Spoilers: Trump now has an excuse for all the messes he’s made, and having death in the back of the mind makes people politically conservative. You already knew the third reason.
In case you just awakened from a lengthy coma, the American COVD-19 pandemic is growing exponentially worse. That’s right. This microscopic virus — about 1/8 the width of a typical bacteria — has defied Donald Trump’s rosy predictions and killed thousands of Americans. In fact, epidemiological science tells us that the number of Americans dying of this disease is far greater than the official COVID-19 death tolls. See Rhea Moutafis’s story for the details. It’s only going to get worse.
If you are politically progressive, you might think that one bit of good news in the coronavirus disaster might be Trump’s political undoing in November. This virus has put Trump’s perfect storm of arrogance, ignorance, and indifference on full display for weeks. As Lee Fang reports, most world leaders responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by doing everything in their power to stop the spread of the virus in its tracks. Many world leaders also stockpiled life-saving medical equipment — in case measures like testing and social distancing fell short. Trump’s first response to COVID-19 was to deny that the pandemic would affect Americans at all. As late as March 17, Trump also allowed American companies to send life-saving medical equipment overseas — at inflated prices. Trump’s obnoxious tweets about medical workers — which accuse them of stealing life-saving equipment — can’t help his case either.
Shouldn’t this latest display of greed and incompetence ensure Trump’s electoral demise? Unfortunately, there is a good chance COVID-19 will actually help Trump in November. This is true for both political and psychological reasons. I’ll begin with the psychological reasons because they’re the ones that — like the coronavirus — are invisible to the naked eye.
The Psychology of Excuses. Research on excuse-making shows that when a person has a salient excuse for failure or misbehavior, people are willing to cut the person a lot of slack. But the excuse has to be clear. It also helps if it is immediate. So, in the minds of many people, growing up in poverty is not a great excuse for dropping out of college — because that stuff happened a long time ago. But gaining admission to Harvard because the admissions committee took diversity into account is distasteful to many because it is immediate. People often look for thumbs on the scale. But they ignore more serious problems with the scale’s interior machinery. Consider a study of discrimination against people with disabilities.
Mel Snyder asked people to watch some classic film clips — presumably to rate them for humor. People could watch these clips in either of two rooms. One room was empty. In the other, someone was waiting to begin. This person was a fake participant. Half the time, the fake participant appeared to be able-bodied. The other half, he appeared to be physically disabled.
People sat in the room with the disabled guy slightly more often than they sat in the other room. That’s nice, right? People don’t discriminate against strangers with disabilities. Well, they don’t always. In a different condition of the study, Snyder told people that one kind of movie clip would be showing in one room whereas a different kind of movie clip would be showing in the other. Now that people had a salient excuse to avoid the person with a disability (“I just prefer slapstick, you know?”) that’s exactly what most people did.
What does all this have to do with presidential elections? Coronavirus is Trump’s obvious excuse for a faltering economy and an exponentially increasing COVID-19 death rate. This is all true despite the fact that Trump’s failures as a leader contributed greatly to America’s charge to the top of the world COVID-19 death leader board. No matter what happens to the economy between now and November, Trump has an excuse for it. It’s this horrible and unpredictable pandemic.
But let’s remember a couple of Trump’s egregious errors. After initially implying that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, Trump claimed that “like a miracle, it will disappear.” Trump now claims that COVID-19 “blindsided the world.” Joe Biden is now fighting an electoral battle against a delusional president whose biggest blunder is now his biggest excuse for America’s growing losses in the COVID-19 war.
Terror Management Theory. If excuse-making weren’t enough bad news, there is another psychological reason the death toll from COVID-19 is likely to help Trump. Research on terror management theory shows that when you remind people of their own deaths, they respond to this existential threat by adopting and reaffirming conservative worldviews. This has been shown in dozens of ways — both in the lab and in the real world. Consider a study led by Mark Landau. In 2004, Mark Landau and colleagues showed that reminding college students of their own deaths increased their support for sitting president George W. Bush. The same death awareness manipulation decreased people’s support for Bush’s Democratic opponent, John Kerry. Threats of impending death also increase people’s religious beliefs, by the way — as well as people’s distaste for those who criticize America. Trump is likely to benefit from these tendencies as well.
The Electoral College. In addition to these two psychological reasons, there is a powerful political reason Trump may be re-elected. The decidedly undemocratic U.S. electoral college system is just as screwy as it ever was. No, I’m sorry; it’s even screwier. It is extremely unlikely that Trump will win the popular vote in 2020. But to be re-elected, he only needs to carry a handful of swing states. This is the way he became president in 2016 — when he came in second to Hillary Clinton by almost three million votes.
Trump managed to win almost all of the swing states in 2016, from Ohio and Florida to Michigan and Pennsylvania. But as Mahtesian notes, there has been a tremendous amount of political upheaval and demographic change in the United States in the past three plus years. This means that the once-stable list of U.S. swing states has changed since 2016. If there is any good long-term news here for Democrats, by the way, it is that a few states that once glowed bright red are drifting purple as their populations become more diverse. Georgia and Texas are two examples. But as of early April, 2020, the political soothsayers I trust most — the statisticians at 538 — had Trump beating Biden in both states, albeit by a very small 2% margin in Georgia.
Perhaps the best news for Democrats about the November election is that the man who just became the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has a lot of purple appeal. Now Biden has to hope that the economically and politically disenfranchised Americans who are most likely to support him in November aren’t all killed off by the coronavirus pandemic.
For Further Reading
Landau, M.J., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., Miller, C.H., Ogilvie, D.M., & Cook, A. (2004). Deliver us from evil: the effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. 30: 1136–50. PMID 15359017 DOI: 10.1177/014
Snyder, M.L., Kleck, R.E., Strenta, A. & Mentzer, S.J. (1979) Avoidance of the handicapped: An attributional ambiguity analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 12, 2297–2306.