Students at Liberty University are more likely than most to understand the specialness of this biblical lesson. It is one of the few stories in which Falwell should not be assigned the part of an ass. For that matter, he does not even deserve the role of Balaam, who at least was open to instruction. Instead, Falwell has charged the angel straight on and — in defiance of nearly all public health experts — reopened the Liberty dorms in the middle of a pandemic. Now, according to the New York Times, at least one student has tested positive and several more have shown coronavirus-like symptoms.
Falwell played down the risk to students who might get the disease. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk,” he argued last week, “and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”
But this public response indicates the staggering level of ignorance that informs Falwell’s leadership. It is possible for students with mild or unnoticeable symptoms to spread the disease. And once cases are discovered, it is generally too late to take preventive action. Yes, the fatality rate of infected college students is likely to be low. Yet places with broad community spread are more likely to see infection of the elderly and vulnerable, who are more likely to fill premature graves. Since when has Liberty University embraced the teaching of Social Darwinism in Ethics 101?
What can’t be disputed is the constant churn of mixed messages that Falwell has contributed to our national debate. His stated intention has been to concentrate Liberty’s student population: “I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell personally welcomed hundreds of students back to campus after Spring Break. “They were talking about being glad to be back,” he recalled. “I was joking how they pretty much had the whole place to themselves, and I told them to enjoy it.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell has called the national pandemic response an “overreaction” with political motivations. “Impeachment didn’t work,” he claimed, “and the Mueller report didn’t work and Article 25 didn’t work, and so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell went on Fox News and speculated that the coronavirus might have been the work of the North Korean military.
It can’t be disputed that Falwell called one critic a “dummy,” even though he is the parent of Liberty students. Or that Falwell has dismissed a critical professor named Marybeth Davis Baggett as “the ‘Baggett’ lady.’ ”
There is an old Bob Dylan song titled, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Who is Falwell serving instead of students, parents, staff, his board and the Lynchburg, Va., community? Let’s see.
- Falwell has contempt for the weak. He is
- dismissive of experts. H
- traffics in conspiracy theories. He
- attacks his critics with infantile putdowns and demeaning names. And he
- refuses to admit when he is dangerously wrong.
Who does that sound like? It is on the tip of my tongue.
In this case Falwell has gone even further than the president, who is occasionally forced, under duress, to say sane things about the virus. Falwell seems to want credit from President Trump for drinking the most distilled, concentrated, rotgut form of the Kool-Aid.
He blunders toward blasphemy by insisting that he is being persecuted for his religious beliefs. “We’re conservative,” he claims, “we’re Christian, and therefore we’re being attacked.” But any path that ignores the truth and endangers the vulnerable can’t be called the way of Christ. No, there is only one explanation: Falwell has laid down the cross to follow Trump.
Covid-19 Brings Out All the Usual Zombies
Let me summarize the Trump administration/right-wing media view on the coronavirus:
- It’s a hoax, or anyway
- no big deal. Besides,
- trying to do anything about it would destroy the economy. And
- it’s China’s fault, which is why we should call it the “Chinese virus.”Oh, and epidemiologists who have been modeling the virus’s future spread have come under sustained attack, accused of
- being part of a “deep state” plot against Donald Trump,
- or maybe free markets.
Does all this give you a sense of déjà vu? It should. After all, it’s very similar to the Trump/right-wing line on climate change. Here’s what Trump tweeted back in 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” It’s all there: it’s a hoax, doing anything about it will destroy the economy, and let’s blame China.
And epidemiologists startled to find their best scientific efforts denounced as politically motivated fraud should have known what was coming. After all, exactly the same thing happened to climate scientists, who have faced constant harassment for decades.
So the right-wing response to Covid-19 has been almost identical to the right-wing response to climate change, albeit on a vastly accelerated time scale. But what lies behind this kind of denialism?
