Trump and the Virus: It’s All About the Base

In confronting the coronavirus pandemic, it is striking that President Trump, who normally likes to be seen as The Man in Charge, driving events, has instead dragged his feet when pressed to take decisive, radical measures that most experts argue are necessary to avert the most catastrophic infection and death rates.  For months he downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak, before finally in the last week or so finally accepting that it is indeed serious.  He then, ludicrously, claimed that he knew it was a pandemic long before it was called one.  Was he then lying to the public earlier?  Or is he lying now?

The result has been a federal response that has been incoherent, inconsistent and confusing, leaving it to state governors, mayors, business and community leaders to improvise as seems best to them.  Confronting a pandemic that is national and global in scope, the United States are hardly united.  Piecemeal policies allow the virus many openings.  At this writing the federal government has yet to mobilize, as it alone can do, the vast resources that could blunt the effects of both the pandemic and its attendant global depression.

The thing is, this incoherence is not just Trump’s: he is both reflecting and feeding the partisan and ideological divide of our society.  A recent Economist/YouGov poll  found that approval or disapproval of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus was highly correlated with both party identification and ideology.

                                    Democrats      Republicans                Liberals           Conservatives

Strongly approve          6%                48%                              4%                56%

Strongly disapprove   53%                  5%                            66%                 6%

The other major variable is education:

                                    HS or less       Some College             College Grad  Postgrad

Strongly disapprove   24%                30%                            41%                46%

Similar patterns are found on how well the US is doing relative to other countries: Republicans and conservatives tend to see the US as doing better than other countries; Democrats and liberals tend the opposite.

How one evaluates the crisis and the efforts to deal with it is thus intimately linked to which political current you are in.  This then gets manifested in how we respond to the crisis.  The New York Times studied changes in how far people travelled in each state as the crisis deepened.  While people everywhere have been moving around less over time, states that are most Democratic have tended to reduce travel more than Republican states.

So when Trump downplays the seriousness of the crisis or undercuts his own scientific advisers, he’s both taking cues from his base, and sending cues.

Because we are so divided as a country, it seems we are doomed to incoherence in our response to COVID19. And we are therefore doomed to see more infections and more deaths than we could have had.  Cheers!

John Peeler is the former chairman (now retired) of the Political Science department at Bucknell University.