We begin what has been predicted to be an important two weeks in the escalating virus crisis. The president has finally backed away from his demand that separation-in- place be ended at Easter so that churches could be packed and the economy be allowed to begin ramping up. The reality is that the Easter rebirth was really never in the cards. The president, faced with alarming projections, was forced to back down.
The Trump rallies have been replaced by nightly virus briefings. Donald Trump is an awkward performer at those briefings. He stands at a podium looking down at printed material and stage whispers from a long series of preprinted notes. He then asks several of the uncomfortable functionaries lined up deferentially behind him, or more recently seated out in front, to come to the podium and provide some additional comment. While they speak the president stands by like a proud parent watching them perform.
To a visitor from Mars, this nightly ritual might seem less than compelling. It is partly a function of people’s fear and concern about the invading virus that they are willing to watch. But they do. The ratings for the reviews are high. The president’s approval ratings have also moved up (to 47%). It might be useful to think about what is happening here.
For voters in this country, a president can be perceived in different ways. Only a tiny few in a population of over 300 million know the president personally. A small fraction of those, including those in his own family, may know him well enough to make a judgment about his real strengths and his weaknesses. And, almost all of that small number will be silent about those weaknesses. They will feel a need to make him look as unflawed as possible.
For most others, the president becomes a symbol. Individual people create symbols because they need objects upon which they can project love or anger outside their own immediate world. They often will feel love for a symbolic leader who encourages them to be angry. The people who come to his rallies don’t know Donald Trump, the man, at all. They do feel an emotional attachment to someone who allows them to be angry, who seems to take them seriously, who sets them free.
That is why authoritarian leaders can be so successful. Their real supporters are often people who feel left behind, who feel that no one takes them seriously. Those people rarely blame themselves for their situation. Someone else must be responsible. The leader holds up symbols for them to be angry with. The actual person or movement behind that symbolism is almost never the real reason for the problems of those angry.
The people adopted as anger symbols are real victims. They usually have done nothing to earn all that anger but, once they are chosen, there is no way to make the haters change their minds. Those haters really need to believe that their chosen symbol is evil. They can’t admit they were mistaken. To use a term from economics, they have too many sunk costs in the symbol their mind has chosen. And, the anger driving that choice is still there. There has to be a target for that anger.
Think about our recent political history. Think about Hillary Clinton. There were, and maybe still are, people for whom Hillary Clinton is the devil incarnate. Those people don’t know Hillary Clinton the person at all (those who do say she is remarkably thoughtful and good hearted, if sometimes a bit defensive). But, after forty years of Republican attacks, good Methodist Hillary became a symbol. At the last of his famous rallies Donald Trump was still chanting “Lock Her Up” along with his adoring crowd.
Symbols don’t have to be individuals. They can be members of particular races (Some whites who have hated blacks have traded them in for Muslims). They can be political ideologies. Think about socialism. If we were to ask most Americans to explain what socialism is, they would have no idea. They hate socialism! So all a candidate has to do is suggest that their opponent really wants socialism and that candidate can be home free.
So, think again about those nightly virus briefings. Donald Trump is a master at exploiting symbolism. We need to forget about the two months when the administration played down the dangers posed by the Chinese virus. There were only fifteen cases and they would disappear. It would be like a miracle. Now we may be headed for 100,000 deaths. We should blame those unappreciative governors. We should blame hospitals who were asking for too much and selling supplies out the back door. There is always someone out there we should be angry with.
Candidates and office holders in both political parties attempt to find symbols that will harness love and anger. The anger projected onto symbols often does add needed firepower to campaigns. Ideally, once the campaigns are over, elected officeholders will get down to work and deal with real problems, real issues. For others, staying in office by manipulating voter anger is all that there is! That can work well until there is a genuine crisis. That is what is happening now. The result, as we are seeing, can be tragic!