Donald Trump was handed a golden ticket to re-election with the COVID-19 crisis, yet he failed to retain his power. Why?
Introduction In December of 2019, COVID-19 presented the world with a new and terrifying crisis. Internationally, leaders raced to cope with growing panic and anxiety as the deadly virus began to ravage the world. The rapid spread of COVID caused a multitude of reactions, both domestically and internationally. Over the past two years, enthusiastic support has skyrocketed as leaders have adapted to the post-pandemic world (Yam, Jackson, Barnes, Lau, Qin, & Lee, 2021). Both domestic and international leaders have seen a drastic improvement in approval ratings, with U.S. governors experiencing an average 15% increase and international leaders experiencing an average 34% increase and incumbent re-elections almost ensured. However, Donald Trump serves as a notable example to the contrary. Despite the success of his compatriots, Donald Trump’s approval increase peaked at just 4% during the pandemic. He would then go on to be one of the only incumbent leaders to leave office post-pandemic, and his failures can be compared to the successes of Prime Minister Mark Rutte of Denmark and Justin Trudeau of Canada. Even Donald Trump’s more authoritarian attempts at holding office failed, and he left office on January 21, 2021. So, why? Historical Crises As reinforced by election results post-COVID 19, democratic leaders who utilized moments of political and social unrest to regain the confidence of the populous more than tripled their chances of reelection (Schamis, 2002). More often than not, leaders have used the ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect to unite the populous and erase party and ideological lines (Mueller, 1970). The impact of these two actions has led to extraordinarily high rates of incumbent reelection during times of crisis. Similarly, many authoritarian leaders have been able to utilize moments of crisis to consolidate and retain power. As seen in Argentina, almost every type of authoritarian regime can use catastrophes to preserve its political power (Smith, 1991). These themes are demonstrable internationally, as a multitude of regime types including personalist dictatorships, military juntas, and authoritarian hybrids have taken moments of political and economic crisis to pull rights away from citizens and democratic legislators. Often, authoritarians will justify mandating curfews, disposing of opponents, and repressing the rights of citizens as necessary actions to ensure a solution to their present calamity. For both democrats and authoritarians, catastrophes like COVID are extraordinarily useful. So Where Did Trump Make a Mistake? Should Trump have wanted to keep his power democratically, he mismanaged COVID-19 in an extraordinary way. At the beginning of the crisis, successful international and domestic leaders took immediate action to ensure the confidence of the populous (Watkins, 2020). These actions can be exemplified in Governor Whitmer of Michigan, who, when faced with the first case of COVID-19 in the US, took rapid action and declared a state of emergency. Similarly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remained in constant contact with the people of Canada during the initial phase of the crisis (Lawless, 2021). Both of the leaders used effective communication and public image to instill trust and confidence within their voting block. In contrast, Donald Trump attempted to downplay the pandemic. Instead of attempting to gain the confidence of the populous, the former president minimized the pandemic until May 2020, over 4 months after a state-of-emergency had been declared (Bump, 2020). And in a highly publicized and controversial move, he left the White House to go golfing at his private club less than 24 hours after the first case of Coronavirus was discovered on U.S. soils (Bump, 2020). Similarly, he failed to use the ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect. Rather than encouraging American unity, he emphasized the divisions between his citizens. Throughout the pandemic, Donald Trump consistently criticized the entirety of the democratic party and its supporters, alienating over 50% of his potential voter base (Morris, 2021). His condemnation of more active domestic leaders (such as Republican Governor Larry Hogan) was given regardless of political affiliation, leading to even less unity within his own party. However, one of his most profound failings was the lack of emphasis he gave to his own success in developing the COVID-19 vaccine. Where other international leaders highlighted their involvement in ending the pandemic, Donald Trump repeatedly downplayed his own successes, instead choosing to emphasize the role that “fake news” played in the pandemic (Jurkowitz & Mitchell, 2021). But what if Donald Trump didn’t care about winning the election democratically? As evidenced by his criticism of the 2020 election results and his support of the January 6th riots, Trump may not have truly cared about winning the election democratically, in which case the prior actions would not have been necessary. But even if he truly disregarded democratic institutions, his failings are still remarkable. Internationally, the coronavirus pandemic saw a major increase in authoritarian activity (Lawless, 2021). In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban used the pandemic as an opportunity to curtail the rights of the media and replace judicial opponents. