Trump supporters have followed his lead in responding to the new coronavirus. Like him, they’ve shown contempt for science and public health experts. They’ve ignored recommendations for wearing masks and maintaining social distancing — and especially to isolating themselves by remaining at home.
But now, as COVID-19 marches through Trumpland, its residents are beginning to experience firsthand the results of following their leader. As the coronavirus headed south geographically, Trump’s standing in the polls has headed south metaphorically.
Until recently, COVID-19 was primarily an urban and blue-state problem. The rural west and the Bible Belt seemed immune. Residents of those regions didn’t witness COVID-19 in their communities, and it was largely ignored by the right-wing media they consume.
Now the coronavirus is coming to roost in their backyards. Single-day records for new cases have been seen recently in red bastions, including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. On July 12, Florida recorded over 15,000 new coronavirus cases, setting a new single-day high for any state, including New York at its peak.
Republican governors in the pandemic's new hotspots are diverging in their reactions to the challenge. Some, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are taking a purely political approach, while others, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, are putting the health and safety of their constituents first. Despite Florida's out-of-control situation, for example, DeSantis is focused on currying favor with Trump by refusing to order Florida residents to wear masks.
Florida has recorded more COVID-19 cases than all of Europe combined.
DeSantis has joined Trump in downplaying the resurgence of the coronavirus. Abbott, on the other hand, has issued a mask-wearing mandate, ordered the shutdown of bars, and limited restaurant capacity in the state. "If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown,” Abbott, he told KLBK TV in Lubbock. “The worst is yet to come as we work our way through that massive increase in people testing positive.”
DeSantis has long faced criticism for skipping over several steps in the CDC’s recommended reopening guidelines. He was renounced nationally for opening public beaches during spring break. Most beaches in the state are now open, albeit with some local restrictions on behavior.
In late June, DeSantis banned the consumption of alcohol but he's currently under fire for insisting on ordering schools to reopen in the fall, claiming that children are less likely to contract and spread the virus. Experts believe that's true for young students, but older students, teachers and staff remain a question as well as a concern.
In mid-May, DeSantis announced he would not follow the White House coronavirus task force's advice to test all residents and staff of elder care facilities over a two-week period. Like Trump, he's misrepresented both the extent of his testing effort and the results.
In late June, the state fired Rebekah Jones, who designed and maintained Florida's online display of COVID-19 data. She said the DeSantis administration was angry because she refused to hide and manipulate data to make it appear that the disease was under control in the state.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Jones used Twitter to inform "her nearly 42,000 followers that multiple health department sources have told her staff is being asked to 'change the numbers and begin slowly deleting deaths and cases so it looks like Florida is improving next week in the lead-up to July 4, like they’ve ‘made it over the hump.’ "
DeSantis denied the accusation.
Unlike Abbott, who's signaled his willingness to put Texas under lockdown again if the state doesn't bring the virus under control, DeSantis has vowed that will never happen in Florida.
Amid all the controversy over DeSantis' handling of the crisis, the coronavirus continues to rampage his state. Miami-Dade County recorded a 33.5 percent positivity rate on July 8, and during the two-week period leading up to that date, hospitalizations in Miami-Dade grew by 76 percent and the use of ventilators rose by 124 percent.
On July 9, 435 patients were admitted to hospitals in the state, the largest one-day increase since the first cases hit Florida. A total of 52 Florida hospitals had no available intensive care unit beds as of July 12.
DeSantis, who’s running for re-election on Trump’s coattails, was not prepared for the virus' resurgence. His state was running out of the experimental drug Remdesivir and had to ask for a loan from New York. Long delays in obtaining test results flummoxed health care workers in the state.
High-ranking Republicans are announcing that, due to the rapid intensification of the pandemic in Florida, they will not attend the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville in late August. It’s hard for De Santis and Trump to downplay an outbreak that’s scaring members of their own party away from its premier event.
Other Republican governors in emerging hotspots are reacting with more regard for their citizens than their politics. On July 10, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott extended his disaster declaration for the entire state in response to its soaring number of new cases.
"Extending this Disaster Declaration helps ensure that Texas has the resources and flexibility needed to effectively respond to COVID-19," Abbott said in a statement. "To further mitigate the spread of the virus and overcome this challenge, Texans should continue to do their part by wearing a mask, social distancing, and staying home if possible."
