With COVID-19 spiking in the Sun Belt, Trump leads Republican governors off the cliff

Cases are exploding in Arizona, Texas and Florida — and that's driving Trump and the GOP toward electoral disaster

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 26, 2020 10:02AM (EDT)

Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump and Greg Abbott (Getty Images/Salon)
Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump and Greg Abbott (Getty Images/Salon)

President Trump traveled to Wisconsin on Thursday to tour a naval shipyard, where he bragged that he had the Navy steer a big contract Wisconsin's way, which can only be construed as an order to boost his electoral chances in the swing state. I suppose it's not surprising that he is so open about such things. After all, he was impeached for trying to extort a foreign ally into produce damaging information on his presumptive opponent, and every Republican senator except Mitt Romney backed him to the hilt. Why would he think interfering in a domestic military contract for his own benefit would be a problem?

Frankly, it probably isn't. Trump's corruption is now the norm and most people just shrug when he openly brags about it. Apparently, they believe everyone does it and it's just the usual partisan fighting. But the way he's dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic is something else again. The latest polling is devastating for his re-election prospects and it's very much tied to the fact that he has so thoroughly mishandled the government response and refuses to change course.

The New York Times/Siena College poll released this week had plenty of bad news for the president:

Nearly three-fifths of voters disapprove of Mr. Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including majorities of white voters and men. Self-described moderate voters disapproved of Mr. Trump on the coronavirus by a margin of more than two to one.

Only the true believers think he's done a good job on the worst crisis of his presidency, and that's largely because they get all their news from suspect sources. The Washington Post published an article about several studies showing that right-wing media has played a major role in misinforming its audience about the virus:

The end result, according to one of the studies, is that infection and mortality rates are higher in places where one pundit who initially downplayed the severity of the pandemic — Fox News's Sean Hannity — reaches the largest audiences.

On Thursday night, Trump appeared with Hannity for a "town hall" and repeated his daft line that if we didn't do so much testing we wouldn't have so many cases. He's said that so often I think we can assume that his followers have been thoroughly indoctrinated in this nonsensical concept.

Joe Biden described the problem perfectly in the speech he gave on Thursday:

He's like a child who can't believe this has happened to him, with all his whining and self-pity. This pandemic didn't happen to him. It happened to all of us. His job isn't to whine about it. His job is to do something about it.

The president wants us to believe there's a choice between the economy and public health. Amazingly, he still hasn't grasped the most basic fact of this crisis: to fix the economy, we have to get control over the virus.

No, he can't grasp this simple fact and I suspect that even if he could, he would be incapable of making the kinds of decisions necessary to make that happen. He trusts no one but his gut, and his gut keeps on telling him that this will all just "go away" and everything will be fine.

He's now taken to bragging that the "mortality rate" in the U.S. is something to be proud of, which is just bizarre. The 126,000-plus dead human beings and their families don't see it as such a great accomplishment, and Trump is signaling clearly that he has no intention of changing course in any way.

Pew Research reported this week that a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (61%) agree that when it comes to coronavirus, 'the worst is behind us.'" I'm afraid they are in for a rude awakening. Those "embers or flare-ups," as Trump calls them have turned into a wildfire that's now out of control.

Twenty-nine states are currently aflame, with rising caseloads and hospitalizations, as we see the largest national numbers of the pandemic, surpassing the worst weeks of April when cases were concentrated in New York and a few other large cities. His favorite Republican governors — Greg Abbott of Texas, Ron DeSantis of Florida and Doug Ducey of Arizona — are in a particular bind, having followed Trump's lead and opened up their states early, even seizing authority from local officials while arrogantly proclaiming their superior handling of the crisis.

DeSantis was particularly insolent and overbearing. Recall that on May 20, Vice President Mike Pence paid DeSantis a visit and they conspicuously dined in a burger joint without masks or social distancing, after which DeSantis delivered a Trumpian rant to the assembled media.

He spoke much too soon. On Wednesday the state set a new single-day record, with 5,508 new cases of COVID-19. There were another 5,004 on Thursday. In fact, Florida has had more cases in June than in the previous three months combined.

When asked about the surge this week DeSantis said, "We are where we are," and tried to act as though everything was going fine and it's all just as expected. He's now punted all the tough decisions to individual businesses and local officials, so it looks as though he plans to ride the wave wherever it takes him, all while pretending that was the plan the whole time. 

In Arizona, Ducey has also loosened his grip and allowed mayors to require masks in public, while in Texas, Abbott has actually begun to slow down the state's reopening and may even roll back toward a partial lockdown. But all these Republican state executives are stuck in the Trump maelstrom in which he continues to insist that the pandemic is "fading away" while they have to face the sickness and death that's crashing all around them. He is an albatross around their necks.

Aside from the massive human carnage, the political ramifications are profound. The Atlantic's Ron Brownstein has been tracking the slow transformation of the Sun Belt from solid GOP to purple to potentially Democratic for a while. He believes the pandemic may be hastening the process and putting Republicans in a bind of their own making:

Until the 2016 election, Republicans had maintained a consistent advantage in the region's big metros — including Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix — even as Democrats took hold of comparable urban centers in other parts of the country. But under Trump, the GOP has lost ground in these diverse and economically thriving communities. And now, a ferocious upsurge of COVID-19 across the Sun Belt's population hubs — including major cities in Florida and North Carolina where Democrats are already more competitive — is adding a new threat to the traditional Republican hold on these places.

Polling shows that Biden is competitive in all those states at the moment ,and the question is whether that will hold up until November. According to the New York Times poll, a majority of voters strongly favor the government prioritizing the pandemic over a hasty reopening of the economy. Unfortunately, Republican voters, no doubt listening to Trump and Hannity, say they believe the opposite. Or at least they did. One has to wonder if those attitudes will hold now that the virus is no longer something that happens to other people far away.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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