The phenomenon transcends ideological bounds. We all fuse our identities in some ways. If you are a diehard Red Sox fan, you are almost certainly going to stay a fan, even as the roster completely turns over. The stakes escalate with political allegiances, and can lead people to vote against their own interests. When Americans are polled about individual elements of the Affordable Care Act, the health-care law put in place by President Barack Obama, for example, they approve of them. Medicare, which the law slightly expanded, is one of the most highly favorable programs among people of both parties. Yet Trump campaigned on repealing the ACA.
The freedom from scrutiny Trump now enjoys from many of his followers is reflected in an ignorance even of where he stands on the pandemic. In the survey of 4,000 Americans, 81 percent of Trump voters who believed that masks should be required also believed that Trump agrees. He has not supported a mask mandate, and has barely even endorsed their voluntary use.
Nothing is novel about the effectiveness of Trump’s approach. Scrutinizing and understanding its universal elements may help mitigate its damage as the pandemic continues. People’s needs for support and stability are real, and for many voters, Biden apparently failed to offer a meaningful way to meet those needs. While campaigning, he promised interventions like mask mandates and pledged to “follow the science,” while telling people we’ll need to hunker down for a brutal winter. All of this is true and sound. If Biden follows through on this, he will save many thousands of lives. But even A. J. Clark would have been unsurprised that so many people chose the charlatan. Biden promised rigor, perseverance, and a triumph of reason. When opting to follow a quack, though, as Clark wrote, “Reason is not involved in the process.” The draw is the personality of the healer, and “subsequent success is ensured by mass suggestion.”
If the nation’s public-health and scientific communities assume that the appeal of a quack was some transient aberration—something that will end when Trump is out of office, and that can be remedied with yet more facts—then the Biden administration will fail to reach millions of Americans, no matter how soundly it recites statistics. Its warnings and mandates will go unheeded and become fodder for charismatic outsiders who tell people what they want to hear.
There are ways to serve as a confident, optimistic leader without making up nonsensical promises. Hope can be conferred with promises to take care of people, and to be there for them. Reassurance can be offered by guaranteeing that no one will go into debt because they had to go to the hospital, and that people will have paid sick leave and job security so they can stay at home when necessary. If the public-health community does not do more to give people hope and reassurance in the face of this disaster, it will see people defect to those who will—even when they know the promises are too good to be true.