NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Pandemics begin their spread in crowded places, and the coliseum here was packed to capacity Friday night with more than 13,000 supporters crammed together. Hundreds more couldn’t get in the door. Banished by the fire marshal, they watched on television screens in the parking lot outside.
Inside, Donald Trump told supporters that the coronavirus, the respiratory tract infection that has crippled China and triggered the biggest weeklong stock market sell off since the Great Recession, is largely a “hoax.” Democrats, he said, are out to get him. Again.
“The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. They’re politicizing it,” he said. “They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa…. One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.’ That did not work out too well. They could not do it. They tried the impeachment hoax.”
More than 2,800 people have died from coronavirus worldwide, according to latest figures. Trump was unconcerned, though, on Friday, saying that the death toll of the seasonal flu is much higher.
About 500 miles away, his White House chief of staff was saying the same thing. “The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is [Democrats] think this is going to be what brings down the president,” Mick Mulvaney told those gathered outside the nation’s capital at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
“That’s what this is all about,” he said in lines that the president would later echo. “I got a note today from a reporter saying, ‘What are you going to do today to calm the markets?’ I’m like, really, what I might do to calm the markets is tell people to turn their televisions off for 24 hours.”
It is not the only piece of advice uttered by those on the right. Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk show host and recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, told his audience that “coronavirus is the common cold.”
The 2020 Democratic field, competing here in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, see things differently. And they blame the president.
“In the White House today, we have a self-described ‘great genius’— self-described,” Bernie Sanders said at the Tuesday night debate. “And this great genius has told us that this coronavirus is going to end in two months. April is the magical date that this great scientist we have in the White House has determined.”
But Trump has not simply rolled the dice on the infectious disease. He has appointed Vice President Mike Pence coronavirus “czar.” He has requested $2.5 billion from Congress to combat the virus. He has shut down travel in certain areas.
All of this was enough to calm those in the North Charleston crowd. “The economy is booming although the stock market is having some trouble because of the coronavirus, but, really, how are you going to blame that on him?” Billy Moore of nearby Charleston told RealClearPolitics. Of the virus, he said, “It’s not like he started it.”
And besides, Democrats will never give him credit for anything, Moore continued. “Trump can cure cancer tomorrow, and they’ll tell him he is 25 years late and 5 million people too late.”
Elizabeth Baker, a Democrat-turned-Trump-voter, said that the illness is “a legit concern” but expressed confidence “it’ll get under control for sure.”
Jason Miller, communications director for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, said the outbreak now makes Trump “a wartime president.”
“Think of where we are right now,” he told the Hill. “We literally have a population the size of France that is quarantined at this very moment in China. The November 2020 election could be a decision on who is best to keep us safe in the face of this coronavirus: Sanders or Trump. That could be the ultimate decision, as much as we talk about the economy and other things.”
Some of the rally attendees are worried, including a registered nurse at the nearby Medical University of South Carolina. “I think we are too dependent on China,” she said, adding that the coronavirus has only made things worse: “A lot of our medical supplies are made in China, and we are at a critical shortage where we are telling our medical students that they can’t ‘scrub in’ to surgery because we literally don’t have a gown to put on them.”
But John Borden of Charleston, sipping a margarita at a nearby Mexican restaurant after the rally, was less concerned. “America is the greatest country in the world, and I feel that our doctors and scientists are far ahead of anybody else and I think we will be just fine,” he said. “I feel 100% safe.”