Well, I recently published a book about the prevalence in our politics of “zombie ideas” — ideas that have been proved wrong by overwhelming evidence and should be dead, but somehow keep shambling along, eating people’s brains. The most prevalent zombie in U.S. politics is the insistence that tax cuts for the rich produce economic miracles, indeed pay for themselves, but the most consequential zombie, the one that poses an existential threat, is climate change denial. And Covid-19 has brought out all the usual zombies.
But why, exactly, is the right treating a pandemic the same way it treats tax cuts and climate change?
The force that usually keeps zombie ideas shambling along is naked financial self-interest.
- Paeans to the virtues of tax cuts are more or less directly paid for by billionaires who benefit from these cuts.
- Climate denial is an industry supported almost entirely by fossil-fuel interests. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
However, it’s less obvious who gains from minimizing the dangers of a pandemic. Among other things, the time scale is vastly compressed compared with climate change: the consequences of global warming will take many decades to play out, giving fossil-fuel interests plenty of time to take the money and run, but we’re already seeing catastrophic consequences of virus denial after just a few weeks.
True, there are may be some billionaires who imagine that denying the crisis will work to their financial advantage. Just before Trump made his terrifying call for reopening the nation by Easter, he had a conference call with a group of money managers, who may have told him that ending social distancing would be good for the market. That’s insane, but you should never underestimate the cupidity of these people. Remember, Blackstone’s Steve Schwarzman, one of the men on the call, once compared proposals to close a tax loophole to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Also, billionaires have done very well by Trump’s tax cuts, and may fear that the economic damage from the coronavirus will bring about Trump’s defeat, and hence tax increases for people like them.
But I suspect that the disastrous response to Covid-19 has been shaped less by direct self-interest than by two indirect ways in which pandemic policy gets linked to the general prevalence of zombie ideas in right-wing thought.
First, when you have a political movement almost entirely built around assertions than any expert can tell you are false, you have to cultivate an attitude of disdain toward expertise, one that spills over into everything. Once you dismiss people who look at evidence on the effects of tax cuts and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, you’re already primed to dismiss people who look at evidence on disease transmission.
This also helps explain the centrality of science-hating religious conservatives to modern conservatism, which has played an important role in Trump’s failure to respond.
Second, conservatives do hold one true belief: namely, that there is a kind of halo effect around successful government policies. If public intervention can be effective in one area, they fear — probably rightly — that voters might look more favorably on government intervention in other areas. In principle, public health measures to limit the spread of coronavirus needn’t have much implication for the future of social programs like Medicaid. In practice, the first tends to increase support for the second.
As a result, the right often opposes government interventions even when they clearly serve the public good and have nothing to do with redistributing income, simply because they don’t want voters to see government doing anything well.
The bottom line is that as with so many things Trump, the awfulness of the man in the White House isn’t the whole story behind terrible policy. Yes, he’s ignorant, incompetent, vindictive and utterly lacking in empathy. But his failures on pandemic policy owe as much to the nature of the movement he serves as they do to his personal inadequacies.
Used to Meeting Challenges With Bluster and Force, Trump Confronts a Crisis Unlike Any Before
The ways he dealt with crises in his business, real estate and even his personal life prove jarring as he leads the government’s response to a pandemic.
WASHINGTON — During his campaign for the White House in 2016, President Trump’s advisers briefly tried to run through with him how he would address a large-scale disaster if he won. What, for instance, would he have done during Hurricane Katrina?
“I would have fixed that,” Mr. Trump replied with certitude, referring to the government’s bungled rescue and recovery efforts, according to a campaign official who was present for the exchange. “I would have come up with a much better response.” How? He did not say. He just asserted it would have been better and advisers did not press him to elaborate.
Mr. Trump is no stranger to crisis. He has spent a lifetime grappling with bankruptcy, fending off creditors, evading tax collectors, defending lawsuits, deflecting regulators, spinning reporters and dueling with estranged wives, usually coming out ahead, at least as he defines it. But these were crises of his own creation involving human adversaries he knew how to confront. Nothing in his background in business, entertainment or multiple marriages prepared him for the coronavirus pandemic now threatening America’s health and wealth.
