Donald Trump spent the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic assiduously downplaying its severity. In late January, he told a Michigan crowd, “We have it very well under control.” At a rally in February, he declared that “by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” A mere three weeks ago, he claimed that new cases were “going very substantially down, not up.” And here he was at last Friday’s grinning, backslapping Rose Garden press conference: “Some of the doctors say it will wash through, it will flow through. Interesting terms, and very accurate.”
The terms, I hardly need to say, were not accurate. But Trump’s message appears to have reached his core audience, with the help of Fox News. (Witness House Republican Devin Nunes telling Fox Business viewers on Sunday that “it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant.”) According to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, only 40 percent of Republicans believe the coronavirus is “a real threat,” compared to 76 percent of Democrats. Fifty-four percent of Republicans say it’s “blown out of proportion.” That’s consistent with earlier polling that suggests Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to call reports about the seriousness of the outbreak “generally exaggerated.” Meanwhile, in the 27,000-member Facebook group IAFF Union Firefighters for Trump, as ProPublica recently reported, posts abound suggesting that fears over the pandemic are being stoked by Democrats to affect the election—echoing Trump’s own claims from a February rally that making a big deal out of the virus was “their new hoax.”
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The schoolbook story of democracy is that political figures compete to cater to voters’ demands. But what we seem to be witnessing is the process by which, in an era of extreme partisanship, political leaders themselves shape the beliefs and priorities of their constituents.
In that sense the epistemic trajectory of the pandemic is like that of climate change, but at 1000X speed. Decades of disinformation and public manipulation have been compressed into weeks. In each case, the science tells us it may be disastrous if we don’t take drastic action before the worst effects manifest themselves. In each case, certain political elites have publicly denied that reality, encouraging their voters to downplay the severity of the threat. (According to recent polling, only 21 percent of Republicans think climate change should be a top political priority, compared to 78 percent of Democrats.) And, finally, in each case, denialism is poised to cause death and suffering on a grand scale. The new poll shows big splits in behavioral changes too, suggesting that Republicans are not yet taking seriously the need for social distancing to slow the spread of the pandemic. Sixty percent of Democrats say they’ve decided to eat at home more often, for example, compared to 36 percent of Republicans.
Is it possible I’m pinning too much blame on Trump and his Fox News lackeys? There is, after all, another explanation for the splits we’re seeing in public opinion: geography. The prevalence of Covid-19 cases has so far skewed heavily toward blue states like Washington, California, and New York. Among the states with the 10 highest per capita rates of Covid-19 infection, Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by an average of 16 points in the 2016 election. Among the states with the 10 lowest rates of infection, his average margin was +19. Even within states, the impact of a viral epidemic that preys on close physical contact lands overwhelmingly on people who live in urban, Democratic-leaning areas. So the partisan concern gap might just reflect the fact that Democrats are far likelier to have been personally affected already.
We may soon have an answer to the propaganda vs. geography question. Over the weekend, Trump apparently realized he can’t bullshit his way out of a viral pandemic. As of this week, he has abruptly changed his tune and his tone. Call him the boy who is finally crying wolf. In a pair of somber press conferences yesterday and today, he acknowledged the severity of the problem and, at long last, clearly passed along public health officials’ advice for Americans to avoid group gatherings. At the same time, he has tried to rewrite the history of his own response to the crisis by insisting that this has been his message all along. “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” he told a reporter. “I’ve always viewed it as very serious.” This is an outrageous lie. But it could help give conservative media, and audiences, license to change their own views of the coronavirus threat. So don’t be surprised if the partisan divide in public opinion fades away over the coming weeks, as Republicans adjust to fresh cues from the White House. If that happens, it will be a very good thing. But it will also prove just how consequential Trump’s months of coronavirus disinformation really were.