That broad agreement, however, is a threat to President Trump. He’s trying to undo it, and he might be starting to succeed. Throughout his presidency, he has worked to solidify and exacerbate partisan enmity on the theory that he could be reelected if he maintained the loyalty of Republicans. With that reelection never in more peril than it is right now, he’s looking to polarization to save him.
The most notable feature of recent polling is how (relatively) unified the public has been. Governors have seen their approval ratings skyrocket, particularly those who have been aggressive in ordering shutdowns. In polls, the public has expressed a wariness about resuming normal activity too soon, and unhappiness with Trump’s failure to make that safer.
As my colleague Greg Sargent wrote, “Large majorities grasp that he’s putting people in danger by urging a reopening on his timetable … and large majorities understand this is precisely because he failed to do enough to ensure it can be done safely.”
But that might not be true forever. Some polls are showing a shift among Republicans in Trump’s direction. For instance, according to a Morning Consult poll:
A month ago, half of GOP voters said they were more worried about public health than the economy. Now, fewer than 2 in 5 say their concerns about the physical dangers of the virus outweigh their fears of a free-falling economy — a 13 percent drop.
And in Pew Research Center polls, the number of Republicans saying the novel coronavirus is a major threat to the health of the U.S. population as a whole dropped from 52 percent in April to 43 percent in May.
Even more striking: In a CNN poll, by 71 percent to 26 percent, Republicans said the worst of the pandemic is behind us, while Democrats said the worst is yet to come by 74 percent to 23 percent.
Those changes are less transformative than suggestive — for now. But they come at a time when the rhetoric from the right claiming that stay-at-home orders are a knife plunged in the heart of American liberty are intensifying. Even masks are becoming a culture war touchpoint, with some conservatives saying only cowards wear them, while manly Americans gather in groups to freely share their mucus with one another.
To repeat, opinion on the pandemic has not yet become completely polarized. The number of Americans rushing to defy stay-at-home orders is still small. But it isn’t hard to imagine that before long, it could become widely accepted that to be a Republican in good standing, one must agree that the death count is overstated, the pandemic has been defeated, economic activity must resume immediately whether testing is in place or not and, of course, that Trump has done an absolutely masterful job handling this crisis.
You can already hear those things from Trump himself, from some Republican elected officials and from conservative media. They’re hoping to activate a dynamic in which opinions spread steadily from the elite to the mass.
When a new issue emerges — Should we subsidize the production of shoelace grommets? — at first people might not know what to think. But once the two parties settle on their positions and begin communicating them, public opinion moves toward the two poles like iron filings being pulled toward magnets.
If the politicians and media figures you like and trust tell you we risk catastrophe if we don’t save our vital shoelace grommet industry, you’ll decide they’re right and only a member of the despicable other party would let our brave grommet manufacturers perish. Perhaps more important, if the people you hate the most in public life are taking the opposite position, no argument will convince you to join them.
That’s how it usually works. But there can be complicating factors — such as if the elites in your party are not unified. So while lots of Republicans are now demanding that we lift stay-at-home orders and decide that everything is fine, there are other Republicans — including governors such as Ohio’s Mike DeWine and Maryland’s Larry Hogan — who are saying the opposite. If you’re a Republican, that diversity allows you to hold either opinion without feeling like a traitor to your party.
Which is why right now the fact that many Republicans are still supportive of stay-at-home orders and don’t think Trump is doing such a stellar job are such a threat to him. If he loses any significant number of Republican votes in the fall, he’ll be doomed. So he has to convince members of his party both that only one set of opinions on the coronavirus is acceptable and that Joe Biden is such a monster that they have to vote for Trump no matter how fed up they might be with him.
If the pandemic is the primary campaign issue, Trump needs opinion on the pandemic to be as polarized as possible. So he’ll continue to portray the pandemic not as a collective effort but as a conflict between him and the other team. Polarization got him this far, and he won’t be trying anything different.