FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA – There has been plenty of talk about how the coronavirus might affect politics in China, for example by eroding trust between the Chinese public and its leadership. In the United States, however, the coronavirus is likely to have the opposite effect: Namely, to make the incumbent more popular and to increase the reelection chances of President Donald Trump.
How the coronavirus will develop is not yet apparent, but the public health and economic risks are significant, and thus it stands a good chance of being a front-page story for several months. Even if the coronavirus does not lead to many deaths in the U.S., that risk will continue for some time, and various quarantines and travel bans will continue to be in the news and on social media.
The first and perhaps most important effect will be to make Trump’s nationalism seem ordinary, even understated. Hundreds of flights to China have already been canceled, countries are refusing to receive (or deciding to quarantine) Chinese nationals or visitors from China, and China itself is severely limiting travel in the country. Whether or not these prove effective measures, the idea of travel bans and restrictions no longer seems extreme or unconstitutional. Even if voters are confusing normal times with times of pandemic, on this issue Trump’s instincts now seem almost prescient.
When a flight of Americans returning from Wuhan was sent to Alaska earlier this month instead of San Francisco, and subject to quarantine, very few political complaints were heard, including from leading Democrats. There might still be arguments about whether that was a justified violation of civil liberties, but the notion that a pandemic requires the federal government to take such measures, without a congressional vote, is not seriously contested.
That is going to help any incumbent president who believes in the strong exercise of executive power, as does Trump.
Likewise, Trump’s call to build a wall, which has created enormous opposition, could be neutered as a campaign issue if countries around the world are erecting barriers to entry. There are even reports of Chinese villages building walls or otherwise restricting migrants from Wuhan.
Trump’s suspicions about China also now seem to be more justified. Of course, they have been more about trade and foreign policy than public-health policy. Still, the general feeling being conveyed by the news — “Bad Things Are Coming Out of China” — makes Trump seem ahead of the curve, regardless of whether his views are justified. Voters are more likely to harbor negative feelings toward China and to support a nationalistic American stance toward China. Whether the issue is trade or pandemics could seem a second-order detail.
If the coronavirus continues to be an issue through the general election, it might even discourage large public gatherings and thus make it more difficult for the challenger to campaign and attract attention. The incumbent, in contrast, can generate publicity more easily from the Oval Office. It is easier to appear presidential when decisive actions need to be taken, even if they are policies — such as increased support for vaccine production — that virtually any president would implement.
The big question is how voter attitudes will change if there are pandemic casualties in the U.S. In general, a noticeable number of domestic deaths that can be attributed to an unexpected “foreign agent” tends to create a rally-around-the-flag effect. Such a sentiment tends to be good for the incumbent.
As it stands, Trump has electoral vulnerabilities on a number of issues, including health care policy. The pandemic could cause those issues to fade from the headlines, and if Trump is seen as taking decisive action to save lives, his weakness on health-care policy may diminish as well.
Finally, Trump’s rhetorical skills are well-suited to scapegoating, should he find the scapegoating of foreigners or Chinese to be a useful political tactic. It is hard to see how a challenger could do the same with equivalent impact.
The effects of the coronavirus are just beginning. But it is already clear that they will influence many features of American life — politics included.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution.