The Coronavirus Culture War Isn’t Conservatives vs. Liberals — It’s Trump vs. Reality

Trump plays a slideshow selectively touting his “accomplishments” of his coronavirus response during a press briefing.

In the early days of statewide stay-at-home orders, I came across an opinion piece in The Atlantic called The Social-Distancing Culture War Has Begun. It was published on March 30th, when the total number of confirmed cases was just above 20,000 and the death toll was approaching 5000.

The smug liberal in me was readily convinced by the piece. Look at these science deniers in red states ignoring the experts at everyone else’s expense, I sneered to myself while reading. On the other hand, some people were quick to point out that such an opinion on a “culture war” this early in the pandemic was in fact manufactured, that the author was relying too heavily on anecdotal evidence — citing specific people’s opinion from across the country — and conflated voter behavior in 2016 with resistance to government lockdowns. As a student of economics, I understand the importance of not letting emotions drive the interpretation of data. Correlation isn’t causation, after all.

Besides, look at all the spring breakers on beaches — they’re young and arrogant, and they’re probably not all card-carrying conservatives. Fair, I thought to myself, and I walked away from that fight for the sake of not being too quick to judge my fellow citizens when unity was more important.

Enter President Trump.

I have long thought that Trump’s rhetoric is more dangerous than his policy proposals by an order of magnitude. Despite his best efforts to buck convention and challenge the rule of law, he hasn’t been a particularly effective policymaker. And while there are numerous shortcomings of his coronavirus response that set the US up to struggle with this pandemic — his disbanding of the pandemic task force, his absence of concrete policy proposals during the month of February, and the failure of his CDC to develop proper testing procedures in a timely manner — the most disastrous aspect of his response has been his failure to recognize the impact of his two-faced messaging on the 30–40% of the American public who will support his side of the story no matter how ridiculous it is.

The first notable example of this was perhaps when Trump took to Twitter to write “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” in support of armed protesters who stormed the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing to demand an end to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders. President Trump then continued posting “LIBERATE” tweets for a bevy of other states — mostly purple states — in response to those governors’ stay-at-home orders. For Virginia, he took matters a step further, saying “save your great 2nd amendment. It is under siege!

These Tweets were published on April 17th, in the middle of the Trump White House’s own period of federal social-distancing guidelines, which was already extended from 15 to 45 days because of the fast spread of the virus. Say what you want about the “bite” behind those federal guidelines, but one thing is certain: had Trump’s personal messaging aligned with those guidelines, armed protesters wouldn’t feel vindicated. They are fringe, and they would have remained so. The types of people who will participate in an armed protest against their own public health interest, and society’s interest at large, don’t care what federal experts have to say, but I assure you they do care about what President Trump has to say. And if Trump’s messaging were consistent — or at the very least, he had kept quiet about the issue on Twitter — he would have set a much more effective top-down example.

The same thing is true of Trump’s retweeting of a post that included “#FireFauci.” In today’s internet age, with how easy it is for toxic and unfalsifiable ideas to gain traction, it was almost inevitable that various corners of the internet would start coming up with conspiracy theories against the prevailing narrative and all publicly-available data. Unelected experts, such as Dr. Fauci, are obvious targets for these conspiracies, as are wealthy and influential voices in public health, such as Bill Gates. You don’t have to look far for this. While “Plandemic” might be the most famous example, all you need to do is search “Coronavirus Hoax” in the search bar of YouTube, and you’re greeted with a litany of tinfoil hat videos convinced that they’ve got the real story that the media, the politicians, and the experts don’t want you to know.

This is where Trump’s doubletalk is the most damaging. He can get all the public blowback in the world for retweeting a “#FireFauci” post — to the point where he has to vehemently deny any desire to actually fire Dr. Fauci during one of his press conferences — but the damage had already been done. For the ardent Trump supporters, his statement at a press conference is just an attempt to save face in front of the “lamestream liberal media” that’s out to “manufacture” scandals about his administration. Trump's real opinions are contained in his tweets, what he says off-the-cuff — it’s all coded.

You don’t even need to take my word for it — white nationalist Richard Spencer has already given away the game here many times. We only need to look to the Charlottesville mobs as one of the uglier examples, where he referred to Trump’s public attempt to condemn the protesters as “more kumbaya nonsense,” and that “only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”

The question here isn’t about whether or not Trump actually holds these beliefs. Whether or not he believes in firing Dr. Fauci, much like whether or not he truly condemns white supremacy, is immaterial. The fact that he is able to embolden supporters of his who hold those beliefs and not be firm in denouncing them is damage enough.

What’s more dangerous than his Twitter activity, however, is how he has actively sowed seeds of doubt in existing research we have on the virus and the resulting public confusion it causes. As it relates to prevention and treatment, the two most glaring examples in this regard would be his feelings about wearing a mask and his advocacy of hydroxychloroquine.

Trump has been resistant to suggestions that he should be wearing a mask when visiting factories and making other public appearances. This has trickled down the West Wing, where staffers were not required to wear masks until an outbreak of coronavirus occurred among them. Of course, his own CDC’s guidelines recommend wearing a mask in several circumstances. He has fumbled answers as to why he’s resistant to wearing a mask in public, but they tend to center around a couple of different justifications. One is that if he wears a mask, that signals weakness as a leader — that a virus originating from China brings a US leader “to its knees” by being forced to wear a mask. Another is that if he wears a mask in public, it projects to the rest of the country that this is a serious problem and creates unnecessary fear. This ignores the reality that most citizens are taking this pandemic seriously and want the President to demonstrate that he himself is also taking it seriously. Abiding by CDC guidelines without resistance is the bare minimum he could do in this regard.

