As the coronavirus shuts down their daily routines, some Americans have expressed the hope that the crisis would at last "bring us together" – or at least restore some sense of a shared national fate.
That is profoundly to be hoped. Public trust is essential in a public health crisis. Beyond that, there would be much to be gained by restoring a sense of national purpose.
As President Trump himself said Monday: "If everyone makes this change or these critical changes and sacrifices now, we will rally together as one nation and we will defeat the virus and we're going to have a big celebration altogether."
But in this moment, in this crisis, the portents are not good for such unity. So far, the sudden emergence of a killer disease rampaging coast to coast has served less to unite us than to emphasize what divides us.
This stands in marked contrast to the iconic moments of crisis and national response in our past. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 transformed the country overnight, converting a predominantly isolationist mood to one of implacable wartime resolve. The achievements that followed made the U.S. the preeminent military, economic and political force in the world for the next 75 years.
The terror attacks on New York City and near Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, ended years of popular complacency about world affairs and did it in real time as the twin towers of the World Trade Center melted to the ground on live TV. Within hours, members of Congress from both parties were standing together on the steps of the Capitol singing "God Bless America." The nation mobilized immediately to meet the foe, even though that foe was hard to see or define.
In between those traumatic touchstones of history, there were other major shocks such as the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Suddenly, Americans were on the brink of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, which was delivering the means to launch nuclear weapons from bases 90 miles from Florida. The White House responded, the nation united, and the Soviets pulled back.
But in 2020, confronted by the coronavirus, our national spirit of shared challenge and commitment has been uneven, at best. To be sure, many responsible leaders in the public sector have been stepping up, closing schools and other government functions. Many in the private sector are also voluntarily taking steps to mitigate risk. This includes many businesses and the major professional sports and the collegiate athletic programs as well. It includes many private colleges and universities, theaters and churches, and civic groups of various kinds.
Polling reveals divisions
But is everyone on the same page? Far from it. Among the surprising revelations in recent days is the persistence of popular denial regarding the crisis itself. As of March 15, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found only a bare majority of Americans (53%) are worried the virus could infect someone in their family.
The NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll this week found the percentage of those taking the threat of coronavirus seriously had actually declined since February among Republicans and political independents.
In the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, only about one quarter of Republicans say they think the virus will affect their lives in a major way. Only about 30% said they would stop attending large public gatherings, despite frequent warnings.
(The NBC-WSJ poll was taken before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked for a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people for eight weeks, and the NPR/PBS/Marist poll was completed before Trump said people should avoid gatherings of 10 or more for 15 days.)
When talking to conservatives and those generally who lean to the right, we often hear that the threat is being exaggerated by the mainstream news media. On Tuesday, the morning after the new guidelines were issued from the White House, the website Conservative HQ ran the headline "Fake News Kills" over a post by Adam Guillette, president of Accuracy in Media.
"The mainstream media is desperate to turn the coronavirus scare into President Donald Trump's Hurricane Katrina," wrote Guillette. "It means they're motivated to overhype this story."
President George W. Bush's response to the 2005 storm has been widely criticized.
An echo chamber
To some degree, this reflects what the nation was hearing in February and early March from the president. Initially, he cast it as China's problem and added the Chinese were handling it well. As recently as Feb. 28, he was telling a rally crowd in South Carolina that the media were over-dramatizing the danger, calling that treatment "the latest liberal media hoax." (The next day, he explained that he had not meant to call the virus itself a hoax.)
Those themes have been echoed and amplified on countless media platforms that regularly support the president. On Fox and Friends last Friday, viewers saw Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the evangelical Liberty University founded by his televangelist father, explaining why his school would stay open when so many others were sending students home. Falwell wondered whether it was all a conspiracy between China and North Korea, then he turned his fire on the media, saying: "It's just strange to me how many are overreacting. It makes you wonder if there's a political reason ... their next attempt to get Trump."
With Trump himself having joined the health professionals in his administration in acknowledging the reality of the crisis ("It could be really bad"), a sea change may be coming among his followers. On Tuesday, Falwell decided that Liberty would close after all.
But the long resistance to the facts, and scope, and the insistence on blaming others has so far prevented this president from turning the crisis into a consensus-building opportunity for himself. Pearl Harbor carried President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to new heights of national support, despite his controversial pursuit of a third term. In the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy found the zenith of his brief presidency. And in 2001, George W. Bush saw his Gallup Poll approval soar above 90% in the days after the horrors of Sept. 11.
A political football
Trump's performance in the latest crisis has, by contrast, inflamed his critics and once again tested the loyalty of his supporters. To date, the latter have held firm. That was why many evangelical leaders over the weekend rallied to his side and generally continued their church services even as many in other denominations were moving theirs online.
That viewpoint suggests that the populist inclination to cast certain kinds of experts as an elite and to regard science as a challenge to tradition and belief is insulating or even isolating many Americans. Millions seem unconvinced that this disease is as widespread or as virulent as reported – even when those reports from respected government officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health.
As a result, the presence of a new and deadly pathogen in our midst was for many days downgraded to the status of a political football. It was subjected to partisan interpretation and polarized reaction, much like any other controversial issue or personality. It has spurred the latest surge of hyperpartisan charges and countercharges on cable TV news shows and in the tar pits of Twitter and other social media.
Why is this so? As in the past, the threat clearly comes from outside our own borders. But this attack is not military, and because it has manifested itself around the world, it can hardly be said to be targeting the U.S. in particular. The usual sense of us vs. them is missing.
The attacker in this case, a virus, is not great and imposing but small, microscopic – indeed, invisible. We don't know which way to strike back, which may be one reason many are reluctant to believe the attack itself is real.
Beyond that, the changes that have overtaken our communications, our social interactions and our political conversation have greatly complicated the process of information sharing. In the time of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, the fundamental difficulty was getting even a basic message to a population that had no general system of electronic communication at all. Roughly half of all Americans still lived in rural areas a century ago, and the idea of hourly or even daily bulletins was utterly unknown.
Today our problem may well be the opposite. We have bulletins every minute. We have near-constant communication on 24-hour news outlets and endless torrents of individual observation on social media. In this welter of competing sources, who is to say which source can be trusted?
Most people have long since constructed their own method for sorting through it all, and they are most likely to rely on that highly personal mechanism when deciding what to think and how to react to a crisis.
It does not help, of course, that 2020 is also a political year in which we have elections for president, Congress, and other offices. Political awareness is everywhere; political antennae are extended to the max. Everything that happens is instantly interpreted for its prospective election impact.
That said, the key factor in the division between attitudes over coronavirus would still appear to be the attitude of the president. In similar moments in the past, the role of the president has been regarded as reflecting a national consensus.
That is not to say the actions of past presidents have been without controversy. There were those who questioned Roosevelt's handling of the Japanese prior to Pearl Harbor, even suggesting he lured them into an attack so as to precipitate American entry into World War II. This viewpoint still has its adherents today.
Similarly, there were those who faulted Bush's reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, especially his channeling of the resulting political anger toward Iraq, which he invaded 18 months later. Some also questioned whether the Sept. 11 attacks had even happened as reported, suggesting the damage was far greater than three airplanes could have caused. This fringe group of dissenters, known as "Truthers," never gained much traction in the national conversation.
But what Trump faces today is a far more generalized sense that the government has been slow to respond even in the face of an obvious danger. Indeed, the NPR/PBS/Marist poll found more Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the pandemic than approve by a 49%-44% margin.
The simple truth in this instance is clearer now than ever: The danger of coronavirus was never a creation of the president's critics, nor had it been imagined by the current and former members of the administration who had been sounding the alarm. It was real all along, and remains so today.