Political emotion and the global pandemic: factors at odds with a Trump presidency

In politics, the ability to emote appropriately and in response to changing social, political, and crisis conditions is a hallmark quality of responsive leadership. I have studied this phenomenon in relation to every U.S. president since Bill Clinton, and even several earlier presidents through a combination of empirical and qualitative methods including detailed coding of candidate behavior in debates, experiments that show leader responses to disaster news, eye tracking to document visual attention to inappropriate displays, and focus groups to capture viewer responses to memorable campaign moments.

Incumbent presidents are expected to show a high degree of emotional intelligence. In times of threat, an appropriate stance may be to project anger and resolve, as George W. Bush did in his masterful address ten days after 9/11 to a joint session of Congress. Yet sympathy for victims, and for less fortunate members of society, is equally important—as is the ability to reassure citizens in uncertain times, particularly during a prolonged conflict or ongoing crisis. This quality of leadership is recognized as central to an effective management style that job announcements for senior administrative posts in business and academia now list emotional intelligence as essential.

As I observed four years ago in the U.S Election Analysis 2016 report, Donald Trump does not know emotional expressiveness outside of a narrow range of anger, defiance, and threat — a confrontational style of campaigning (and governance, as it turns out) that bonds supporters to his cause and holds them in line. The approach is limited and does not win many new adherents, but it generates considerable enthusiasm among followers. This strategy works for challengers, who are noted for the aggression they show in attempts to unseat the incumbent power holder, but it becomes a thin argument in the middle of a global pandemic and economic downturn where people are out of work and dying.

Under different conditions, perhaps with a vibrant economy and coronavirus vaccine, Trump might not have ended up a one-term president. But context matters. In 2008, Barack Obama benefitted from his competent response to the economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the housing market; in 2012, Obama benefitted from the quick action he took, and empathy he showed, in response to Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York and New Jersey hard. Before COVID-19, Trump’s presidency had been notably devoid of major crises. There were some dust-ups with North Korea and Iran, but most political messes, such as the government shutdown of 2018 and impeachment over attempts to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, were of his own making.

The 2020 election brought the one enduring, externally driven crisis to confront the Trump presidency: the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus even afflicted Trump himself, First Lady Melania Trump, and several of his inner circle. Despite these developments, and an international outcry for more leadership on the issue, Trump double-downed on his characteristic misstatements and blame, first promising the virus would soon be eradicated, then touting false cures, blaming “Democrat governors” for lockdowns, encouraging armed protestors to “liberate Michigan” from democratic rule, mocking Joe Biden for wearing a mask, and finally declaring that he “beat this crazy, horrible China virus.”

His advice to the country? “Don’t let the virus dominate your life.” Rather than expressing compassion, the president issued an order, telling followers it was time to move on. Surely this command reverberated as hollow advice for the thousands already reeling from the loss of loved ones or millions of once-infected individuals who, despite being COVID-free, are still struggling with the long-term consequences of a highly infectious and persistent disease.

In the rise to power, particularly in today’s overcharged and cluttered media ecology, the ability to attract and hold attention appears to trump all other considerations. The loudest, most gregarious, and socially dominant attention seekers are able to command the spotlight as social influencers, building a personality driven following that translates into political popularity. Detailed understandings of public policy, adherence to the truth, and even time-honored political norms take a backseat to the performative histrionics that drive media attention. But even in an attention economy, circumstances beyond the performer’s control can take center stage, demanding a response and not a performance. In the holding of power, as opposed to the pursuit of power, a carefully calibrated repertoire of expression and compassion (some of it agonic, some hedonic) is required to form alliances, maintain order, and reassure an anxious citizenry.

Although he maintained a loyal following despite blatant disregard for the truth, aided and abetted by alt.media cheerleading and legacy media amplification of falsehoods, Donald Trump was a highly flawed incumbent on many levels — emotional expression just one of them. American democracy can breathe a sigh of relief that his legal challenges to lawful voting will not survive judicial review and change the election outcome. But Trumpism will likely live on.

Moving forward, a more emotionally literate far-right candidate may emerge who again threatens the integrity of the system but this time able to build a broader coalition around deeply felt “emotional truths” that again bear little resemblance to reality. A society that values respect for the law and tradition, not to mention tolerance, diversity, and a concern for others, would anticipate this eventuality and build more safeguards into the system to guard against its demise.