In the small town of Jonesborough, Tenn., nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, the Parent Teacher Association group text chat normally lights up with news of school dances and carpooling schedules. Its main focus now is a global pandemic.
Kerrie Aistrop, a 39-year-old mother of two, and her fellow moms exchange death toll updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, thought-provoking tweets and a bit of gallows humor. “After seeing how the public panics over coronavirus, I can see why the government would never tell us about Aliens,” reads one shared post.
As people in the group have taken an all-or-nothing approach to the virus, either stocking up on toilet paper or writing the epidemic off entirely, Aistrop, a Republican and pharmaceutical sales representative, has struggled to find a middle ground for news on the ongoing crisis. And so she is relying on her go-to trusted source: President Trump.
Unlike many in the GOP, Aistrop doesn’t wholly subscribe to the notion of the mainstream news media being out to antagonize the president.
When her town’s state House GOP representative, Micah Jones, filed a resolution in January to officially recognize CNN and The Washington Post as “fake news,” she was “embarrassed.”
But in this moment, even she doesn’t feel that she can trust the media to present the pandemic’s full picture.
“No matter what outlet you go to about this,” she said, “somebody is always taking a side.”
Much of Trump’s success has been fueled by his supporters’ distrust of career government officials.
Yet as coronavirus cases multiply, many of those same supporters find themselves placing their faith in institutions like the CDC — confident for perhaps the first time in Trump’s tenure that the experts on call aren’t out to sabotage the president.
In conversations over the course of the past week, as the news and administration action on the virus moved quickly, Trump’s supporters overwhelmingly have said they trust the president and they trust whom he trusts.
They are not, in large part, completely dismissive of the virus the way some right-wing media outlets have been. But they are comforted because they see the president as a bulwark against outright panic, working with business leaders and experts from within a bureaucracy that both the president and many Republicans still distrust.
“I feel like sometimes the decisions he makes are for his voters, and now it’s about what’s best for the American people,” Aistrop said. “I think he’s really looking to our government agencies to take the lead on this, he’s listening to them on what to do, and his No. 1 goal is to keep us safe.”
While polling indicates that most Democrats take a sharply negative view of the president and his handling of the virus, and that some Republicans share concerns about Trump’s performance as well, there are no signs at this point that the epidemic has cut deeply into the bedrock support that he enjoys among his base, even in places where infection rates are high and populations are most at risk.
Lee Green, a 59-year-old who lives in the Florida retirement community of The Villages and leads the Jewish Conservatives Club there, said she typically gets her news from Facebook, where she is subscribed to updates from outlets like The Daily Wire and The Jerusalem Post. But Wednesday she struggled to understand why, if the virus was indeed the equivalent of a “bad flu,” schools were closing and events were being canceled.
Now she relies on the CDC website for updates. “I don’t see them as political hacks,” she explained. Green is confident in the CDC in large part because she believes Trump is, too.
Trump and public health officials have often contradicted one another when speaking publicly about the virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified before Congress on Thursday about the severity of the outbreak, a day after the president had assured people that the virus would “go away.”
But when many Americans consume their news in snippets, B-roll footage of the president speaking with agency heads in the Roosevelt Room can be enough to cement impressions of coordination, unity, and transparency.