It’s well established by now that in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Republicans and Democrats had significantly different reactions to the risks involved, with the former tending to believe that the news media and Democrats were exaggerating the dangers to hurt their beloved leader. That disconnect was naturally attributed to the president’s own dismissive attitude.
But now that Trump has gotten the memo, and is at least rhetorically echoing expert assessments of the threat posed by COVID-19 and what Americans must do to stem its spread, there’s still a big gap in perceptions. As Ron Brownstein observes, it involves geographical differences that reinforce partisan differences:
So far, the greatest clusters of the disease, and the most aggressive responses to it, have indeed been centered in a few large, Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas, including Seattle, New York, San Francisco, and Boston. At yesterday’s White House press briefing, Deborah Birx, the administration’s response coordinator, said half of the nation’s cases so far are located in just 10 counties. The outbreak’s eventual political effects may vary significantly depending on how extensively it spreads beyond these initial beachheads.
If the virus never becomes pervasive beyond big cities, that could reinforce the sense among many Republican voters and office-holders that the threat has been overstated. It could also fuel the kind of xenophobia that Trump and other GOP leaders, such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have encouraged by labeling the disease the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.”
But even if (or, more likely, when) the virus spreads beyond the big metropolitan areas, there’s a chance it will simply reinforce small-town and rural hostility to the culturally alien influence of big-city folk aligned with foreigners, given the more cosmopolitan (demographically and economically as well) nature of Urban America:
There’s a long history of conservatives demonizing the cities as sources of disease to threaten the ‘pure heartland,’” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, the director of political studies at the libertarian Niskanen Center and the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of the modern Republican Party. “That’s an old theme. So that could be how it goes down.”
Indeed, there was an urban-rural split in perceptions of the threat posed by the last great pandemic just over a century ago:
Eva Kassens-Noor, a professor in the global-urban-studies program at Michigan State University, studied urban/rural patterns in the 1918 flu pandemic in India. Her research found that mortality was much greater in urban places above a certain density level than in rural places below it. She believes that U.S. communities will experience the coronavirus in contrasting, but complex, ways: While the disease will probably spread more rapidly in urban areas, she says, more of the population there is young and healthy. And while outbreaks may not be as pervasive in rural America, they could still prove very damaging because the population is older and has less access to quality health care.
In other words, we could see higher mortality from COVID-19 in nonmetro areas, even if the number of cases (and the perceived need for strong mitigation measures) is lower.
So how will that play out psychologically and politically? It’s possible confidence in Trump and his administration will flag in Red America as the pandemic ceases to be mostly a blue-state, big-city phenomenon. But it’s also possible heartland insularity will feed on itself and embitter endangered people even more toward the godless, elitist mongrels of the East and West Coasts and the pathogens they breed.
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