In crisis, Trump’s most ardent fans find they love him more

To many on the left, President Donald Trump has been a manifest disaster in guiding America through the current pandemic.

But Maria Romero most definitely would beg to differ.

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“The man is not a magician, but he’s doing everything he can. … He believes in America and he believes in Americans,” says Ms. Romero, who lost her job at a car dealership outside of Chicago two weeks ago because of COVID-19.

She tunes into President Trump’s coronavirus briefings every evening, saying they make her feel reassured and hopeful.

“I could be bitter, I could say, ‘This is President Trump’s fault’ – but it’s not,” she says. “Things were wonderful [before COVID-19]. He did it once, he’ll do it again. I trust him.”

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As the United States navigates a spring season like no other, with much of its population sheltering at home and the economy frozen, President Trump’s core supporters – call them “superfans” – remain staunchly behind a chief executive they believe was Making America Great Again before a pandemic unexpectedly upset his plans.

Democrats may maintain that the president initially downplayed the threat from the novel coronavirus. The media may report that the White House failed to prepare for the pandemic by making sure the U.S. had adequate testing and medical supplies.

But these superfans, while they agree the crisis has been devastating, believe that President Trump has responded with strong leadership. They think the president is rightly attuned to the need to get the economy moving again as soon as possible, despite warnings from public health experts that broadly reopening workplaces before a vaccine or treatments are available could lead to another spike in fatalities.

This unshaken faith in Mr. Trump’s leadership is not necessarily because his supporters have been less impacted by the virus – although so far it has hit hardest in urban areas like New York and Detroit, which tend to be predominantly Democratic. Still, plenty of the president’s supporters have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Recently, the Front Row Joes – a self-named group of Trump superfans who travel the country going to MAGA rallies – lost one of their own: Benjamin Hirschmann, a young political science student from Fraser, Michigan, known for his smile and MAGA cape.

In response, however, Mr. Trump’s fans are more convinced than ever that he’s the right man for the job. In interviews, more than a dozen Trump voters tell the Monitor they believe Mr. Trump’s unique talents are needed now more than ever.

“Everything he is doing is for the good of the country,” says Cindy Hoffman, who owns an industrial tool sharpening business with her husband in Independence, Iowa. “It feels like he’s my father. He’s going to protect me.”

In a world in which everything has suddenly been upended, it’s perhaps revealing that views of Mr. Trump have remained as polarized as ever.

Typically, support for the president goes up in a crisis, as Americans “rally round the flag.” Former President George W. Bush’s approval rating, for example, hit a record 90% after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And in early to mid-March, Mr. Trump’s overall approval rating did rise modestly, from 44% to 53%, according to a Morning Consult poll.

But that proved to be short lived. By the beginning of April, Mr. Trump’s approval rating had fallen back to 49%, with the gap between Democrats and Republicans even wider than before. In the latest Morning Consult poll, it stands at 43% – about where it was at the end of February.

The president’s critics say his “rally round” bump evaporated because his leadership through the pandemic has been poor. Mr. Trump’s initial dismissal of the threat from the novel coronavirus as “contained” – and the critical time his administration wasted once the threat was known, when it should have been ramping up testing and the production of medical supplies – has almost certainly cost lives, they say.

Courtesy of Cindy Hoffman

Benjamin Hirschmann (front row, left), Cindy Hoffman (front row, right), and Randal Thom (second from right in back row) pose with some of the other “Front Row Joes” ahead of a Make America Great Again rally in Elkhart, Indiana on May 10, 2018.

The president’s hard-core supporters, however, disagree. According to a recent YouGov poll, 27% of those surveyed “strongly approve” of President Trump’s current job performance. That may be a rough measure for Mr. Trump’s true base, the voters who will not abandon him under almost any foreseeable circumstance.

The daily press briefings the president has been holding may be one way he’s continuing to keep his most committed fans behind him, says Jason Mollica, a lecturer at American University’s School of Communication.

