The Coronavirus Is Spreading Into Trump Country

Shuttered businesses in a small Illinois town. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

For a while, I’ve been worried that the disparate impact of COVID-19 might encourage Donald Trump to place a big bet on feeding resistance to business restrictions among red-state Americans who view the pandemic as mostly afflicting people unlike them who may even have brought it on themselves via their “lifestyles” or their willful exposure to foreign influences. As Trump has played footsies with right-wing “reopening” activists besieging state capitols, this sort of deadly polarization has looked even more likely, as I noted just yesterday:

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.

But new data from the Brookings Institution’s William Frey, brought to our attention by Greg Sargent, suggests that the red-blue lines are now being blurred by the pandemic’s course:

During the first three weeks of April, new counties showing a high prevalence of COVID-19 cases are more suburban, whiter, and voted more strongly for Donald Trump than counties the virus hit first. These findings result from a new analysis of counties with high COVID-19 prevalence rates (more than 100 confirmed cases per 100,000 population) based on data available from The New York Times and the U.S. Census Bureau.

As Sargent notes in his summary of Frey’s findings, new COVID-19 victims are beginning to look like all of America, not just the urban areas hit hardest initially:

As of mid-April, the majority of residents of counties that have just become high-coronavirus areas are in the South, Midwest and West. Under half reside in urban cores; more than half live in suburban, outer-suburban, small-metro and rural areas. Nearly half of those counties’ voters picked Trump in 2016 …

If this continues, it could badly complicate the debate over social distancing for Trump. As Frey noted, the perception that high-covid counties are overwhelmingly urban and Democratic “underlies a lot of these protests that are going on,” because the general sentiment among protesters is, “We’re not like that.”

Now, this trend won’t necessarily eliminate polarized political conflict over the pandemic: There are obviously pockets of blue sentiment (not to mention young and minority voters) all over red America, and those demanding business reopenings at the risk of more infections won’t necessarily feel much solidarity with their suffering neighbors. Beyond that, there are significant ideological differences in how conservatives and progressives view the trade-offs associated with enduring and recovering from the pandemic, with many MAGA folk sharing Trump’s obsession with getting the economy rolling, and supporting a relaxation of restrictions as soon as it represents a calculated gamble rather than a clear death sentence for hundreds of thousands of people.

Having said that, the trend Frey reports may cool culture-war passions and keep the president from seizing on the “political geography of COVID-19” as a path to reelection, as Sargent observes:

[I]f Trump thinks this will be the gasoline for his new culture war, it probably won’t work. Polls show that even voter groups in his base — seniors, blue collar whites, rural voters — tilt against reopening quickly.

As sociologist Theda Skocpol told Vox’s Sean Illing, the “conditions” just aren’t there for this to become a genuine popular uprising, because “most Americans can look around and see what’s happening,” and “they see people dying and suffering.”

It’s a terrible price to pay for a bit of civility, but the more the pandemic is understood as a common threat, the more a common strategy for surviving it looks feasible.

The Coronavirus Is Spreading Into Trump Country