Mr. Trump’s performance on the national stage in recent weeks has put on display the traits that Democrats and some Republicans consider so jarring — the profound
- need for personal praise, the
- propensity to blame others, the
- lack of human empathy, the
- penchant for rewriting history, the
- disregard for expertise, the
- distortion of facts, the
- impatience with scrutiny or criticism.
For years, skeptics expressed concern about how he would handle a genuine crisis threatening the nation, and now they know.
“When he’s faced a problem, he has sought to somehow cheat or fix the outcome ahead of time so that he could construct a narrative that showed him to be the winner,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “And when it was all about feuds with other celebrities or contests over ratings or hotel branding, he could do that and no one cared enough to really check. And the bluster and bragging worked.”
“But in this case,” Mr. D’Antonio added, “he tried that in the beginning and you can’t brag or bluster your way out of people dying. And I think more than the suffering, the human suffering, it’s been the inexorable quality of the data that’s forced him to change.”
Only after viral projections grew more dire and markets began to tank did Mr. Trump shift tone and appear to take the threat more seriously, finally adopting a more aggressive set of policies to compel Americans to stay away from one another while trying to mitigate the economic damage.
Some in the public seem to have responded. Fifty-five percent of Americans approved of his handling of the crisis in a poll by ABC News and Ipsos released on Friday, up from 43 percent the previous week. A Reuters poll, also conducted with Ipsos, put approval of his handling of the pandemic at 48 percent, up from 38 percent a couple weeks earlier, while surveys by The Economist and YouGov showed a smaller rise, from 41 percent to 45 percent.
But even as he has seemed to take the crisis more seriously, Mr. Trump has continued to make statements that conflicted with the government’s own public health experts and focused energy on blaming China, quarreling with reporters, claiming he knew that the coronavirus would be a pandemic even when he was minimizing its threat only a few weeks ago and congratulating himself for how he has managed a crisis he only recently acknowledged.
“We’ve done a fantastic job from just about every standpoint,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve done a great job,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve done a phenomenal job on this,” he said Thursday.
The next day he grew irritated when Peter Alexander of NBC News asked if he was giving Americans a “false sense of hope” by promising immediate delivery of a drug that experts said is not proven. Mr. Trump said he disagreed with them. “Just a feeling,” he said. “You know, I’m a smart guy. I feel good about it.”
Mr. Alexander moved onto his next question, a “softball” by his own reckoning, asking what Mr. Trump would say to Americans who were at home watching and scared. Most presidents would use the opportunity to offer reassuring words. But Mr. Trump was still steamed and snapped, “I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say.”
Later in the same briefing, Yamiche Alcindor of PBS’s “NewsHour” asked when everyone who needed a coronavirus test would be able to get one, as he asserted two weeks ago that every person already could. “Nobody is even talking about it except for you, which doesn’t surprise me,” he said dismissively. How about people with symptoms who could not get a test, he was asked. “I’m not hearing it,” he replied.
The White House rejects any criticism of the president as illegitimate. “This great country has been faced with an unprecedented crisis, and while the Democrats and the media shamelessly try and destroy this president with a coordinated, relentless, biased political assault, President Trump has risen to fight this crisis head-on by taking aggressive historic action to protect the health, wealth and well-being of the American people,” Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.
Mr. Trump acted at the end of January to restrict travel from China, where the outbreak was first detected, and repeatedly points back to that decision, arguing that he saved lives as a result. But he resisted stronger action for weeks. Even as governors, mayors and businesses decided on their own to curb large gatherings and eventually close down schools, restaurants and workplaces, the president at first offered no guidance about whether to take such action.
