'Trump is leading': the midwest voters lapping up president's daily briefings

Chris McGreal in Kansas City
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

Holly Rasmussen is not one to pay much attention to the detail of politics, and certainly not to sit through presidential press conferences. After all, she has a business to run. Or used to.

But in recent days, Rasmussen, who lives in northern Iowa, has been drawn to President Trump’s widely scorned daily television briefings, and she likes what she sees.

“I think he is staying extremely optimistic and I think that’s what a lot of us need,” she said. “I think he’s leading. And this is an unprecedented time to do the best he can without having more people die and the economy completely tank.”

Rasmussen is one of those voters who swung from Barack Obama to Trump and then stuck with the president because she reckoned he was doing a good job with the economy. Now, as coronavirus destroys lives, jobs and businesses – and threatens to drive Rasmussen’s cosmetology school to the wall – she is among those Americans who have bumped up the president’s approval ratings even as he faces a barrage of scorn over his handling of the pandemic.

The latest Gallup poll gave Trump the highest approval numbers of his presidency, bolstered by swing voters, independents and even some Democrats.

The poll is no more than a snapshot in a rapidly evolving crisis, and opinions may change radically in the coming weeks as the death toll rises and the loss of jobs bites deep.

In addition, Rasmussen lives in the small city of Cresco close to Iowa’s northern border with Minnesota. Like much of the midwest, it has yet to be badly hit by the virus and attitudes to the president’s handling of the crisis may shift against him when it is.

But for now, towns and cities across the region are watching the approach of coronavirus with fearful resignation, and many there are prepared to give Trump the benefit of the doubt for now.

In southern Missouri, Cindy Anderson – doing her job in the payroll department of a mental health counselling service from home – worries that when the virus finally hits, small cities like Kennet will be woefully unprepared not least because its only hospital closed a few months ago.

“I think we’ve been forgotten about in a little part of the world because we’re rural. Unfortunately, the area in which we live, there is a lot of poverty and a lot of sick people. When it hits, I’m sure that it will be devastating,” she said.

For all that, Anderson thinks Trump is making the best of a bad situation even if he has made mistakes. “I don’t know if he’s got it right, but I think he’s trying. I think he’s effective,” she said.

But the 65 year-old is frustrated at what she regards as politicised attacks on Trump over his actions, or lack of them, early on in the crisis when she says the focus should be on how to get through this.

“I think that a lot of the news media, they don’t tell the whole story. They tell the piece that sounds the most damning and they don’t add the other piece,” she said.
That’s a view shared by Rasmussen.

“I would rather have just the issues of what’s going on with the coronavirus and what they are doing to help us then just nit picking stuff that I was seeing,” she said.
Rasmussin is critical of the scorn poured on the president when he hesitated to call for businesses to close because of the economic impact. She said his concerns about the financial consequences were legitimate.

President Trump delivers remarks at a coronavirus briefing at the White House. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

The shut down required Rasmussen to close her cosmetology school, leaving her workers without pay and her school facing bankruptcy if the shutdown lasts more than another two months. She agrees that it was necessary to order non-essential businesses to close but as someone who supports the president principally because she thinks he is good for the economy, she is judging him in good part over how he handles a crisis potentially much more severe than the Great Recession of a decade ago.

From that perspective, Rasmussen sees a president who, alongside Congress, has been decisive in trying to help ordinary Americans and businesses. Some in the midwest contrast the $2.2tn rescue package, which includes payments to taxpayers, with Obama’s response to the financial crisis by rescuing the banks but not ordinary people losing their homes to foreclosure.

“I was actually shocked when I first started hearing about the (rescue) plan. I thought this is unprecedented. I can’t believe Republicans actually are going for that at all,” she said. “Like, wow, I am completely shocked on that. I really am.”

To Rasmussen that looks like leadership. She regards Trump’s much derided claim that distancing strategies could begin to be lifted by Easter as aspirational.

“It’s him trying to stay optimistic, I thought that was good. It’s hopeful for people. He was trying to put an end time to this which I didn’t think was the worst thing in the world. And he he took a pretty hard hit for a lot of that,” she said.

That’s not how it’s seen by some of those confronting the pandemic.

‘He has blatantly played down the crisis’

Ashly Moore works as an occupational therapist at a hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. She is still seeing patients at some risk to herself because only those showing symptoms are tested for coronavirus.

“It is worrying but there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. And I’m happy to have a job. A lot of people right now are experiencing layoffs and uncertainty. You just take all the precautions that you can,” she said.

Moore said she understands that the pandemic has evolved fast but she does not see leadership from the White House from a president who previously described the growing coronavirus threat as a hoax and then gave himself full marks for handling the crisis. “I tried to be patient and have understanding that to be a president or to be in any kind of position during this type of a crisis is terrifying. You’re criticised no matter what you do. But he has blatantly downplayed the seriousness of this,’ she said.

“He’s obviously concerned about the optics. He’s concerned about his re-election. But if you truly care about leading a nation in a time of crisis, your own re-election really shouldn’t be on your radar. It’s very selfish and egocentric to make that a priority right now.”

Rasmussen though is not alone in the rural midwest in seeing the president’s shifting position as a reflection of her own uncertainty. At first, the numbers of deaths from coronavirus, compared them to lives claimed by flu, opioid overdoses and car crashes did not look startling, and some wondered if the threat was far away and overblown. Rasmussen came to accept the scale of the crisis as she listened to friends and relatives working in health care in bigger cities.

“I myself was thinking, coming from a small community, you don’t see this. But I do have a lot of people in bigger cities that are in health care and hearing some of their stories about not having proper PPE and masks and things, then it started getting a little bit closer to home,” she said.