We may well be on the verge of a tipping point in the public perception of the Donald Trump presidency. History tells us once a tipping point happens, you can have all the 24/7 news cycle battles that can and will happen, but the die is ultimately cast.
The final years of George W. Bush’s presidency present the most recent cautionary tale.
Although the Iraq War was a disaster in its destabilizing consequences of endless war and regional instability that continues today, the tipping point — when many Americans stopped listening to Bush — wasn’t Iraq. It happened in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Bush’s Gallup Poll approval percentage was in the low 50’s on Election Day in November 2004, and even as late as summer the next year, as Iraq revealed itself to be a war without clear victory, his approval remained in the upper 40’s. That changed with Hurricane Katrina.
A month after it made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, the administration’s inability and incompetence to deal with the crisis led to Bush’s numbers sinking into the low 40’s and 30’s. It never recovered. Nothing he did after that seemed to matter as many Americans, including many who had voted for him, tuned him out.
It led to the Democratic comeback, recapturing the House of Representatives, in the 2006 midterms. With the financial crisis in 2008, Bush’s numbers fell further, often into the 20’s. John McCain battled Barack Obama into that fall’s election, but in truth, no Republican could have won the presidential election that year.
How does that relate to the seeming chaos of our tribal politics 12 years later? The partisan divide has hardened, and nothing Trump does or says has seemed to impact his solid 40% base. As opposed to most American presidents, who at least made the motions to appeal to a wider public, Trump has presided as the divider in chief, using the Twitter bully pulpit and raucous rallies to serve up some of the reddest meat ever heard from someone in the White House.
The problem is what happens when rhetoric, no matter how strong, comes face to face with a reality that no spin can change. With Katrina, the American public, night after night, saw horrific images of a major American city under water, refugees on roof tops and overpasses and in the Superdome, and Bush’s public response was telling FEMA chief Michael Brown, who resigned days later, “you’re doing a heck of a job.”
Has Trump’s public approach to the mounting health crisis crossed that kind of a line?
As the virus spreads, as it inevitably will do in some fashion, with schools shutting down, sports being played in empty arenas, large events canceled, the stock market falling, and more infection cases and deaths, it’s hard to ignore stories about the Trump administration’s problems in recognizing or preparing for what we face now.
A panicky country is not good for a president. Is saying test kits are ready or a vaccine is on its way soon, when neither is true, a problem? Even his usual unusual behavior — like bragging about his natural ability to understand epidemics, or calling the governor of Washington, whose state is an epicenter of the virus, a snake just after he had a press conference with Vice President Mike Pence, or playing golf for a weekend in the middle of the crisis — may not be what people are expecting as the world begins to feel out of control.
No one can really predict where things are going, though one can suspect that it will get worse before it gets better. And if Trump’s words and behavior cement the feelings of the 50% plus of those polled who disapprove of his presidency, then the seeds of a defeat in November are being planted right now.
Paul Stekler is a documentary filmmaker and the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News.