May 26, 2020

Donald Trump versus a virus, who wins?

Well Mr Trump of course. When it comes to a choice between political or medical approaches to the virus, Americans are overwhelmingly plumping for the politics. They afford, in that choice, the most basic of victories to their self-obsessed President. Whether they love Trump or hate him, it’s the emotional/political response that matters most to them — as it does to him.

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Kool Aid has become bleach: and they are drinking it.

Even perfectly rational Americans have been caught up in a politicisation of virus facts. And so, if you know how anyone voted in 2016, you will also know whether they think opening beaches in Florida is a good thing, or whether an earlier lockdown would have saved lives. You think Chloroquine might be a good treatment? You voted to Make America Great Again. You think everyone should wear a mask? You’re a milquetoast San Francisco dreamer.

Anyone waiting for a reckoning — the equivalent of the public enquiry we expect in the UK; blame apportioned, defences accepted or rejected, the results widely disseminated and accepted — will be waiting a long time. No proper accounting for these mad months will ever be possible. However many die. Whatever the long-term economic impact of lockdowns. Coronavirus, in America, has mutated from pathogen to political event. The media won’t help. That the virus has been so politicised is in large part thanks to the intellectual laziness of a class of commentators, fat bottoms sitting on CNN stools, who like nothing better (and know nothing more) than to chat about who’s in and who’s out and who’s hot and who’s cold.

But wait: there is hope. Hope of a vaccine. Not for Coronavirus but for this political and social disease. The extreme nature of the malady is revealing something about how it strikes and how it might be repelled.

The coronavirus pandemic has given students of American society the opportunity to watch, in real time, a giant psychological experiment taking place. They are seeing something much more interesting than the relatively banal stuff about facts not mattering any more or being chosen at will. No: at a molecular level a much more interesting and deeper dysfunction is being revealed.

A simple question serves as our microscope. Why are Left-wing Americans more afraid of the virus than Right-wingers? As the writer Ezra Klein has pointed out on the Vox website, this feels odd given what we know about the psychology of being on the Right: fearing threats, being more sensitive to them, and on the Left: welcoming contact with the world, seeing progress everywhere.

“Here we are,” Klein writes, “in the midst of a pandemic, and it’s conservatives seemingly dismissing the danger, opening states and counties prematurely, refusing to wear masks, waving off the deaths of older people as a small price to pay. And, more often, it seems to be liberals who’re locked in their homes, who are warning the worst is yet to come, who are shaming anyone who dares step foot on a beach or forgets to don personal protective equipment.”

Klein talks to psychologists who express a range of views entirely explained — of course — by their own biases. He gets nowhere. Until he turns to a paper written in 2018 which still serves as one of the foundational pieces on Trump and the world he inhabits.

The paper, by political scientists Jeremy Pope and Michael Barber of Brigham Young University, is little short of revelatory. It is, or should be, the central text of modern US politics 101. Here is the conclusion: “group loyalty is the stronger motivator of opinion than are any ideological principles.”

Alright, it needs some additional colour. What they did, Pope and Barber, was an extraordinary first in the annals of academic endeavour: they used Trumpism as a heuristic device. They noted that The Donald has taken a range of ideological positions on policy issues in the past, so they divided 1,300 conservative voters into two groups and asked them about those different positions, liberal and conservative; one of the groups was told Trump’s view and the other was not. The revelation was that the more strongly ideologically conservative the voter (as self-identified) the more likely he or she was to go in the direction, any direction, that Trump went in. Bingo!

To repeat: “group loyalty is the stronger motivator of opinion than are any ideological principles.” They are loyal to Trump. They want him to win every battle. Identity groups want to further the causes of the group: in the complex real world they may care about science, or income tax or anything, but in their gut they know who they are, where they belong, and only this matters.

So if Trump wants the borders closed: cool. If he wants the shops open, amen. If he thinks Xi Jinping is doing fine, attaboy. If he decides the virus is a Chinese plot to destroy the world: makes sense to you.

But here is why the Coronavirus might allow the Pope and Barber paper to be freshened. It concentrated on Trump and his people. Perhaps the authors rather assumed — as political science professors at major American universities tend to — that on the Left, in the moderate centre, no such identity trap exists.

Well Hello Coronavirus Times! While Joe Biden sits largely un-noticed in his basement trying to work out how to use his autocue, Americans on the Left have binged on disaster, to the extent that the comedian Bill Maher was forced to issue a warning to his natural pals: “Trump calls you Fake News: don’t make him right!

He had in mind the ‘panic porn’ of the mainstream media. Headlines declaring ‘war zone’ conditions next to a picture of a person buying eggs. A news story in the New York Times about how things had been turned round in that city, but with the headline, ‘Braced for apocalyptic surge, New York avoids worst so far.’

Maher had done some research. As he saw it:

“The media also seems obsessed with finding young people who’ve died of COVID-19. The Washington Post says there were 759 under 50 years old. Horrible, of course. Then I looked up how many under 50 died of the flu last year, almost 3,000. So, all this misery from distancing did some good, can I be happy about that?”

No of course not. Because the American Left is as subsumed by identity group needs — mostly the need to be the opposite of Trump and his people — as is the Right. The myopia is cross party. There might be talk of ideology, of the policies that spring from deeply held beliefs about how life should be lived and a modern nation governed, but none of that matters much any more. Beat Trump. He has talked the virus down so talk it up. That’s it.

The vaccine for this virus — the political one — will almost certainly take longer to develop than for coronavirus. But we understand at least what the process of infection is: the challenge will be to find a serum of balm that might be injected into the body politic that allows that inflamed identity protein (sorry) to be blocked or reduced, and healthier political instincts encouraged. The post Trump world needs to think about civic education. About a properly just society which works for all Americans. About a return to due process after the horrors of the campus culture that destroys on a whim.

It will take two women: Joe Biden’s successor (his vice president will be a woman) and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina Governor and ambassador to the UN who I think is likely to be the Republican best positioned for the delicate task of rescuing the GOP from Trumpism. Is it too much to hope that they might be able to disagree agreeably and to persuade the nation to do that much missed bipartisan stuff again?

Cards on the table: I am enormously optimistic. America’s ability to put ideas to good use is one of its central features. So is its ability to produce the sort of people who rise the task. Many presidents have been great and visionary: FDR, JFK, Reagan, Obama. Again and again America makes a mess but it clears it up. Or clears up the messes created by others. In that vein, it may well provide the first vaccine for coronavirus and inoculate the world.

Then (post Trump) it can get on with the job of curing itself.