While Mr. Trump has always had a knack for grabbing the spotlight, he has been more visible than ever in recent weeks. In some ways, the briefings have taken the place of MAGA rallies, providing a forum for the president to promote himself and attack the news media, impart valuable information, and make assertions that are not always backed by facts.

Indeed, many Trump supporters believe that the crisis would be far worse with anyone else in the White House.

When Mr. Trump moved to restrict flights from China back in January, he was called a racist, notes Tommy Dugo, a moderator for a pro-Trump Facebook group. “But that probably saved a lot of lives,” says Mr. Dugo.

And if the president snaps at reporters during his daily briefings, it’s only because they refuse to acknowledge anything positive, says Randal Thom, a dog breeder and painter from Lakefield, Minnesota, and a founder of the Front Row Joes. “You see the reporters there giving him snarky comments and ‘gotcha’ type of questions,” says Mr. Thom.

Mr. Trump has been criticized by many for suggesting he may want to reopen America before health officials deem advisable, saying: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

The president’s supporters often repeat this sentiment, with some adding that the COVID-19 models predicting high mortality rates seem like part of a Democratic conspiracy to keep the markets down and hurt Mr. Trump’s chances of reelection.

According to a YouGov poll from late March more than half of Mr. Trump’s voters believe it will be safe to end social distancing by May 1, whereas the majority of those who voted for Hillary Clinton believe that move should come later. Likewise, while almost 65% of Clinton voters say Americans are still not taking the risks of coronavirus seriously enough, some 60% of Trump voters say Americans are either behaving appropriately or overreacting.

Some of the president’s supporters, including Mr. Thom, recently created the group “ReOpen America” to try to show lawmakers that many voters agree with the president.

“We are doing this to counter the left’s strategy,” says Mr. Thom. “Their narrative is to keep America shut down.”

Shared experiences

Of course, not all of Mr. Trump’s voters are thrilled with his handling of COVID-19. Katy Ritter, a stay-at-home mom in Louisville, Kentucky, voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but she’s had some buyer’s remorse watching the president’s recent press conferences, and is not sure she’ll vote for him again in November.

“We need to be led by a more compassionate person,” says Ms. Ritter, pointing to Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear as an example. “We’re all in this together, and I want [Trump] to give us some of that unity that Andy is giving us.”

And there are some issues where Trump supporters and critics widely agree – such as support for the $2 trillion CARES Act, the largest emergency aid package in US history. According to the YouGov poll, a majority of both Trump and Clinton voters “strongly approve” of the coronavirus relief legislation’s payments to Americans making less than $99,000, extended unemployment eligibility, and its $117 billion for hospitals.

The isolation of quarantine is also a shared experience across party lines. Like many Americans, the Front Row Joes – who often would wait in line together for days in advance of Mr. Trump’s rallies – have been looking for ways to connect in this unprecedented time.

Last week a dozen of them from across the country logged into Zoom for a “virtual flag drop,” reciting the Pledge of Allegiance together from their pixelated squares, some posing in front of Trump posters, others wearing red hats.

The Joes have also been connecting on Facebook to share memories of Mr. Hirschmann. They’ve been sharing news articles about the 500 cars that partook in a drive-by vigil in front of the Hirschmanns’ home in Michigan, and photos of Taco Bell chalupas, Mr. Hirschmann’s favorite.

When Ms. Hoffman first heard the news about Mr. Hirschmann’s death from COVID-19, she immediately called his cell phone – praying it wasn’t true. But Mr. Hirschmann’s mother answered, and confirmed that her son had passed away.

“He was a mixture between my brother and my son,” says Ms. Hoffman, her voice wavering. “He would worry about me and I’d worry about him.”

Still, Ms. Hoffman doesn’t blame Mr. Trump in any way for what happened – and she doesn’t believe Mr. Hirschmann would, either.

“I trust [Trump] with my life. … And Ben said that actual phrase to me: ‘I trust Trump with my life,’” she recalls. If he were here, he would tell people “to trust Trump,” she says. “I know that’s what he would say.”