He has repeatedly misrepresented the state of the response — promising a vaccine “soon” that will actually take at least a year to develop, insisting that tests were available while patients struggled to find any, boasting about the availability of millions of masks while health care workers took to stitching together homemade versions. And dismissing the threat for weeks may have led to complacency among some Americans who could have acted much sooner to take precautions.
Mr. Trump’s defensiveness over the pandemic has become a central dynamic inside the White House as officials wrestle with difficult policy choices. Aides have long understood that Mr. Trump needs to hear support for his decisions, preferably described in superlatives. He often second-guesses himself, prompting advisers to ask allies to tell him he made the right call or go on Fox News to make that point in case he might be watching.
Over the last week, as Mr. Trump has faced ever more draconian and expensive options, Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, sought to coax him into action by using bits of praise in news coverage or from other officials as a motivator, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Officials have learned that the president craves a constant diet of flattery, which they serve up during daily televised briefings. Vice President Mike Pence makes a point of repeating it day after day, sometimes repeatedly in the course of a single briefing. “Mr. President, from early on, you took decisive action,” he said during one.
Other advisers have followed suit. “Thank you, Mr. President, for gathering your public health experts here today and for your strong leadership in keeping America safe,” Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, told him at one point. “I want to thank you for your leadership during this coronavirus outbreak,” Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told him at another.
Even Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the veteran infectious diseases expert known for his just-the-facts style, has sometimes joined in praise of the president, at one point referring to Mr. Trump’s “proactive, leaning-forward, aggressive, trying to stay ahead of the curve” approach. While Dr. Fauci does not hesitate to correct the president’s facts, as he did on Friday over the unproven drug, he does so politely, careful to maintain his viability within a political team. Still, many noticed that he put his hand to his face in seeming disbelief when Mr. Trump referred to his diplomats as the “Deep State Department.”
Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, said Mr. Trump had been unfairly criticized for his handling of the virus. “The media virtually ignore the president’s massive effort mobilizing the federal government, our industrial base and the scientific and medical community to combat this pandemic, rivaling F.D.R.’s arsenal of democracy,” he said.
Mr. King said that Mr. Trump was working with Democrats but the news media “prefer to dwell on initial failure of C.D.C. test kits and low inventory of masks and ventilators going back two administrations.” Still, he said of Mr. Trump, “He too often takes the bait.”
None of which comes as a surprise to those who dealt with Mr. Trump or studied his life before he became president. In real estate, he found he could overcome crises by bluffing his way past regulators, bullying the bankers and bamboozling the tabloids.
When banks came after him for overdue loans, he pushed back, arguing that it was in their interest that his brand not be harmed by calling him out. When contractors demanded to be paid, he found complaints about their work and refused, leading in part to more than 3,500 lawsuits. When his first two marriages fell apart, he took a scorched-earth approach against his wives, leaking to New York’s gossip columnists even if it meant his children watched ugly divorces play out in public.
“The typical modus operandi from him is to bluff, is to fake, is to deny,” said Jack O’Donnell, the former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.
When Mr. Trump prepared to open the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 1990 and ran into trouble with the authorities, he summoned Mr. O’Donnell. “He told them I was an expert in operations and I could fix this,” Mr. O’Donnell recalled. “And they believed him. I was dumbfounded. He was completely bluffing them.”
To Mr. Trump, most of his crises were about paper and money, not people. The self-described “king of debt” treated loan repayments almost as if they were optional and made it a mantra never to back down. “I figured it was the bank’s problem, not mine,” he wrote in one of his books. “What the hell did I care? I actually told one bank, ‘I told you, you shouldn’t have loaned me that money.’”
Perhaps the only time before his presidency that the human toll of a crisis really struck Mr. Trump in a personal way came when three of his executives died in a helicopter crash heading to Atlantic City. He seemed genuinely shaken, visiting the widows to share in their grief.
“I actually think he handled that situation about as well as you could expect from him,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “It was such a shock to him. It was the first time I heard fear in his voice. It was the first time I saw empathy, that I saw emotion from him, because he realized the human loss there.”
