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The coronavirus arrived in the United States at an apex of political polarization: the final phase of the impeachment process against President Donald Trump, which capped years of growing partisan acrimony between Democratic and Republican politicians, as well as deepening divisions in the larger society. Some observers wondered if a national public health emergency might jolt the two clashing camps into setting party politics aside and tackling the challenge together—echoing perhaps the experience of World War II, which helped depolarize U.S. politics for decades afterward. Yet although Trump talked in March about assuming the mantle of a “wartime president,” his response to the coronavirus has been one more elaboration of a by now well-rehearsed strategy of governing through polarizing attacks on opponents and treating every major policy challenge almost solely in terms of how it affects his reelection chances.

Eschewing any unifying language about the suffering that COVID-19 has inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Americans, Trump has built his coronavirus narrative around his favored partisan targets. He has attacked the media, which he blames for exaggerating the crisis to harm his reelection campaign; foreigners (in particular China); scientific expertise, including that of “deep state” professionals within his own administration; and multilateral institutions, such as the World Health Organization. Still further, he has skirmished almost daily with Democratic governors, especially New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, over their requests for a more robust response from the federal government. And he has spoken out against strengthening voting-by-mail options for the November elections on the basis that doing so would hurt Republicans.

Thomas Carothers
Carothers is a leading authority on international support for democracy, human rights, governance, the rule of law, and civil society.
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This polarizing leadership style, reinforced by conservative media outlets, has contributed to a partisan divide among Americans in their views about many elements of the crisis. Although 81 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters said in a Pew poll conducted in April that Trump was doing a good job in responding to the needs of medical workers and state governors, only 14 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters agreed. Similarly, 69 percent on the Republican side found Trump’s characterizations of the outbreak accurate; 77 percent of Democrats did not. The partisan fissure extends at least somewhat to responses. According to another April poll, 61 percent of Americans found the restrictions in the area where they live to be about right. Yet 48 percent of Republicans expressed concern that lockdowns might not be lifted quickly enough, whereas 81 percent of Democrats feared they would be lifted too quickly. The outbreak of anti-quarantine demonstrations in multiple states in mid-April embodied one part of this divisive picture. In his reflexively polarizing approach, Trump could not resist egging the protesters on in a series of tweets, calling for them to “liberate” their states, even though they were in fact contesting policies in line with his own official coronavirus guidelines.

Further fueling the partisan divide is the fact that the virus’s impact has differed along key demographic axes. The crisis has underlined the urban-rural divide that is so closely related to the country’s polarization, as infections hit hard initially in cities and spread only more slowly to rural areas. More Democratic-leaning demographic groups—particularly African Americans—are experiencing markedly higher rates of virus-related fatalities and job losses than white Americans.

At the same time, the pandemic has had unifying effects in some domains. The unfolding economic crisis has prompted congressional Democrats and Republicans to work together, with only moderate partisan skirmishing, to enact emergency economic legislation. Some state governors are cooperating across party lines to formulate common responses. Multiplying numbers of community-level acts of solidarity are forging some new bridges and bonds among citizens.

But overall, the coronavirus has thus far reinforced rather than lessened the core U.S. partisan divide. With the virus still spreading, the president sticking firmly to his partisan script in addressing it, and what is bound to be an extraordinarily divisive presidential election now coming into focus, this negative trajectory of partisan division and enmity appears almost certain to continue, and possibly worsen.