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How the American system failed in 2020: Pandemic politics

Is there any solution to the deep and bitter polarization in American politics? There is. But it’s not working.

The solution is supposed to come in the form of a crisis. In a crisis, Americans pull together and rally behind a common cause. Right now, the United States is experiencing the biggest public health crisis in over 100 years. More than 320,000 Americans have died, and the death toll continues to rise. Nevertheless, the country seems more divided than ever.

American government usually works well in a crisis — when an overwhelming sense of urgency breaks through blockages and lubricates the system. Under the right conditions, barriers fall away, and things get done. We are seeing it happen now with the economic stimulus bill.

Back in 1957, the country was shocked when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first space satellite. It led the federal government to become deeply involved in education — something that had always been regarded as a local responsibility. It also happened after the 9/11 crisis. The devastating terrorist attack overwhelmed the country’s deep political divisions. The evidence? For nearly a year after 9/11/01, a majority of Democrats approved of the job George W. Bush was doing as president.

The era of good feeling came to an end a year later, in September 2002, when the Bush administration announced the “rollout” of the invasion of Iraq. With the decision to go to war, all the old divisions came roaring back. It was Vietnam all over again.

Politicians are always hyping issues to try to turn them into crises — an environmental crisis, a debt crisis, an education crisis, an energy crisis. Or they declare “wars” on things — a war on poverty, a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on inflation, a war on terror. Without a crisis or a “war” to rally public opinion, the system won’t work. It wasn’t designed to.

The pandemic certainly qualifies as a crisis. Thousands of Americans are dying every day. The economy has come to a standstill: no travel, no dining out, no public entertainment, no gatherings with friends and neighbors. Why is that not a crisis? 

The answer is: because President Trump has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the crisis — and so have his supporters.

Instead of a national emergency pulling the country together, the pandemic has become yet another source of bitter division. Politics has overtaken science in the debate over public health measures. President Trump has led the way by attacking every restriction — shutdowns, mask-wearing, social distancing, stay-at-home orders — as unwarranted intrusions on personal liberty by big government. “The government is taking away our Christmas!” protesters complained.

The debate over public health restrictions turned into the “COVID culture wars.” The Trump administration made its position known with deliberate provocations — massive election rallies in crowded spaces with few masks and no social distancing, “superspreader” events at the White House.

The pending availability of vaccines puts the Trump White House in a particularly awkward situation. President Trump takes credit for Operation Warp Speed, the race to develop vaccines. So, what’s happening? An “anti-vaxxer movement” is emerging among Americans who don’t trust the vaccines and are determined to oppose any vaccine mandate. Only about half of Americans say they will definitely take the coronavirus vaccine.

Anti-vaxxer protests are morphing into something more alarming — defiance. A bar owner in New York City was arrested for refusing to follow pandemic restrictions. Police were called to break up a 400-guest party at a rented Long Island mansion. When the Los Angeles County health department banned outdoor service in county restaurants, local municipalities voted to form their own health departments.

By embracing defiance, the “medical freedom” movement is taking its cue from President Trump. Defiance is Trump’s specialty, and his supporters admire him for it. He insists — without evidence — that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and must be nullified. He claims there was “a hit on our ridiculous voting machines during the election, which is now obvious that I won big.” Obvious to him, maybe, and his core supporters, who are staging “Stop the Steal” protests and threatening public officials.

Trump supporters are promoting misinformation about voter fraud. Sidney Powell, an attorney working with President Trump’s legal team, claims to have “staggering” statistical evidence showing that voting machines altered ballots and that the deception can be traced back to Venezuela, Cuba and China.

Meanwhile, “medical freedom” activists are promoting misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine: that vaccinations inject patients with a microchip used for government surveillance, that the vaccine is being used to sterilize women, that billionaire Bill Gates is profiting from the vaccine. Vaccine falsehoods are following the flow of election falsehoods on the web.

President Trump tried to downplay the pandemic crisis because it interfered with his re-election agenda. If he refused to treat the pandemic as a crisis, maybe it wouldn’t be a crisis. “I think he’s just done with covid,” a close adviser told the Washington Post. “I think he put it on a timetable and he’s done with it. . . . It just exceeded the amount of time he gave it.” A vaccine educator said, “[Trump] is a salesman, but this is something he can’t sell. So he just gave up.”

Trump never wants to be identified with a losing cause. That’s why he paid so little attention to the pandemic all year. As a result, he became identified with what was — for him — a bigger losing cause: his own re-election.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags American politics anti-vaccination movement Anti-vaxxers claims of 2020 election fraud coronavirus vaccine Donald Trump political polarization Trump administration communication during the COVID-19 pandemic Vaccine hesitancy

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