Red virus, blue virus

By Robert Wright, Mar 22 2020

On March 11—back before President Trump had declared a national emergency and sent various other signals that he was now taking COVID-19 seriously—the Economist posted some numbers showing that Democrats were more worried about the virus than Republicans and more likely to have taken precautions against it. The headline said, “In America, even pandemics are political.” 

There’s certainly some truth to that. Once Trump, out of the gate, minimized the dangers posed by the virus, some of his supporters followed their leader—as supporters are especially inclined to do in polarized times. And their attachment to his position was probably strengthened by the derisive dismissal of it coming from his detractors. Psychology of Tribalism 101.

But to fully appreciate the coronavirus’s potential to deepen American polarization, you need to see how thoroughly it can be woven into the narrative that got Trump elected. And to see that, you need to understand another reason Trump supporters didn’t get as freaked out by the virus as Trump detractors: It wasn’t as much of a threat to them.

The virus was at first a blue-state problem: California, Washington State, New York, and Massachusetts had the biggest spots on the coronavirus map. And as the disease spread, it hit the bluer parts of the red states—the big cities. (As various analysts have noted, America’s great divide isn’t so much blue state versus red state—after all, big chunks of blue states are red, and vice versa—as high-population-density areas versus lower-density areas.)

Of course, this is changing. The virus is now in all states, and it’s starting to move from cities to towns. So maybe people on both sides of America’s political divide will more and more be seeing things the same way? 

In the sense of taking the epidemic seriously, yes. There’s been an uptick in Republicans’ interest in and concern about the coronavirus as it has spread and as Trump has gone from being dismissive of it to being conspicuously in command of the war against it. But there’s reason to worry that this convergence of perspectives won’t bring broader harmony between red and blue.  

For one thing, if you’re in a red state or a red town, and you see the virus headed your way, where is it headed from? From blue states and blue cities! Moreover: How did it get to those blue states and blue cities? From abroad.  

This image—blue America as a conveyer belt for foreign menace—fits nicely into the core narrative of Trumpism. It’s a narrative not just about the perils of global interconnection but also about the American coastal elites who abet it, who support and profit from unbridled international trade and easy immigration. In one version of this story, the coronavirus would never have reached our shores had these cosmopolitans not been flying around the globe, mingling with foreign elites rather than with the ordinary Americans they secretly disdain. COVID-19, a cell less than one ten-thousandth of an inch long, may be the most compact embodiment ever of Trump’s key campaign themes: nationalism, xenophobia, and populist resentment of America’s coastal cosmopolitan elites. It is a living link between Trump-designated foreign enemies and Trump-designated domestic enemies.

Or maybe this is all in my head. I have a tendency to fret about dire scenarios that have yet to unfold. For now, at least, much of red America still doesn’t sense enough peril to start blaming people for it. As Trump said at Friday’s press conference, even as New York and California are “hotbeds” of contagion, “you go out to the Midwest, you go out to other locations, and they’re watching it on television, but they don’t have the same problems. They don’t have by any means the same problem.” 

But even this difference of perspective can be divisive, as blue Americans ask for federal help and some red Americans champion a stew-in-your-own-juice policy. After my wife complained on Facebook that Trump hadn’t yet used his emergency powers to get more facemasks and ventilators manufactured in anticipation of likely shortages in New York City (where our daughters live), a Trump-supporting nephew of mine replied that “The President of the United States isn’t responsible for everything that happens to the entire population of the country.” He suggested that my wife direct her pleas to New York officials. “But the local government is far left so of course it’s not their fault, right? Well you should hold your local government responsible. Because they are.” 

Meanwhile, even if Trump isn’t spelling out the whole blue-states-as-foreign-menace-conveyers narrative, he’s certainly playing up the foreign menace part. Calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” not only diverts blame from his early inaction but pushes some of the nationalist and xenophobic buttons that got him elected. And supportive commentators even in fairly high-brow journals are fleshing out the narrative a bit further—asserting, for example, that the predicament the virus has left us in should be blamed on both the nefarious Chinese and on America’s embrace of heedless globalization. 

Two weeks ago, in The Week, Damon Linker argued that the coronavirus would strengthen Trump’s brand of nationalism not just because the virus came from abroad but because of the very nature of contagious disease. “Nationalism is a politics of fear and threat,” he wrote. “The fear of falling prey to the pandemic inspires suspicion of newness and crowds and ‘others’ of all kinds. We long, instead, for safety and protection, for cleanliness and purity. For the comfort and security of home.” 

For this and other reasons, Linker predicted that the coronavirus will strengthen and even expand populist nationalist movements not just the United States but in other countries where they’ve taken root: Poland, Hungary, Brazil, Germany, France, and elsewhere.    

The silver lining in Linker’s analysis was his belief that, as the epidemic spread, supporters of Trump would likely see that his early nonchalance about it was wrong and costly. In a conversation with me on The Wright Show podcast, Linker said it was reasonable to hope that Trump supporters would conclude that “the liberals who were up in arms about this virus weren’t completely crazy”—and the result might be an America with “not just conflicting narratives” but “more of a shared reality.” 

I hope that Linker’s right—that, even if COVID-19 is good for Trumpism, it could help discredit Trump. But at the moment Trump’s approval numbers are roughly where they were two weeks ago, back when he was minimizing the threat posed by the virus and before it had invaded all 50 states. And approval of his handling of the epidemic has actually risen. The “rally round the flag” effect of national crises is famously strong, and it would take salient and sustained ineptness on Trump’s part to wholly negate it.   

If Trump wants to fully harness that effect—which you’d think he’d want to do in an election year—he presumably will subdue his more egregiously polarizing tendencies. He might even use this opportunity to try to unify the nation. And—who knows?—he could even go whole hog and try to unify the world. But if he instead opts for his default mode of national and international divisiveness, this virus has given him plenty of raw material to work with. 

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