It’s a cliché at this point, but imagine being told 10 years ago that the final weeks of the 2020 election campaign would feature President Donald Trump telling enthusiastic supporters at campaign rallies that the deadly airborne virus they were at risk of contracting at that very moment—one for which there was no vaccine and limited treatment options—was not a big deal at all. Wrap your head around your best friend dropping this prediction on you: “Hey buddy, bit of a weird one: In 2020 the president is Donald Trump, there’s a pandemic because of a novel virus that’s killed more than 200,000 Americans, and thousands of his supporters are still showing up at his campaign rallies, where the closing argument is: ‘This Is Fine!’” Figuratively and literally, it’s a world of hurt.
The Guardian noted the sick symmetry this week: The states that Trump has chosen to round out the last few days of the campaign in are those that are seeing new surges in coronavirus cases. Nebraska, where the campaign promised “strong precautions” were in place ahead of its planned rally in Omaha, has a positive test rate of 21.5 percent. At least 16 cases have so far been linked to a single Trump rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, with two hospitalizations. While outdoor rallies render the virus a significantly lesser threat, that benefit can be offset if attendees don’t stay apart and wear masks, as attendees at other Trump rallies have failed to do. After all, these are the die-hard supporters of a president who has repeatedly disparaged mask-wearing as a sign of weakness.
Whether or not these campaign events pose a danger is, perhaps, beside the point. These rallies are for people who do not believe the coronavirus is a real threat, to themselves or others. (Or they have weighed the threat and decided that seeing the president expound upon his desire to drive a truck off into the sunset is worth any risk.) The secretive handling of the continued outbreak at the White House, which has now reached Mike Pence’s inner circle, has projected the message to supporters that the virus can be managed simply by willing yourself not to be sick or die—even if the president has access to a level of care of which they dare not dream.
Campaign rallies, by their very nature, don’t exist to bring waffling voters to a particular high school auditorium or airport hangar in order to persuade them. Their purpose is to help campaigns with “optics” by projecting strength and garnering media coverage. In certain instances, these perceptions might generate enthusiasm among those fence-sitting voters to swing their support. But those conditions don’t exist in this election: The 2020 electorate is noteworthy by its low number of undecided voters. Beyond that, Trump has had four years to build on his 2016 coalition and has instead gone out of his way to alienate any voters not already in his camp.
Trump is in trouble, especially with Biden’s surprising dominance with older voters and the way he’s made some unexpected states suddenly competitive. Instead of working to expand his shrinking base, Trump is responding the only way he knows how: by doubling down on what he believes has worked before and going after aggrieved, white, maskless voters.
It’s hard to see these rallies as having any real purpose beyond bringing out people who already thought the virus wasn’t a threat and reinforcing those wrong beliefs, to the point where they emerge even more deluded, disconnected, and dangerous. To this deranged end, they’ve been very effective. The virus was “going away, it’s rounding the turn,” Trump claimed in Ohio last week; “It’s a political hoax,” parroted back one Trump supporter at a rally in Pennsylvania.
At a recent rally in Reno, Trump told the crowd: “Normal life is all we want. We want to be where we were seven months ago.” It could just as easily be a quote from a regular American Trump supporter as the man in charge of making that a reality, but it isn’t the plaintive sigh of someone who wishes they could go back to the Cheesecake Factory. It is a campaign message from the president, telling his supporters that all they have to do to have normal life again is to simply believe in it, no matter how callously reality might intrude. It’s the sort of simplistic message of a children’s movie: Just believe, and you can achieve anything. Clap your hands and save Tinkerbell’s life. If your opponent has a commanding national poll lead, your base is dwindling, the magic has gone, and there is a deadly virus killing people, you need only act as if none of that matters and you are winning. Who knows: With a little help from your friends, maybe you will.