Abbott's direction on the crisis is a turnabout. In the past, he's listened to the demands of his state's large and reactionary far-right minions, who believe that public health safety is secondary to their freedom of movement. Now he's reinforcing his state's battle against the disease even though it's provoked an inevitable backlash.
Harris County, including Houston, is the hardest hit part of the state. Aggressive testing efforts there have been hampered by extreme heat.
Houston hospitals, particularly their ICU units, are operating at full capacity — and, in some cases, beyond it. Hundreds of COVID-19 patients are being kept in emergency rooms as hospitals struggle to open ICU beds, according to NBC News and ProPublica.
On July 9, 3,812 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Houston area, including more than 1,000 in intensive care units. That's the highest number in the state since the pandemic began.
“Houston officials fear the situation could become a replay of what happened in New York City in March and April, when thousands of people died as hospitals struggled to keep up with the surge of patients, but without the same level of government intervention to stem the tide,” NBC News reported.
In the State of New York, meanwhile, the numbers of new COVID cases is declining.
Texas has reported a total of 3,246 deaths as of July 12. For perspective, consider that the combined number of COVID-19-related deaths recorded in Texas and Florida over the past month exceeds the total number of hurricane-related deaths in the entire nation over the past 20 years.
Oklahoma's not OK
Oklahoma, Texas’ neighbor to the north, is also experiencing a surge, and it’s partly tied to Trump’s indoor campaign rally on June 20 in Tulsa. Against the advice of health officials and local Republican leaders, more than 6,000 mostly unmasked people gathered there for Trump’s campaign launch.
But all they got besides COVID-19 was the opportunity to purchase Trump campaign merchandise and listen to a speech that spent 1,798 words on his trouble drinking a cup of water and walking down a ramp from the stage at West Point on June 13 after addressing its 2020 graduation class.
Cases of COVID-19 began appearing in Tulsa before the commander-in-chief began to speak. Eight members of his advance team, including two secret service agents, tested positive for the coronavirus and were forced to spend 14 days quarantined in Tulsa. Herman Cain, one of Trump’s surrogates, also tested positive after sitting in the audience.
Since then, COVID-19 cases in the Tulsa area and the State of Oklahoma have exploded. On July 9, Tulsa County reported a record 261 new cases. Oklahoma reported a record one-day total of 603 new cases, bringing the number of infected people in the state to 18,500. Hospitalizations also were climbing, and the state’s death toll has reached over 422.
At the beginning of June, cases in the state were rising by less than 100.
Tulsa Health Department director Dr. Bruce Dart linked the rise to recent large events in the area, including Trump’s. “We knew we had several large events a little over two weeks ago, which is about right, so I guess we just connect the dots,” Dart said, as reported by Democracy Now!.
Despite the growing pandemic in Trumpland, it might take a lot more misery to unclench the firm hold he has over Bible Belt and Confederate supporters. Cult-like in their devotion, they’ve gone great lengths to show it. A number of them have attacked — and even shot — people who’ve asked them to wear masks in places of business. They’ve refused to follow shelter-in-place orders, claiming that their freedom of speech and movement is immutable to germs as well as health care rules.
But cracks are beginning to emerge as Trump continues to model the destructive behavior that’s fueling the virus’ growth. In pretending that COVID-19 is not nearly as bad as the “fake news” media want people to believe, Trump is promoting denial to people who are now living amid the truth. In refusing to wear personal protective equipment until very recently or to follow social distancing guidelines, he’s downplayed prevention strategies to people who now see that they’re needed.
Trump’s cult-like followers still show their unity with him by following his lead and flouting protective measures, but Independents, who account for 40 percent of the vote, are growing weary of the dumb show. Even Trump’s Republican support is softening.
According to a July 8-July 9 ABC/Ipsos poll, 67 percent of Americans surveyed disapproved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. That’s up 17 points since the same pollster conducted a survey on the subject in mid-June.
At the same time, Trump’s approval rating on the issue dropped from 41 percent in the mid-June poll to 33 percent in the recent ABC/Ipsos poll. Other polls have shown similar findings regarding his management of the pandemic.
Polls also have shown a softening of overall support from Republicans and Independents. Trump scores decreasing support not only on COVID, but also on race relations and his ability to unify the country.
Having made the pandemic a political issue, Trump will now face the political consequences of how he handled it.