The single richest theme in the long history of American populism — left-wing as well as right-wing — has been the wickedness of urban areas, where rich cosmopolitans exploit virtuous small-town and country folk and the polyglot helots of the cities themselves, whom they command politically as well as economically. As multiple studies have shown, the stark divisions exposed by the Trump-Clinton contest of 2016 broke as much on proximity to urban cores as any other variable. The urban–nonurban breakdown overlapped with a variety of other economic and cultural dividers, of course, most notably race, religious observance, and age. But a lot of the savagery of political rhetoric in this era is attributable to this ancient hostility between city mice and country mice, and the domination of urban cores and rural areas by one of the two major parties.
In the tense atmosphere created by the coronavirus pandemic, we saw a predictably polarized response to the initial spread of infections, as Ron Brownstein noted a month ago:
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.”
Even more divisive, both culturally and politically, is what actually happened: the spread of infection beyond urban areas in degrees sufficient to arouse fears and justify the imposition of social-distancing rules, but not enough to make this feel like a genuinely national malady in which all Americans are in solidarity:
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.”
And now, of course, with Trump, elements of his MAGA base, and Republican lawmakers beginning to urge as speedy an end to business disruptions as possible, we’re seeing a new urban–nonurban divide, with red America blaming blue America for forcing an unnecessary loss of jobs in areas (and populations, i.e., white populations) less afflicted by COVID-19. Many have noted that Trump’s endorsement of anti-lockdown demonstrators contradicts his own administration’s guidelines for handing the pandemic, but he’s pushing a cultural and geographical grievance central to his 2016 victory, as Thomas Edsall observes:
The eastern border, Philly, and the western border Pittsburgh, is what is causing the state to stay shut down. What about the rest of us??
In other words, Trump and his followers want to place the onus for the social and economic restraints that are still in effect in much of the country on cities, many of them heavily black, where the coronavirus has been most destructive.
And that message merges with the earlier xenophobic treatment of COVID-19’s origins:
Trump continues on a well-trodden path as he promotes the corona-liberation movement — stigmatizing inner-city dwellers, scapegoating “foreigners” and blaming the Covid-19 pandemic on China. In a recent email to supporters, his campaign declared: “America is under attack — not just by an invisible virus, but by the Chinese.”
Trump’s decision to suspend employment-related immigration reinforced the supposed link between globalization and threats to the heartland, a hardy perennial theme of his 2016 campaign. But this time around, it’s not just the gnawing, gradual effect of lost manufacturing jobs to Mexico and China thanks to trade agreements at issue, but illness and death accompanied by catastrophic economic effects. If Trump’s MAGA base is even half-convinced their domestic and international enemies are at fault for this calamity, is there any limit to the intensity with which they will turn out?
We’ve been seeing among conservative opinion leaders lately an open, nostalgic yearning for the agrarian America of the distant past, as in a Breitbart News interview West Virginia’s Republican governor Jim Justice:
“We’re seeing that some of the most densely packed cities are what’s getting hit the hardest,” said [Alex] Marlow of coronavirus infection rates. “It makes perfect sense when people literally live on top of each other and are sharing the same subway cabs constantly. There are huge levels of crazy international travel coming in and out. Do you think people are going to be yearning to end up in a place like West Virginia? Do you think it’s going to make your state more appealing to people?”
Justice replied, “Well, I would surely hope so … If you could see what I’ve lived with every day in West Virginia, you would be packing up and heading here tomorrow, because it’s the most pristine air, the most pristine water, good family people that have real values, low crime, good schools, the roads are good.”
Conservative activist Erick Erickson plows a well-worn religious furrow about the sinfulness that brings God’s judgment down on cities:
There’s a theology of cities in scripture and it is not a flattering one. There is now a pandemic pouring through American cities where the hardest-hit places are the most urban and the ones where we’ve abandoned our senior citizens.
I’ll be glad to never have to read another newspaper article or research paper on how we need to incentivize urban dwelling and mass transit and limit family size and use reusable shopping bags.
Give me my GMC Yukon and my land any day of the week. Give me Texas and its wide-open spaces. Give me anything, but not Metropolis.
Depending on what happens next with infection rates, we could be on the brink of a period in which virtuous red America curses wicked blue America with continued COVID-19 deaths as an acceptable price to pay for red America’s economic revival. Trump is just blunt and brutal enough to pose the trade-off that way, if he needs it to mobilize his base. The term “holy war” could be all too apt for the conflict the country will experience in the run-up to November, and Lord help us if the outcome remains in doubt after Election Day.