Bruce W. Jentleson is the William Preston Few Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University. He is also a non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Co-Director of the Bridging the Gap Project. Prof. Jentleson received the 2018 Joseph J. Kruzel Memorial Award for Distinguished Public Service from the American Political Science Association, International Security Section. He was also the Henry Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress’s Kluge Center from 2015 to 2016. He is the author of The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons from Twentieth Century Statesmanship.
Mehmet Yegin (MY): What do you think about US public opinion when it comes to COVID-19? Can we compare it with other catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina?
Bruce Jentleson (BJ): From a political point of view, Hurricane Katrina occurred during a time when George Bush was not running for re-election, and it was an issue that clearly played into Barack Obama’s victory. I have family in New Orleans and saw the damage firsthand. Here, it should be said that Katrina was largely localized, but COVID-19 affects every part of the country. You can’t talk to a family in any state that is immune to it. Even a state like South Dakota, which was thought to be immune because it was rural, had an enormous outbreak of COVID-19 at one of its meat-packing plants.
Unlike Bush, Donald Trump is facing re-election during this emergency. But he has a loyal base that believes in him. In Trump’s own words, “I can walk down 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I would not lose votes.” This is worrying, even if he loses the next election. He may unleash frustrations on the people, and his white nationalist and armed supporters could use their anger and guns in violent ways. But, most studies say this base is around thirty percent of the US population, and that’s not enough to win an election. Even if you include his strong support among older voters, who are the most affected by the pandemic, it still isn’t enough.
The COVID-19 crisis is profound for many people. For any scholar working on international relations, this pandemic goes much deeper than any other issue we have ever studied. As a little boy living with my parents near New York City, I wondered what was going to happen during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The dangers there were hypothetical, but COVID-19’s dangers are actually occurring. So, Trump will try to bend the situation to benefit him, but I believe that pragmatism and prudence still exist. People will not be totally convinced when they see evidence contradicting Trump’s claims.
MY: Do Americans receive enough unbiased information from news to develop rational or prudent opinions on current affairs? Will the American public evaluate the issue and Trump’s performance along party lines or based on facts?
BJ: I think public opinion is more prudent than we give it credit for.[ii] As we said before, COVID-19 is affecting everybody and causing very personal worries about families and the economy. Yet, the president has not been truthful. For example, he keeps saying that we have more testing than any other country, but the real criteria is tests per capita. And last time I checked, the US placed 34th out of 41 OECD countries on this indicator. Still, Trump’s base pours into state capitols demanding “liberation” and “reopening”, even though one Wall Street Journal poll showed 58 percent of respondents didn’t want the country to reopen.
Everybody wants to rally around the leader during times like these, and some early polls showed an increase in Trump’s approval ratings. But these rates pale in comparison to those of other leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and even France’s (unpopular) president, Emmanuel Macron. Currently, polls seem to be showing that people are actually tired of Trump’s act. He goes on TV every evening for an hour and a half and doesn’t truly answer any questions.
I think people believe that Joe Biden is capable of running a government and know that he will surround himself with competent people, not partisans but people that have managed crises before. He is also making an effort to include in his vision progressive ideas such as those represented by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The contrast between Biden’s competence and Trump’s narcissism could actually make Biden a stronger candidate even without COVID-19. If people watch Fox News, they watch Fox News; they are not going to change their minds. But some people know that we could be doing much better. While it isn’t solely the president’s fault, but it is still very much the president’s fault.
MY: Will the American public blame governors or President Trump?
BJ: We have a federal system that has always allotted a certain amount of power to the states. I think it is somewhat ironic and contradictory that conservatives, who once argued for a weak federal government and strong state authority, now suddenly say, “no, everybody should listen to the president”. I also think the difference in approach among governors is striking. Republican governors in Maryland and Ohio have been focused on getting the job done, while Republican governors in Georgia and Florida have listened to Trump and reopened gyms, nail salons, and beaches, despite expert guidance advising against this.
Trump would love to have a scenario by October in which the curve flattens and stock markets go back up, just so he can say, “I was right all along”. This is a frightening scenario for democracy. It is hard for me to imagine a scenario in which we will have COVID-19 completely under control. I do not think our universities will open normally in September for the school year, and that’s one month before the elections. We have to be vigilant and consider the second wave, and I don’t think businesses and sporting events will be open by that time. You cannot open up until you have systematic testing and other safeguards that are still not being implemented. What’s more, this needs to be done collectively, yet states are not unified. We are seeing situations in which one governor makes a deal with manufacturers for tons of medical equipment and tests only to be undercut by another governor offering more money. Without federal coordination it is a competitive marketplace.