Even then, Mr. Trump could not help inserting himself into the story, suggesting falsely that he almost boarded the helicopter himself. And within months, with his Taj project flailing, Mr. Trump began publicly attributing problems to the dead executives. In a crisis, “he always was more focused on who he could blame versus fixing the problem,” said Mr. O’Donnell, who quit in disgust.
Nor did Mr. Trump exhibit much empathy for the workers who lost their jobs when his casinos went bust. Instead, when asked about his failed Atlantic City ventures, he emphasizes his own ability to escape unharmed. “The money I took out of there was incredible,” he once told The New York Times.
The closest analogue to the current situation may be the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, another national trauma. Mr. Trump tried to thrust himself into the news coverage, telling an interviewer by phone that day that with the destruction of the World Trade Center he now had the tallest building in New York City, a claim that was not even true. He also has said he spent extensive time around the site trying to help the cleanup, a claim that has never been verified.
With the airports closed at the time, Mr. Trump was asked to provide his private plane to fly Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. George E. Pataki to Washington for President George W. Bush’s address to Congress. Mr. Trump agreed — but in return asked for help getting permission to travel from Washington to another destination when others were grounded.
By his own account, Mr. Trump never imagined that he would be facing a pandemic, an invisible killer immune to bluster. “In every previous occasion, he was facing a human being or groups of human beings,” said Gwenda Blair, the author of a biography of the Trump family. “And obviously the coronavirus, it’s not a person, can’t be bullied.”
So Mr. Trump, with his recent descriptions of a war to be won over a “foreign enemy,” is seeking a dynamic that he is familiar with, personifying the virus as an opponent to be beaten, framing it as the kind of crisis he knows how to tackle. “He’s trying to make it into a win-lose situation,” she said. “That’s how he sees the world — winners, him, losers everybody else. He’s trying to make the coronavirus into a loser and himself the winner.”
Red and Blue America Aren’t Experiencing the Same Pandemic
The disconnect is already shaping, even distorting, the nation’s response.
Even a disease as far-reaching as the coronavirus hasn’t entirely crossed the chasm between red and blue America.In several key respects, the outbreak’s early stages are unfolding very differently in Republican- and Democratic-leaning parts of the country. That disconnect is already shaping, even distorting, the nation’s response to this unprecedented challenge—and it could determine the pandemic’s ultimate political consequences as well.
A flurry of new national polls released this week reveals that while anxiety about the disease is rising on both sides of the partisan divide, Democrats consistently express much more concern about it than Republicans do, and they are much more likely to say they have changed their personal behavior as a result. A similar gap separates people who live in large metropolitan centers, which have become the foundation of the Democratic electoral coalition, from those who live in the small towns and rural areas that are the modern bedrock of the GOP.
Government responses have followed these same tracks. With a few prominent exceptions, especially Ohio, states with Republican governors have been slower, or less likely, than those run by Democrats to impose restrictions on their residents. Until earlier this week, Donald Trump downplayed the disease’s danger and overstated the extent to which the United States had “control” over it, as the conservative publication The Bulwark recently documented. Conservative media figures including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity likewise insisted for weeks that the media and Democrats were exaggerating the danger as a means of weakening Trump. Several Republican elected officials encouraged their constituents to visit bars and restaurants precisely when federal public-health officials were urging the opposite.The disparity between the parties was underscored late yesterday afternoon when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and California Governor Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, issued rapid-fire orders closing down all non-essential businesses, first in the city and then in the entire state, a jurisdiction of 39.5 million people.
This divergence reflects not only ideological but also geographic realities. So far, the greatest clusters of the disease, and the most aggressive responses to it, have indeed been centered in a few large, Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas, including Seattle, New York, San Francisco, and Boston. At yesterday’s White House press briefing, Deborah Birx, the administration’s response coordinator, said half of the nation’s cases so far are located in just 10 counties. The outbreak’s eventual political effects may vary significantly depending on how extensively it spreads beyond these initial beachheads.
