Not only will the coronavirus crisis define Donald Trump’s legacy, it will determine whether or not he is a one-term president.
David Winston, a Republican pollster, summed up the situation in an email:
The country is not looking at what is occurring through a political lens. They are focused on the threat to their health and the country’s health and how that threat is being addressed.
Because of that, Winston continued, voters will judge the Trump administration by “the effectiveness of actions taken to address that threat, and get the country moving forward again,” making the question on Election Day “who does the country believe should be given the responsibility to govern.”
Crises can provoke extreme responses. The 2008-9 recession produced both Barack Obama and the Tea Party. On a grander scale, the Great Depression produced both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler.
No one is suggesting that the country is at such a point now, but, then again, no one suggested in January of 2015 that the country was on the verge of electing Donald Trump president.
The current pandemic shows signs of reshaping the American political and social order for years to come.
A March 10-15 NBC News/Commonwealth Fund poll asked 1,006 adults “How much do you trust the President Trump to provide information about the coronavirus epidemic?” A majority, 53 percent, said they either had no trust at all (40 percent) or little trust (13 percent). 30 percent said they either completely trust (16 percent) or mostly trust (14 percent) the president.
In another danger signal for Trump, the poll asked “how confident are you that the vaccine will be available to the American public at little or no cost” if a Democrat wins or if Trump is re-elected. Nearly two thirds said they were confident a low-cost vaccine would be available with a Democrat in the White House; half said they were confident with Trump in office for another four years.
Trump’s job approval ratings have risen in recent weeks, but Gary Langer, who conducts polling for ABC News, warned that the results of an ABC/Washington Post survey released on March 27 show that there are substantial risks to the president:
Trump’s overall approval rating drops among people who are more worried about catching the coronavirus, report severe local economic impacts, say their lives have been especially disrupted or know someone who’s caught the virus. He also has lower approval in states with higher per capita infection rates.
While some of those findings reflect the higher levels of infection with coronavirus in blue states, Langer wrote, “the results suggest that as the crisis deepens, the risks to views of his performance likely rise.”
On March 26, Pew Research released results of a survey that showed significant demographic and partisan differences in responses to the question “Has someone in your household lost a job or taken a pay cut as a result of Covid-19?”
In both cases, significantly higher percentages of young people, minorities, low-wage earners and Democrats reported adverse impacts on their households than did older, white, high- income Republican respondents. At 36 percent, more than a third of those with low incomes reported taking a pay cut since the onset of Covid-19, twice the level of those in the upper third of the income distribution, at 18 percent.
In a striking development, partisan polarization has emerged as a powerful force in shaping responses to the virus.
In a paper published last week, “Partisanship, Health Behavior, and Policy Attitudes in the Early Stages of the Covid-19 Pandemic,” three political scientists, Shana Kushner Gadarian of Syracuse University, Sara Wallace Goodman of the University of California, Irvine and Thomas B. Pepinsky of Cornell, found “a broad political divide in reaction to Covid-19.”
The authors conducted a survey of 3,000 adults March 20-23 asking about health behavior and attitudes toward the crisis. Gadarian, Goodman and Pepinsky determined that
Republicans are less likely than Democrats to report responding with Center for Disease Control-recommended behavior, and are less concerned about the pandemic, yet are more likely to support policies that restrict trade and movement across borders as a response to it.
In contrast, Democrats “have responded by changing their personal health behaviors, and supporting policies that socialize the costs of testing and treatment.”
Partisanship is a more consistent predictor of behaviors, attitudes, and preferences than anything else that we measure.
Gadarian, who is a co-author (with Bethany Albertson, a political scientist at the University of Texas) of the 2015 book “Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World,” added by email that “the divide in anxiety along partisan lines is very troubling” and that it is “likely to continue until the president and conservative media allow the health experts to lead the messaging.”
While acknowledging that Trump has seen a short-term bump in his favorability rating, she pointed out that “when people start to understand the seriousness of this disease up close, this should diminish the importance of partisanship in their decision-making. Unfortunately, that may be too late to take the steps necessary to avoid harm to themselves and their families.”
When the best-case scenario predicts 100,000 to 240,000 deaths, the pandemic reminds us just how important it is who holds the reins of power. This is especially the case when one crucial question will be whether widespread suffering, panic and economic collapse will destabilize the American political system and the fragile consensus-based social order that underpins it, both of which have been under strain for some time.
Paul Conway, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, argued that “evidence from history and the psychological literature suggests that under times of stress and uncertainty, there are a number of different effects.”
On the plus side, he wrote by email, “people pull together and support one another more,” adding that “when people endure shared fight against a common enemy, their interests are aligned and they’re more likely to see a bond of camaraderie that can blossom into reduced prejudice.”
There is, however, another side of the coin, Conway said:
When times are more uncertain and threatening, then strangers and outsiders and people different from oneself feel more threatening on an intuitive, gut level.
Extensive research, he wrote,
shows that fear of infection increases prejudice and distrust of outsiders. Hence, this pandemic also has potential to increase friction between social groups, thickening boundaries. We have already seen reinforcement of borders on a global scale not seen since the Second World War.
Along parallel lines, Conway argued,
the times we’re living in exacerbate economic tensions leading to greater pressure for left-wing policies, while at the same time exacerbating fear of contamination from others who seem different, which exacerbates support for right-wing policies.
The severe economic recession in Weimar Germany in the early 1930s led “not only to an increase in support for the Nazi Party but also for the Communist Party,” Conway wrote, just as the economic collapse in Greece at the start of the last decade “increased support for both Communist and National Socialist parties there.”
