Sitting in Australia and watching United States politics can be confounding. What I have learnt in my time in the Western states is that much of the information making its way to Australia and other ports of the world makes its way via the east or west coast of the USA and does not always capture the complex sentiments of the population.
For example, much has been made of President Trump’s changing position when it comes to COVID-19. In the past few weeks, he has gone from dismissing it as a hoax (or nothing more than the flu) and bragging about his own knowledge of pandemics, to pushing for a lock down and promising to open everything by Easter, before moving away from that date.
While many have argued that this provides clear evidence of the Trump Administration’s inability to deal with the pandemic, we have simultaneously seen an increase of Donald Trump’s approval rating to its highest on record. Polling data indicates that this jump in popularity has been driven by independents and Democrat-leaning voters who feel that they need to support the President in a time of crisis – the so-called, ‘rallying around the flag’ effect.
If we combine this with increased media exposure from the White House daily briefings and the Biden campaign’s inability to gain airtime, the bump in Trump’s popularity should not come as a surprise. This is despite a number of powerful advertisements criticising Trump that have produced by the Biden camp.
The question that follows is whether this is temporary or a new ascendency for a President who has relied on partisan politics?
The politics of the pandemic have altered the political landscape in ways we are yet to understand. There are five dimensions of American life that may provide insights into this new environment and how it could work for Trump despite his initial handling of the crisis.
There is no single source of truth
One thing I was continually asked while in the USA, was to draw comparisons between the American and Australian electorate. One distinct difference is that during a crisis (from bushfires to COVID-19), Australians are drawn to the ABC for information as a source of ‘truth’; even those who find the ABC too left-leaning, tune in.
In the USA, there is simply no equivalent. This explains why we see a clear partisan split between Democrat and Republican voters when it comes to seeing COVID-19 as a serious threat – something fuelled by Trump’s claim that the virus was a Democratic hoax.
This has led to accusations and counter-accusations from both Democrats and Republicans that the other side is using the pandemic to push their agendas. One example was the move by the leaders of several states— including Texas and Ohio — to argue that abortion clinics must be closed, or their access limited as they argue that abortion is a non-essential procedure and should be delayed.
The medical system
While it be may argued that no medical system is prepared for the potential scale of the coronavirus crisis, the lack of universal health care in the USA creates unique problems. This lack of universal health care has led to delays in testing, a low percentage of people with health insurance and the subsequent hesitancy to get tested because of the costs involved.
Americans face higher out-of-pocket costs for their medical care than citizens of most other nations, and many forgo care they need because of these costs. Stories continue to emerge of returning USA citizens being charged close to US$4,000 to be tested – discouraging people from seeking medical assistance.
The well-documented problems of the USA medical system mean that President Trump has the ability to pass the blame to state Governors, the Centre for Disease Control and even the Obama Administration.
The ‘China virus’
President Trump and many right-wing commentators have not been shy about calling COVID-19 the ‘China virus.’ This plays directly into the Trump base and works for the President that has made ‘standing up to China’ part of his re-election platform.
This needs to be seen in context: Workforce automation and off-shoring continue to place large sections of the American workforce in a vulnerable position – with some estimating that almost 50 per cent of jobs in the USA could be lost. Trump’s stance on China and the use of tariffs have support across the USA – and Trump blaming China for the virus shores up this platform.
Loss of trust in experts
One of the consequences of deeply entrenched partisan politics has been the sidelining of experts and loss of trust in expert systems. Nowhere is this more obvious than in discussions about climate change and in shaping Americans attitudes to COVID-19.
This provides insights into why Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Trump Administration’s most outspoken advocate of emergency virus measures, has faced a ruthless online campaign accusing him of undermining the President. A series of falsehoods aimed at Dr Fauci is undermining his authority with sections of the public – a public who already carry deep a distrust towards experts.
Such scepticism of experts during a pandemic highlights the consequences of attacking the scientific community.
In my time in the United States, I sought to expose myself to the country’s gun culture in an attempt to understand it. For Australians, it is something difficult to grasp – and something I will write about in detail at some future point. For the purpose of this article, all I will say is that gun ownership in the USA is perceived by large sections of the population as a civic duty.
Since the pandemic has gained prominence, gun and ammunition sales in the USA have surged and the Trump Administration has defined gun stores under the list of ‘essential services.’ While mass shootings make the news in Australia, many Americans from across the political spectrum, continue to support the rights of gun owners. Gun culture, like it or not, is a significant part of the politics of this pandemic.
As Fox News and others who support Trump have started to take the pandemic more seriously, it is likely that the partisan divide about the pandemic will narrow – but the fact that it exists provides insights into the volatility of American politics. What will not change, are the attempts by both major parties to take advantage of this situation – that will continue to inhibit the response needed to confront this crisis.
Note: This article was originally published for Open Forum.