The Memo: Political trench warfare colors views on coronavirus

The nation’s response to the coronavirus crisis is being complicated by political polarization in general and the divisiveness of President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichael Flynn transcripts reveal plenty except crime or collusion 50 people arrested in Minneapolis as hundreds more National Guard troops deployed Missouri state lawmaker sparks backlash by tweeting 'looters deserve to be shot' MORE in particular.

The gravest public health crisis in at least a century could be more effectively addressed if there was widespread agreement as to the basic facts at issue.

But, instead, Trump’s history of misstatements dogs every claim he makes, even as his critics are prone to dismiss anything he says. Trump’s most loyal supporters are equally likely to disregard any dissenting view.


Polls show that Trump’s approval ratings — as well as trust itself — break down along partisan lines.

A Grinnell University poll conducted last week found that 86 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s response to the crisis, while only 24 percent of Democrats do so. 

The divide was even starker when it came to whether Trump was a trusted source of information on the issue. Eighty-nine percent of Republican thought he was. Only 15 percent of Democrats agreed.

Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, noted that while the primary focus needs to be on the human cost of the crisis, “it is in fact a very good natural experiment to answer the question of how deep our polarization goes — and the answer is, very damn deep.”

There have been some signs that those divides can be transcended, albeit briefly. Congress did pass its $2.2 trillion initial rescue package, even after some heated political disputes. 

And, on Monday, Trump had a phone call with probable Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump campaign launches Asian Pacific Americans coalition Biden: 'More than one African American woman' being considered for VP Liberal group asks Klobuchar to remove herself from VP consideration because of prosecutorial record MORE to discuss the crisis. Trump told reporters at the White House later on Monday that the call lasted for 15 minutes and was “a really wonderful, warm conversation.”


But Trump has also used Twitter, as well as his near-daily White House press briefings, to attack rivals, criticize reporters and even brag about the TV ratings that his appearances draw.

The issue is further complicated because, broadly speaking, alarm about the coronavirus appears to run deeper among left-leaning politicians and their media allies than among their right-leaning equivalents.

An ongoing survey from Civiqs makes the difference plain. As of Monday afternoon, its poll had 63 percent of Democrats saying they were “extremely concerned” about the virus but only 28 percent of Republicans saying the same thing.

Late last week, the number of states that had not announced stay-at-home orders stood at 13. All of them had Republican governors and had been carried by Trump in the 2016 presidential election. 

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Defense: Trump extends deployment of National Guard troops to aid with coronavirus response | Pentagon considers reducing quarantine to 10 days | Lawmakers push for removal of Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries Don't move the COVID-19 goalpost Overnight Health Care: Sewage testing gives clues of coronavirus | White House says Trump would take hydroxychloroquine again | Trump marks 'very sad milestone' of 100K virus deaths MORE, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a CNN town hall last week that he would prefer to see a national shutdown. “I don’t understand why that is not happening,” he said.

But Trump appears to have a different view. 

And that is one of a number of areas in which Trump and Fauci seem to hold different opinions and where the cracks have sometimes become evident. 

The other most glaring example regards the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. Trump has repeatedly talked up the drug’s potential for treating those suffering from COVID-19 and has typically done so using expansive and casual language. “What do you have to lose?” he has suggested on at least one occasion.

Fauci has been a lot more wary, pointing to the lack of evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective in treating COVID-19. At Sunday’s press briefing, Trump intervened to prevent Fauci from answering a reporter’s question on the topic.

There are, of course, tensions within and around every administration, even in moments of crisis. The administration of President George W. Bush, for example, had plenty of advocates of hawkish action in both Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but also figures who were more dubious about such a course, notably then-Secretary of State Colin PowellColin Luther PowellJuan Williams: Justice Thomas seizes his moment in the Trump era Respect your Elders — a call to action Supreme Court grapples with 'faithless electors' and Electoral College MORE.

Since then, however, the nation has had two more decades of polarization, speeded on its way by social media and some clearly partisan mainstream media outlets. 

There is also the unparalleled nature of the Trump presidency, where — according to a tally maintained by The Washington Post — the president had made more than 16,000 false or misleading claims between his 2017 inauguration and mid-January.


Even some Republicans acknowledge that this record causes additional complications in a crisis.

“To a certain percentage of the public, if Donald Trump says the sun is shining today, they bring an umbrella,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee. 

But Heye also said this was a problem even when Trump is in fact being accurate or truthful because, for his critics, “their default is, 'I can’t believe anything that he says.'”

Democrats put it more bluntly.

“Trump has a long track record of playing around with the truth,” said Jim Manley, a onetime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidCortez Masto says she's not interested in being Biden VP Nevada congressman admits to affair after relationship divulged on podcast Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil MORE (D-Nev.). 

“In a perfect world, the American people would expect to hear an uplifting message and/or the truth out of the president whenever he steps up to the podium,” Manley added. But with Trump, “nobody with half a brain should accept what he is saying.”


None of these divisions is eased by the fact that the crisis is playing out with a presidential election just seven months away.

Even the biggest public health crisis in 100 years is subject to political trench warfare, and there is no end in sight.

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