Commentary: When cult meets crisis

Can Joe Biden win Tennessee? Okay, probably not.

(Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

The cult of Trump is something that many of us have been trying to make sense of for the better part of the last four years. Conventional wisdom has it that around a third of the electorate harbors unbridled and unconditional political lust for Dear Leader, with another tenth pretty consistently disposed to like him (though perhaps not like like), which sums to his uncommonly stable approval trend in the low 40s (give or take) since taking office. 

The old chestnut that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no followers isn’t apocryphal: He did really say it back on the campaign trail in Sioux City, Iowa in early 2016, and then he actually shot someone on Fifth Avenue a couple of weeks later. (I may have invented part of that last sentence.)

Of course much of the staying power of his support lives inside the broader story of polarization – a country divided so fixedly into red and blue camps that the moral and intellectual shortcomings of this or that standard-bearer are swamped by tribal loyalties. You really do have to pull the trigger to lose supporters, and even then if the person you shoot pulls through you’ll probably be ok.

But the durability of Trump’s support has been tested by 2020s twin imbroglios (to use an erudite if insufficient synonym for shitstorm) of coronavirus and racial justice. Nobody expects the truly molten core of Trump’s base to be disturbed by much of anything, but plenty of other Republicans (the not-like-like tenth for instance) at some point are taking their eyes off the paint job and lifting the hood.

Conventional wisdom has it that around a third of the electorate harbors unbridled and unconditional political lust for Dear Leader

Well, maybe. Let’s look first at Tennessee, where the red/blue chasm is so fully baked in that even a pandemic can’t bridge it. A recent statewide Vanderbilt poll predictably found Tennessee Republicans a good deal more satisfied than Democrats with Trump’s coronavirus response, but the margin of difference was jarring: 93-9. By comparison, Gov. Bill Lee’s pandemic response satisfies Republicans more than Democrats by a mere 40 points.

Taking cues on public health from their beloved orange-topped epidemiologist in chief, Tennessee Republicans see the pandemic’s impact on health and well-being as a low state priority compared to Dems (a 47 point difference), are less concerned than Dems (by 43 points) about a second wave of the virus, think less of Anthony Fauci (by 36 points – seriously?), and regard vote-by-mail as a communist plot (more than two-thirds strongly opposed compared to support by over 80 percent of Democrats).

On race and policing we don’t have in-state data, but a recent Morning Consult tracking poll asked registered voters nationally a series of specific questions about government responses to ongoing protests and demonstrations. Of course Republicans look more kindly on Trump’s actions than Democrats, but as with Tennesseans on coronavirus, the margin is bewildering: 62 percent of Republicans rated Trump’s performance on protests as good or excellent compared to just 9 percent of Democrats. 

But here’s the thing: other demographics in the Morning Consult data surface much more modest differences. Approval (which to a large extent looks more like disapproval) of Trump’s handling of protests is far closer to parallel across regions, age cohorts, religions, income levels, and even across the urban-suburban-rural divide. It’s only by party that we see the huge opinion split, and it’s just for Trump; the Dem-Rep approval gap is a good deal smaller for approval of the actions of mayors and governors. It is Trump, and only Trump, who elicits this bizarrely wide and persistent partisan rift, and neither a global pandemic nor a national crisis involving racial justice can close it.

Electorally (I’m telling myself) this isn’t good for Trump. The polling we are seeing in these times of turmoil clarifies that his support really is mostly a personality cult augmented with GOP hardliners, all of whom harbor little interest in what he actually says or does. Meanwhile, everyone else is paying attention and not finding much to like. A quick glance at the RealClearPolitics aggregation of Trump job approval polls makes this, if you’ll pardon the expression, real clear. 

If we dare dream that this is all prelude for a lousy November for the red team, dare we imagine that Trump could lose even Tennessee? “Very unlikely” probably overstates Biden’s chances, but Trump’s 51-42 edge in the statewide Vandy poll is surprisingly slender, far from landslide territory, and a long way short of his 26-point win over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Among Tennesseans calling themselves independent Biden actually leads by five, and by a couple of points among women. 

It’s fun to imagine, but dare at your own risk.