227,000 Americans have perished from the disease.
In Bullhead City, Arizona, on Wednesday, Trump promised voters that a vaccine would be available “momentarily,” though scientists and pharmaceutical companies say no such breakthrough is assured. Using a phrase that has become a refrain for him at rallies, he insisted the country was “rounding the turn” on the virus.
In the states Trump is visiting, his presence can stir as much anxiety as excitement, as voters fear the impact of large public gatherings.
Allison Drennan, an independent voter from Gastonia, North Carolina, said she was voting for Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, in part because of Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus. Last week, she was dismayed to see that Trump was holding a rally in her area, because it had the potential to help spread the disease.
“I think it’s a huge mistake,” Drennan, 29, said of the rally, citing specific details about the local impact of the pandemic. “We have 77 people in our hospitals in Gastonia with COVID already. I’ve decided I’m going to self-isolate to the extent that I can for the next two weeks.”
The numbers in North Carolina support her inclination toward caution. While the state has managed to keep the disease more contained than some other large states, its average daily case count has risen by 13% over the last two weeks. There have been more than 266,000 cases in the state, with a death toll of 4,269 as of Wednesday afternoon.
Like much else about Trump’s mode of leadership, his view of the pandemic has found an enthusiastic audience from a minority of the country. A national poll published recently by The New York Times found that nearly 2 in 5 voters agreed with Trump that the worst of the crisis was over. The president’s push to fully reopen the economy is not without appeal, at least to the voters who already support him, and they have remained loyal through various personal and political scandals, policy breakdowns and an impeachment trial.
But polls show that far more Americans are rejecting the Trump approach. In the same Times survey, most voters said that the worst of the pandemic was still ahead, including half of independent voters and one-fifth of Republicans. By a 12-point margin, voters said they preferred Biden to lead the response to the pandemic rather than Trump. And 59% of voters said they favored a national mask mandate, including majorities of Democratic and independent voters, and 3 in 10 Republicans.
Felix Vristow, 40, of Philadelphia, said he believed Trump had been dishonest about the disease.
“Our leader lied to us, in my eyes,” Vristow said, adding, “We experienced way too many deaths, and it could have been prevented if the situation was addressed earlier or more honestly.”
Biden has spent the general election campaign offering himself to those voters as a responsible alternative. Seeking both to model good behavior and to protect his own health, Biden, 77, has kept a strictly limited campaign schedule, holding no large rallies and traveling far less frequently than a typical presidential nominee. On Wednesday, rather than appearing in a swing state, he made remarks from his home state, Delaware, rebuking what he called Trump’s “declaration of surrender to the virus.”
Just as notably, some senior federal officials have also pushed back in recent days against the president’s rhetoric about the coronavirus and his false claims that case counts are going up only because testing has increased. Trump has often spoken about testing as a kind of public relations problem, shifting line graphs that track the virus in an unhelpful direction for him.
In a television interview Wednesday, Adm. Brett Giroir, the administration’s testing czar, rebutted Trump’s characterization of the pandemic without chiding the president by name. The rising case count, he said, was “not just a function of testing.”
“Yes, we’re getting more cases identified, but the cases are actually going up,” Giroir said, urging Americans to wear masks and avoid clustering indoors.
In a different kind of departure from Trump’s upbeat line, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, acknowledged last weekend on television that the administration was “not going to control the pandemic” — a remark Biden brandished as confirmation that Trump was capitulating.
Still, Trump has continued to pack airplane hangars and outdoor spaces with sympathetic fans who have embraced his account of a country quickly returning to normalcy. In Wisconsin, where new cases have skyrocketed by 46% in the last two weeks, Mike Mitchell, a retail manager who backs Trump, blamed out-of-town visitors for the uptick in his area.
“We saw personally what happened here when things reopened for tourism; the cases skyrocketed,” said Mitchell, faulting interlopers from Milwaukee and Chicago rather than Trump.
In Florida, where residents spent the summer battling a wave of infections, at least some Trump admirers were still willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt on the virus. One of them is John D’Amato, a Republican retiree who moved to southwest Florida from Minnesota.
“I may not agree with the way he tweets and everything else, but he’s turned this country around, and he’ll do it again,” said D’Amato, 71, who wore a mask to vote near downtown Fort Myers last week.
For most voters, however, Trump’s insistence that happy days are almost here again has fallen flat.
As Ken Hueftle waited in line to vote outside Philadelphia’s City Hall, he described an up-close experience of the pandemic that could not have diverged more starkly from Trump’s prognosis. Hueftle, a 30-year-old physician assistant, said he had seen from his work at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital that the government’s response to the virus had been “awful.”
Hueftle said he was voting accordingly.
“At this point, there’s no choice,” he said. “You have to vote. It’s life or death.”