If the virus never becomes pervasive beyond big cities, that could reinforce the sense among many Republican voters and office-holders that the threat has been overstated. It could also fuel the kind of xenophobia that Trump and other GOP leaders, such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have encouraged by labeling the disease the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.”
“There’s a long history of conservatives demonizing the cities as sources of disease to threaten the ‘pure heartland,’” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, the director of political studies at the libertarian Niskanen Center and the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of the modern Republican Party. “That’s an old theme. So that could be how it goes down.”
Conversely, the charge that Trump failed to move quickly enough may cut more deeply if the burden of the disease is heavily felt in the smaller communities where his support is deepest. Most medical experts believe that, eventually, the outbreak will reach all corners of the country, including the mostly Republican-leaning small towns and rural areas that are now less visibly affected.
“There’s no reason to think that smaller communities will be protected from it,” Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “It may take longer for it to get there, but as long as there are people coming and going … the virus will eventually find its way to rural communities as well.”
Still, some experts believe that, throughout the outbreak, the greatest effects will remain localized in large urban centers. “The bottom line is, every epidemic is local, and the social networks and the physical infrastructure in any specific geographic area will determine the spread of the epidemic,” Jeffrey D. Klausner, a professor of medicine and public health at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told me. “Particularly, respiratory viruses are dependent on close social networks and are going to spread much more efficiently in crowded, densely populated urban areas.”
The tendency of Democratic-leaning places to feel the impact first reflects the larger economic separation between the two parties. Democrats now dominate the places in the U.S. most integrated into the global economy, which may be more likely to receive international visitors or see their own residents travel abroad.On the case-tracking website maintained by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering, each of the four states with the largest number of coronavirus cases is a Democratic-leaning place along the coast: New York, Washington, California, and New Jersey. Florida, a coastal, internationally oriented state that leans slightly toward the GOP, ranks fifth. Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Texas, each with at least one big urban center that functions as a gateway for tourism and trade, come in next. And though the Johns Hopkins project isn’t publishing precise county and municipal data on the outbreak, the biggest clusters of disease have all erupted in a few large metropolitan areas.
Toner said that while “it’s not universally the case” that pandemic diseases tend to spread first in the places most open to international travel, “as a general rule” that is the progression they follow. “The virus travels with people,” Toner said. “So, where people travel is where the virus goes first, and then it spreads out from those areas in which it has been introduced.”
By contrast, with only a few exceptions, the states with the fewest number of confirmed cases are smaller, Republican-leaning ones between the coasts, with fewer ties to diverse populations and the global economy. That list includes Wyoming, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas. (One important caveat: Testing in the United States remains deficient, so many cases are inevitably flying under the radar. “It’s not the case that other places don’t have cases,” Toner said. “They just don’t recognize them yet.”)
Peter Wehner: The Trump presidency is over
Republican-leaning states to this point are displaying notably less urgency about the outbreak. Of the states that have taken the fewest actions to restrict public gatherings or limit restaurant service on a statewide basis—such as Texas, Missouri, and Alabama—almost all have Republican governors, according to research by Topher Spiro, the vice president for health policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, where he directs a program that examines state health initiatives.
That’s left Democratic-run cities in those red states—such as Houston, Tucson, Nashville, and Atlanta—to try to impose their own rules on public gatherings. Yet all those local limits face an obvious problem: People from elsewhere in the state can still travel to their jurisdictions. “We can’t seal our borders,” acknowledged Lina Hidalgo, the chief administrator in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, when she announced county-wide closures on Monday.