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte granted himself enumerated powers that effectively cemented his position as the country’s indefinite president (Harding, 2020). In a particularly extreme example, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed that election results that removed him from office had been rigged and tear-gassed all those who disagreed. But Donald Trump failed to take any of these actions. Despite claims that he attempted to work with the Pentagon to gain enumerated powers, little substantive evidence has indicated this statement’s validity (Bump, 2020). Although he called multiple media outlets “fake news” for reporting on the COVID-19 crisis, no real action was taken against them. The most anti-democratic actions he took occurred during the 2020 election, and those he rescinded within 2 months. Despite having political allegiance of the Supreme Court, Senate, and White House, Donald Trump failed to use COVID-19 as an authoritarian power grab. Conclusion Donald Trump’s lack of action during the COVID-19 crisis may remain a mystery forever. Despite ample opportunity, he steadfastly ignored opportunities to gain reelection democratically or make an authoritarian move. Although the reasoning behind his actions may be unknown, the results are actively playing out. Joe Biden may be the current American president, but anti-democratic sentiment is growing across the globe and the COVID-19 pandemic may be one of the largest causes for democratic concern in the modern world. References: A., Daryl, V. Watkins, & D. Clevenger. US political leadership and crisis communication during COVID-19. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23311886.2021.1901365. Bump, P. (2020, April 20). Analysis | What Trump did about coronavirus in February. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/04/20/what-trump-did-about-corona virus-february/. Harding, A. (2020, June 18). Is coronavirus making Southeast Asia more authoritarian? United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/06/coronavirus-making-southeast-asia-mo re-authoritarian. Jurkowitz, M., & Mitchell, A. (2021, September 23). Americans who relied most on Trump for COVID-19 news among least likely to be vaccinated. Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/09/23/americans-who-relied-most-on- trump-for-covid-19-news-among-least-likely-to-be-vaccinated/. Lawless, J. (2021, July 15). Authoritarianism advances as world battles the pandemic. AP NEWS. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-business-health-religion-government-and- politics-a127151d7208b79c02767b435355511d. Morris, D. S. (2021, August 30). Polarization, partisanship, and pandemic: The relationship between county‐level support for Donald Trump and the spread of Covid‐19 during the spring and summer of 2020. Wiley Online Library. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ssqu.13053. Schamis, H. (1970, January 1). [PDF] argentina: Crisis and democratic consolidation: Semantic scholar. Semantic Scholar. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Argentina%3A-Crisis-and-Democratic- Consolidation-Schamis/110793a3da9aec97157edf6cc60b51a7bca835fc. Smith, W. (1989). Chapter 1. In Authoritarianism and the Crisis of the Argentine Political Economy (pp. 1–16). essay, Stanford University Press. Yam, K. C., Jackson, J. C., Barnes, C. M., Lau, J., Qin, X., & Lee, H. Y. (2020, October 13). The rise of covid-19 cases is associated with support for world leaders. PNAS. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.pnas.org/content/117/41/25429.
Ali, your evaluation of how Donald Trump failed to grab more power for himself during the pandemic is incredible. I also do not understand how he failed to do the very same thing as other leaders in the exact same position did. The mistakes that he made, and the repeated number of them, had to play a major part in this failure as he not only allowed for Covid to kill a large part of his voting base, but he also alienated people within his party. I think that this was the start of his inability to fully grab power because he could not even get his own party to fully agree on anything. And even days before the election, he put a justice on the Supreme Court after millions of people had already voted in said election and against the express dying wish of the previous Justice. This, and the continued alienation of many of his former supporters and party members, helped to fan the fire that culminated in the January 6th insurrection; and even then, when his supporters had taken and occupied the Capital building and forced every single member of Congress and his own Vice-president into hiding, he still could not stay in power. Like you said, he had one of the best opportunities to fully grab power like Lukashenko or Orban did, yet failed to keep his power and was eventually forced to leave office. I too do not know how he managed to fail so miserably at something that would have been very easy for a person in his situation.