One surprise with Covid-19 is not what happened but what didn’t happen.
Although the pandemic might yet benefit President Trump — through heightened xenophobia, increased acceptance of authoritarian leadership, racial and ethnic schism — the political winds have not, to date, shifted in Trump’s direction.
In fact, the opposite is the case.
A P.R.R.I. survey released on April 30 shows Trump’s brief surge of two months ago slipping:
President Donald Trump’s favorability rating has dropped seven points over the last four weeks. Today, just over four in ten (43 percent) Americans hold mostly or very favorable views of Trump, compared to a 54 percent majority who hold mostly or very unfavorable views of him.
This suggests that public concern over Trump’s competence in handling the spread of the coronavirus has for the moment outstripped the socially regressive forces that Trump has thrived on.
The history of epidemics and health care crises similar to the one we are now experiencing points to the emergence of a range of adverse cultural responses.
In “Flattening the Curve Of Xenophobia,” published on April 22 by Robert Jones, the founder and C.E.O. of P.R.R.I., wrote:
If history has a lesson for us here, it is this: Where there is a massive wave of suffering and death, a second wave of racism and xenophobia is typically not far behind. Experiences of mass grief and economic stress easily generate a desire for someone to blame.
There is a long history of blaming racial and ethnic minorities in the aftermath of crises, Jones argues:
We have seen this scapegoating reflex play out before. An 1832 cholera epidemic in New York was blamed on Irish Catholic immigrants who were changing the culture of the white Protestant-dominated city. An outbreak of smallpox in San Francisco in 1876 was blamed on the Chinese population, sentiment that fueled the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
The United States is certainly not alone in this scapegoating, Jones wrote:
Nazi Germany propaganda associated Jews living in poorer sections of German cities with being disease vectors for the broader population and metaphorically talked of Jews as being themselves a disease that had infected Europe.
A report issued this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York tracked voting in 60 German cities, from 1925 to 1933, to see if there was a relationship between support for extremist political parties and the local death rate during the 1918 influenza epidemic. It found that
Influenza deaths of 1918 are correlated with an increase in the share of votes won by right-wing extremists, such as the National Socialist Workers Party (aka the Nazi Party), in the crucial elections of 1932 and 1933. This holds even when we control for a city’s ethnic and religious makeup, regional unemployment, past right-wing voting, and other local characteristics assumed to drive the extremist vote share.
Over a much longer period, the threat level of infectious disease has influenced the type of governmental regime operating in a given society. A lower threat level favors contemporary liberal democracy, a higher threat level favors more dictatorial states. For example, Randy Thornhill, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of New Mexico, and three colleagues found in a 2010 paper that in western nations, “the marked increase in the liberalization of social values that began to occur in the West in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, anti-authoritarianism, etc.)” was preceded by a dramatic reduction of “infectious-disease prevalence.”
This reduction was the result of “a generation or two earlier of widespread availability of antibiotics, child vaccination programs, food- and water-safety practices, increased sanitation and vector control.” Conversely, Thornhill and colleagues write, “populations characterized by a high prevalence of infectious diseases” foster what they call “value systems” characterized by ethnocentric attitudes, adherence to existing traditions, behavioral conformity, xenophobia and neophobia (the tendency to avoid or retreat from an unfamiliar object or situation).
On April 6, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published “How Will the Coronavirus Reshape Democracy and Governance Globally?” — a warning of the political threat infectious disease poses to democratic leaders around the world.
“The pandemic will strain basic sociopolitical cohesion in many states,” wrote Frances Z. Brown and Saskia Brechenmacher, both fellows at the endowment, and Thomas Carothers, senior vice president for democracy studies there.
“The new coronavirus pandemic is not only wreaking destruction on public health and the global economy but disrupting democracy and governance worldwide,” they continue:
It has hit at a time when democracy was already under threat in many places, and it risks exacerbating democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation.
Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, wrote in an email that “the coronavirus has stimulated the anxieties that fuel the authoritarian reflex, a deep-rooted reaction to threats to survival.”
Under conditions of heightened insecurity, Inglehart said,
societies tend to emphasize strong in-group solidarity, conformity to group norms, rejection of outsiders, and obedience to strong leaders.
These forces, Inglehart argued, drove Trump’s favorability rating up in March:
Trump’s response to the pandemic veered from months of denial to claiming to be a wartime president and — partly because of this delayed response — by late March 2020, the U.S. had the most confirmed coronavirus cases of any country in the world.