His cheerleading of hydroxychloroquine is yet another example of him turning the public’s attention away from the science and towards ignorant optimism. If you have been paying attention to science, you should have an ambivalent view of hydroxychloroquine. I would obviously like it to work — it would mean there is a treatment right underneath our noses that has already been used and studied for decades. However, the evidence is, at best, mixed on its effectiveness against coronavirus and brings with it dangerous side effects. To advocate for its continued research is one thing, but latching onto it to the point where you yourself start taking it is another.

I’ll give Trump credit in one respect: at least he’s putting his money where his mouth is. But we all know what’s going on here. He was briefed early on about how hydroxychloroquine in combination with azithromycin could be a promising treatment against coronavirus, and he has decided to run with this as the cure-all so that this pandemic can be over before it can jeopardize his reelection chances.

Underneath it all, that’s what Trump’s two-faced messaging comes down to. He has said as much. Early on in the pandemic, he wanted the infected passengers of the Grand Princess to stay on the ship so that US coronavirus numbers “don’t double.” Recently while riffing about how much the US has been testing, he said that if we tested less, we’d have fewer cases. That’s not how pandemics work, and even if it were, the only thing motivating such a statement is the fear that high case numbers reflect poorly on his administration.

This obsession with his reelection came to a head with “Obamagate,” the baseless conspiracy theory that Barack Obama committed the “greatest political crime in American history,” while failing to ever name what the crime actually was. We’re supposed to believe it has something to do with the Michael Flynn case, but documents have been released which show that Obama acted properly regarding the Flynn investigation after all.

That won’t matter because once again, the damage has been done. The media are debating the “merits” of this baseless conspiracy theory, his base is fired up over anything they can blame on Obama, and your average voter could very well begin to weigh whether Joe Biden’s involvement in this non-scandal is worse than Trump’s handling of this pandemic — similar to how Hillary Clinton’s email scandal was given moral equivalence to Trump’s thirty years of dirty laundry and his ugly campaign.

As his efforts to distract fail, he is starting to go on the offensive — publicly saying he will sue states that make it easier to vote by expanding vote-by-mail. He justifies his opposition to vote by mail by citing the non-issue of voter fraud, calling vote by mail corrupt even as he himself has voted by mail. He has given up hiding where his priorities are at. His mind is on the pandemic only insofar as it relates to his reelection.

To be clear, I think people across the country are doing the best they can. This is a once-in-one-hundred-year pandemic, and mistakes will be made in how this is handled. Governors of all political stripes are taking this seriously. On the Republican side, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan have demonstrated seriousness in their response to slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Both have embraced various degrees of stay-at-home orders, did so early, and are making efforts to reopen economies cautiously and enact contact tracing while doing so. Republican Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts isn’t afraid to publicly wear a mask and advocates that residents do the same when in public. Senator Mitt Romney was vocally critical of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus in committee hearings, particularly with regards to the amount of testing the country has done.

Taking the coronavirus seriously is simply a consequence of acknowledging reality. It doesn’t fall along party lines. Serious and spirited debates will be had about whether economies across the country should be allowed to reopen and how quickly it should be done. Most people recognize that even if an economy is allowed to reopen, it will not mean everything will reopen and resume business as usual. Recovery will be slow, and I think most people understand that.

Trump is fighting for his reelection, and we have to understand that that’s all he cares about. He understands “it’s the economy, stupid,” and he will do whatever he thinks it will take to manufacture a recovery before November. It doesn’t matter if cases spike, and it doesn’t matter if economic research suggests that recovery will be slow until there’s a therapeutic or vaccine widely available — allowing people to feel safe enough to go out spending normally again. He is trying to hold onto his base and drag them with him to November, knowing that a certain portion of Republicans will bend over backwards to support him no matter what he does or says.

We’re seeing this reflected in opinion polling around the coronavirus. According to an Axios/Ipsos poll, “78 percent of Democrats felt there was a moderate to large risk in attending in-person gatherings compared with 51 percent of Republicans, a 27-percentage-point gap that has doubled since mid-April.” Partisan divides between Republicans and Democrats are apparent in other matters — such as approval of Trump’s own COVID response — while those same divides are not apparent among state Governors’ responses.

This to me is highly suggestive of Trump’s power to set the tone on an issue across the country. He must be aware of the impact his platform has on people, and that his mouthing-off on Twitter, musing about unproven treatments, obfuscating scientific data, and propagating conspiracy theories only undercuts the hard work of scientists and politicians who are trying to do the right thing. It leads to people dismissing the pandemic altogether — or getting violent when told to wear a mask. Granted, those acting out in such a way is a vast minority of people, but it’s all being affirmed at the top through Trump’s actions which drive a wedge through what would otherwise be matters of political consensus.

Make no mistake: Trump loves the culture war. And as the death toll of this pandemic approaches 100,000, he needs the culture war more than ever. Don’t fall for it.

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