The willingness to impose statewide rules hasn’t entirely followed party lines: Before his announcement in California yesterday, for example, Newsom had couched proposals to shut restaurants, schools, and other establishments as recommendations, not requirements, thus permitting a patchwork of local responses. But generally, Spiro’s research found, almost all of the states that took the earliest and most dramatic statewide action, such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Illinois, have Democratic governors.Public attitudes about the outbreak are separating along the same lines. The huge differences between Republicans and Democrats extend not only to assessments of Trump’s response to the outbreak but also to its underlying level of danger and the need to change personal behavior. If anything, there’s considerable evidence that those gaps are widening.
A national Gallup poll released Monday, for instance, found that while 73 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of independents said they feared that they or someone in their family might be exposed to the coronavirus, only 42 percent of Republicans agreed. That 31-percentage-point difference dwarfed the gap in February, when slightly more Republicans (30 percent) than Democrats (26 percent) said they were concerned.
Other surveys have found comparably stunning differences. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday, Republicans were only half as likely as Democrats to say that they planned to stop attending large gatherings, and just one-third as likely to say that they had cut back on eating at restaurants. In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Tuesday, just over half of Republicans said the threat from the virus had been exaggerated, compared with one in five Democrats and two in five independents.
In a nationwide Kaiser Family Foundation poll released the same day, about half of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents said the outbreak had disrupted their life at least some, according to detailed results provided to me by the pollsters. But only one-third of Republicans and those who leaned Republican agreed. About half of Democrats said they had changed travel plans and decided not to attend large gatherings. In both cases, less than one-third of Republicans agreed.
Kabaservice says the tendency of GOP voters and officials to downplay the risk partly reflects Trump’s initially dismissive messaging about the crisis. But it may also relate to a deeper ideological suspicion of scientists, the media, and subject-matter experts within the federal government.
“This is something we’ve gone through a while here among Republicans,” Kabaservice says. “The feeling increasingly is that experts and the media are all part of this elite class that is self-dealing and is looking down on less-educated and less-fortunate people, and [that] they can’t be trusted to tell the truth.” He adds, “That dynamic … has been reinforced” by the emergence of the “conservative media ecosystem,” which unstintingly presents “elites” as a threat to viewers.
The parties’ contrasting geographic bases of support may also have an influence. Recent public polling has found an imposing gulf in attitudes between urban and suburban areas on one side and small-town and rural areas on the other.In the Gallup survey, two-thirds of urban residents and three-fifths of those in suburbs said they were concerned about someone around them contracting the coronavirus, while only about half of those living in rural areas agreed, according to detailed results provided to me by Gallup. (That town-and-country gap had widened since February.) In the Kaiser poll, more than two-thirds of rural residents said the outbreak had disrupted their life little or not at all, while nearly half of urban residents said they had already experienced disruption. Additionally, rural residents were almost twice as likely as those in urban areas to express confidence in Trump’s handling of the crisis.
Eva Kassens-Noor, a professor in the global-urban-studies program at Michigan State University, studied urban/rural patterns in the 1918 flu pandemic in India. Her research found that mortality was much greater in urban places above a certain density level than in rural places below it. She believes that U.S. communities will experience the coronavirus in contrasting, but complex, ways: While the disease will probably spread more rapidly in urban areas, she says, more of the population there is young and healthy. And while outbreaks may not be as pervasive in rural America, they could still prove very damaging because the population is older and has less access to quality health care.
Mortality rates, she says, will ultimately hinge on how rigorously communities minimize interaction by practicing social distancing. “It is all about individuals closing all of their social networking,” she says.
More penetration of the virus into reliably Republican rural regions probably won’t erase the partisan gap in perception of the danger. The Republican pollster Bill McInturff, whose firm Public Opinion Strategies co-manages the NBC/WSJ poll, says that even Republicans in and around big cities remain much more dubious of the threat than their Democratic neighbors.
But if the outbreak becomes more widely dispersed over time, it may be tougher for even the most conservative governors to resist action—or for Trump to escape consequences for his initially dismissive response.
“Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston are just a few weeks ahead of other parts of the country,” Toner said. “There will be outbreaks in places that we will be very surprised by. I am quite confident about that.”