Despite that, Inglehart continued,
Trump’s approval rating briefly rose to the highest level he had attained since becoming president. This surge of approval came despite his erratic handling of the crisis, but it was what the authoritarian reflex thesis would predict.
Populist leaders in other countries, most notably Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s Prime Minister, have had some success using the health crisis to both increase and consolidate power.
Germany’s Weimar Republic provides the classic case study of the authoritarian reflex, Inglehart wrote:
Under the relatively secure conditions of 1928, most Germans viewed the Nazis as a lunatic fringe party, giving them less than three percent of the vote in national elections. But in 1932, when the Great Depression had struck, the Nazis won 44 percent of the vote, becoming the strongest party in the Reichstag and soon thereafter taking over the government.
Inglehart voiced concern over the future consequences of the pandemic:
If this threat prevails for a long time it could reshape the culture, making it more xenophobic and closed to new ideas. Several important empirical studies have shown that societies that are vulnerable to disease tend to have relatively authoritarian and xenophobic cultures and institutions, and the coronavirus poses the most serious disease-linked threat in more than a century.
Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard, wrote by email that Trump has responded
to the crisis with his now-familiar playbook: blaming others, denying responsibility, invoking racial differences and ‘foreign’ dangers, and trying to discredit honest reporting so that he can sell a false narrative about the great job he’s doing.
As a result, Walt continued, Trump “has gotten at most a minor bump in his approval ratings, far less than other presidents have received at moments of national emergency,” which, in turn,
suggests that most Americans aren’t buying the con this time around. People can see the impact of the crisis in their communities, in their workplaces, and in their own families, and I think most Americans recognize that he blew this big time.
In a March essay, “A World Less Open, Prosperous, and Free,” Walt wrote:
The crisis will also accelerate the shift in power and influence from West to East. South Korea and Singapore have responded best, and China has reacted well after its early mistakes. The response in Europe and the United States has been slow and haphazard by comparison, further tarnishing the aura of the Western brand.
Other foreign policy experts have elaborated on this assessment of the Trump administration.
Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was explicit in her critique of the American response under Trump, writing in a March 24 essay, “China, America, and the International Order after the Pandemic”:
The U.S. government’s pandemic leadership has been its own special brand of catastrophe. The American president denied the threat, rejected scientific expertise, spread misinformation, and left state and local governments to fend for themselves in public trust violations of the highest order.
In effect, Rapp-Hooper contends, Trump opened the door to China, his claimed adversary:
With shambolic self-governance, the U.S. government has placed its own citizens in unnecessary peril, while sidelining itself from acting as a global crisis leader in a way that is unprecedented in the last seven decades. China is all too happy to fill the vacuum.
Trump’s inability to fully capitalize on the pandemic politically lends a degree of credibility to those who argue that the electoral consequences of the current crisis may be relatively modest — or at least are yet to be determined.
Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, emailed that he and several colleagues, including Morris Fiorina and David Brady, both of at Stanford, and Sandy Maisel at Colby, regularly meet via Zoom to discuss politics.
We all doubt that anything will change Democrats’ and Republicans’ minds one way or the other in November. Polarization is subsuming short term forces and campaigning effects. If we can polarize the weather, as we have with climate change, we can polarize a virus.
The parties, Cain continued,
are already heavily racialized so it is hard to imagine that Covid is going to change either Democratic or Republican minds about globalization, immigration or racial tolerance.
Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist at the University of London and author of the book “Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities,” has a more optimistic take on the likely political consequences of the pandemic: “My view is that Covid-19 weakens national populism because it reduces cultural threat.”
It does so, Kaufmann observes, because it
a) cuts immigration, b) cuts globalization, c) raises the profile of health care and the economy, two material issues, and reduces the profile of culture war issues which drive right populism, d) compels faith in experts, making it riskier to entrust “burn it all down” populists with power and e) focuses on the (relatively diverse and foreign-born) health care workers as heroes.
Bart Bonikowski, a sociologist at Harvard, argues that short-term developments notwithstanding, right-wing populism will remain a force nationally and globally. He notes that in recent years, “aggregate Americans’ attitudes toward immigrants and minorities have been shifting, on average, toward greater inclusion” and “there is no reason to expect these trends to reverse in the post-Covid era.”
The future of conservative populism, in Bonikowski’s view, will vary country by country:
Most right-wing populist parties are led by political amateurs who have little regard for scientific expertise and effective governance — hardly a winning combination in the midst of a pandemic. But they are adept at scapegoating others — elites, minorities, other countries — for domestic social ills, while undermining institutional norms. What is more certain is that regardless of their ability to capitalize on the current crisis, radical-right parties will continue to be a feature of contemporary politics for years to come.
Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, foresees serious detrimental consequences. While there is evidence “that pathogen avoidance is linked to anti-immigrant and other group-centric attitudes and that would point to the pandemic stoking xenophobic attitudes,” Enos wrote in an email, “these issues have been made so salient during the Trump administration, that there is probably much less room for any event to cause these attitudes to move.”
In the long term, in Enos’s view, the consequences of the health care crisis will expose
another trend that has become more acute during the Trump presidency, which is the glaring abdication of global leadership by the United States. The is the greatest global crisis since the Cold War and the United States has become an inward looking and bungling sideshow.
Justin Gest, a political scientist at George Mason University and the author of “The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality” wrote me:
The nature of the United States government’s response has already dimmed the possibilities for new forms of social solidarity. Rather than create a universal program that nationalized payroll and avoided layoffs like Denmark, congressional acts have distributed loans and money to people through business owners and welfare. The White House has eschewed America’s historic international leadership and suggested that every country is out for itself. It has divested from institutions of global governance that work across borders, like the United Nations and the multilateral effort to find a vaccine. The president has blamed foreigners for the proliferation of disease and suspended immigration. Finally, because many people of minority backgrounds work in essential jobs, live in high-density neighborhoods, or lack access to health care, they have been disproportionately exposed to risk.
The rhetoric of “We’re all in this together” falls flat when not everyone is rescued by the government, when not everyone is protected, and when we insularly blame others rather than recognize the universality of this challenge.
The conclusion drawn by Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard, addresses the impact of the coronavirus on global power relations:
“Covid-19 may well not alter — much less reverse — tendencies evident before the crisis. Neoliberalism will continue its slow death. Populist autocrats will become even more authoritarian,” Rodrik wrote at Project Syndicate:
China and the U.S. will continue on their collision course and the battle within nation-states among oligarchs, authoritarian populists, and liberal internationalists will intensify, while the left struggles to devise a program that appeals to a majority of voters.
Let’s shift perspective for a moment. Judith Butler, a professor of comparative literature at Berkeley, in response to an email I sent her, sent me an interview she did with a professor of philosophy at Emory, George Yancy, published April 30 at Truthout. I think she has captured something no purely political or economic analysis can.
Yancy asked Butler to “speak to how you’re thinking about vulnerability at this moment, especially in terms of how that vulnerability isn’t equally distributed.” Butler replied:
On the one hand, the pandemic exposes a global vulnerability. Everyone is vulnerable to the virus because everyone is vulnerable to viral infection from surfaces or other human beings without establishing immunity. Vulnerability is not just the condition of being potentially harmed by another. It names the porous and interdependent character of our bodily and social lives. We are given over from the start to a world of others we never chose in order to become more or less singular beings. That dependency does not precisely end with adulthood. To survive, we take something in. We are impressed upon by the environment, social worlds and intimate contact. That impressionability and porosity define our embodied social lives. What another breathes out, I can breathe in, and something of my breath can find its way into yet another person. The human trace that someone leaves on an object may well be what I touch, pass along on another surface or absorb into my own body. Humans share the air with one another and with animals; they share the surfaces of the world. They touch what others have touched and they touch one another. These reciprocal and material modes of sharing describe a crucial dimension of our vulnerability, intertwinements and interdependence of our embodied social life.
Butler went on:
On the other hand, the public response to the pandemic has been to identify “vulnerable groups” — those who are especially likely to suffer the virus as a ravaging and life-threatening disease and to contrast them with those who are less at risk of losing their lives from the pathogen. The vulnerable include Black and Brown communities deprived of adequate health care throughout their lifetimes and the history of this nation. The vulnerable also include poor people, migrants, incarcerated people, people with disabilities, trans and queer people who struggle to achieve rights to health care, and all those with prior illnesses and enduring medical conditions. The pandemic exposes the heightened vulnerability to the illness of all those for whom health care is neither accessible nor affordable. Perhaps there are at least two lessons about vulnerability that follow: it describes a shared condition of social life, of interdependency, exposure and porosity; it names the greater likelihood of dying, understood as the fatal consequence of a pervasive social inequality.
Although, the worst outcome — the kind warned of by Jones, Inglehart and the New York Fed — has not materialized, there is no guarantee that it won’t. The more Trump feels cornered, the more dangerous he and his angry, frightened followers can become.
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