With this history in mind, Conway predicted that
for the next decade or so in America and around the world, there will be even more intense partisan division, including, on the right, increased support for some authoritarian policies.
Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at N.Y.U., argued by email that
If we had good leadership — a president who could unify the country and turn our shared adversity into social solidarity, trust, and cooperation, then we could look to past national crises such as World War II and the boost it gave to social capital.
But, he continued,
We don’t have that. In fact, a marker of our political sickness is that taking the virus seriously has become itself a marker of tribal identity.
Along similarly pessimistic lines, Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, told me by email that there were two reasons that “this moment holds the potential to resuscitate negative feelings that Americans have about government.”
If the government actually succeeds in keeping the carnage to a minimum, it is unlikely to change much. Americans already think government can do this. If, however, the government doesn’t succeed — and I think there is every reason to think it will struggle with these problems — it has the potential to further undermine trust in government. People already don’t trust it to redistribute money and provide certain services, which is bad. If they come to think it is not competent to keep us safe, it will be even worse, much worse.
Republicans have internalized what used to be just a political strategy, which increases the chances that government will fail.
Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush “used to run against government, but they still took staffing it seriously. The Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses were full of excellent professionals,” Hetherington wrote.
Since then, however:
That cynical approach to campaigning seems to have infected their approach to governing. In 2016, the party nominated a complete political amateur, pointing up just how little governance means to the party. And, of course, Trump has failed to fill vacancies in key areas like the C.D.C., disbanded the pandemic task force in the N.S.C., and all sorts of other stuff.
The result, Hetherington wrote, is a government “characterized by poor leadership at the cabinet level and hollowed out expertise at the department level,” sharply increasing the “chance that government simply can’t come through right now.”
This assessment is, in large part, shared by David Autor, an economist at M.I.T. Under different circumstances, Autor wrote me, it would be
easy to tell a story in which this episode causes Americans to remember that their government is indispensable for marshaling expertise, coordinating emergency measures, guarding public safety, serving as an insurer of last resort, calming financial markets, and generally shepherding its citizens through an extraordinarily challenging time.
But these are very different circumstances:
After four decades of successful Republican effort to starve the U.S. government of resources and demonize its experts, our government is in fact less competent, less well prepared, and less agile than it used to be. Perhaps this event would have restored our faith in government were the government deserving of that faith. The picture is mixed at best, so far.
Autor argued that “the monetary and fiscal responses have been quite amazing,” but
the public health response has been a disaster — a poisonous cocktail of denial, incompetence, and failed leadership. There are still some great civil servants in U.S. agencies. But the foundation is shaky.
Most shaky of all is Trump’s vacillating stance toward the pandemic. He has lurched from complete denial (“One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear”) to “I am not responsible” to “We’re doing a great job” to “It’s going to disappear” to “It will go away” to awarding himself a 10 out of 10 to calling the unavailable tests “PERFECT” to claiming “We have it very well under control” to setting Easter, April 12, as the date to reopen the country “a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline” to boasting of high ratings as death projections soared. On Tuesday, Trump seemed to have come to his senses, at least for now: “This is going to be a very painful, very, very painful two weeks.”
Linda J. Skitka, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, voiced in an email her fears about the likelihood of a separate possible development: “My greatest concern right now is how these events will increase xenophobia in general, and against anyone of Asian descent in particular.”
Her research on reactions to 9/11 “indicated that people seem to be desperate to find someone to be responsible for the disaster” and
Americans post-9/11 reported more negative attitudes relative to pre-9/11 toward Arabs, Muslims, as well as Jews — basically anyone of Middle-Eastern descent. The rise in hate crimes from pre-to-post 9/11 against these groups was startlingly high.
Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, argued in an email that in the short term “there will be lots of blame to go around” and “that blame will almost certainly fuel even more partisan politics.” He believes that this anger “will change underlying attitudes toward government.” In the longer term, “assuming a moderate scenario of limited deaths and a short-term recession, and life back to normal within 2 years,” Drutman argued, “the impact will probably be minor.” But under a more extreme scenario — “more deaths, more economic devastation” — a more threatening outcome looms:
Times of high threat make us more open to authoritarian leadership, and economic and health emergencies create opportunities for authoritarian leaders to consolidate power in the name of fixing an emergency. In short: the worse the impact, the wider the range of possible futures, including some rather extreme scenarios.
The extraordinary shock to our system that the coronavirus pandemic is bringing has the potential to break America out of the 50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization we have been trapped in, and help us to change course toward greater national solidarity and functionality. It might sound idealistic, but there are two reasons to think it can happen.
The first is the “common enemy” scenario, in which people begin to look past their differences when faced with a shared external threat. Covid-19 is presenting us with a formidable enemy that will not distinguish between reds and blues, and might provide us with fusion-like energy and a singularity of purpose to help us reset and regroup.
The second reason is the “political shock wave” scenario. Studies have shown that strong, enduring relational patterns often become more susceptible to change after some type of major shock destabilizes them. This doesn’t necessarily happen right away, but a study of 850 enduring inter-state conflicts that occurred between 1816 to 1992 found that more than 75 percent of them ended within 10 years of a major destabilizing shock. Societal shocks can break different ways, making things better or worse. But given our current levels of tension, this scenario suggests that now is the time to begin to promote more constructive patterns in our cultural and political discourse. The time for change is clearly ripening.
The situation Americans face goes far beyond what Donald Trump does or doesn’t do, or what he can or cannot do. Partisan commitments aside, preparation for — and extreme measures to avoid — the worst of outcomes is both rational and necessary. We are in enough trouble as it is.