The Memo: Virus crisis deepens dangerous divides

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A once-in-a-century pandemic is exposing America’s political polarization in a new and stark way.

Ideological fissures have been growing in the United States for decades, but the high stakes and fraught emotions around the coronavirus crisis are making them even deeper.

There have been several examples in recent days.

President Trump praised people who verbally abused a television news reporter in Long Island in New York, referring to them on Twitter on Saturday as “Great people” and tweeting again on Monday morning, “They hate Fake News, and so do I.”

One person who attended that protest held a sign that called for the hanging of Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates — respectively, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases and the Microsoft founder who has repeatedly warned of the dangers caused by pandemics.

Elsewhere, the Michigan legislature canceled a session late last week rather than risk a confrontation with armed protesters. The protest had been organized by a group called Michigan United for Liberty, which had billed the event under the title “Judgment Day,” according to Bloomberg News. 

Earlier protests in the Wolverine State last month had included at least one protester waving a Confederate flag and chants of “lock her up” — the refrain that was heard at 2016 Trump rallies in reference to Hillary Clinton — directed at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). 

Whitmer has been among the most aggressive state leaders in pushing lockdown restrictions. Last Friday, prosecutors in the state announced charges against a man who they said had threatened to kill her. According to a New York Times report, 32-year-old Robert Tesh allegedly conveyed “credible threats” regarding Whitmer to a friend on social media.

The Times quoted Wayne County prosecutor Kym L. Worthy asserting that the case laid out “a very disturbing scenario.” Worthy said, “We understand that these times can be stressful and upsetting for many people” but emphasized that authorities “will not and cannot tolerate threats like these.”

In light of such events, experts worry about the rising dangers of real strife.

“In the past, pandemics, epidemics or crises have tended to unite us rather than divide us,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University who correctly predicted Trump’s 2016 election victory. 

Lichtman cited not just the Second World War and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but also the battle against polio in the 1950s.

He described the current level of polarization as “unbelievable” and added “we have not seen anything like this since the Civil War.”

The coronavirus crisis at one time looked as if it could be a rare issue around which a consensus might form. 

Opinion polls as the crisis rose toward its peak showed a significant degree of bipartisan agreement on the magnitude of the threat and the need to abide by social distancing requirements to ameliorate the danger.

That consensus is splintering, however. The nation’s ideologically segmented media has cleaved once again. Conservative broadcasters have tended to minimize the threat from COVID-19 while their liberal counterparts have outlined dystopian scenarios. 

An Economist/YouGov poll conducted May 10-12 showed the new fault lines among the electorate.

When adults in the sample were asked whether stay-at-home orders represented a “violation of constitutional rights,” 42 percent of Republicans said that they did. Only 6 percent of Democrats agreed.

A full 50 percent of Republicans backed the protests in several states that took aim at social distancing measures. Only 14 percent of Democrats did so.

The divisions were even apparent on the question of when social distancing measures might be safely ended and businesses reopened. 

Only 7 percent of Democrats thought such moves could safely be made by June 1. But 34 percent of Republicans believed this could happen.

The splits are inevitably driven in part by opinions of Trump, the most polarizing president of modern times. From the early days of the crisis — where he accused Democrats of being engaged in a “hoax” in their criticisms of him — till now, Trump has taken characteristically combative positions.

“REOPEN OUR COUNTRY!,” he tweeted on Monday morning.

It is perhaps inevitable, then, that both critics and supporters of the president are climbing into their respective trenches.

Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University, stressed that the polarization of American life had been going on for years before Trump was even a political figure.

But, he added, “what is different now, and what gives this a sharper edge is the fact that emotions are running so high, first of all; second, that the stakes are really, really high; and third the fact that the president has made very strong statements about these things.”

“So now, on top of everything else, you have people saying either, ‘Trump is saying X and I’m a Democrat so I’m thinking Y’ or ‘Trump is saying X and I’m a Trump supporter so it has to be X,’ ” Reeher said. 

It is, perhaps, possible that the heat will go out of the issue as infections pass their peak, especially if more states reopen without disaster.

But it seems just as likely that, even in retrospect, the crisis will be another landmark en route to an increasingly polarized nation.

In another of his tweets Monday, Trump retweeted a report that characterized Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar as praising the response to the coronavirus as historic.

“True, except to the Fake News Media and a former president who didn’t have a clue!” Trump added.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. 

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19. Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Michigan New York

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