Anyone who thinks the global outbreak of the coronavirus has the potential to sink Donald Trump’s reelection chances should also consider how it can help him. The risks to the president are already evident. Efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 are disrupting travel and the global supply chain, which has already led to a sharp downturn of the stock market. At the same time, the administration’s reaction has been disjointed, dishonest, and contradictory. If the public loses confidence that Trump has a handle on the problem and Americans start to die in large numbers, they could punish him at the polls. He’s concerned enough about this that he’s scheduled a press conference for 6 p.m. on Wednesday.
Yet, I know from consulting my own visceral fears of the virus, that there’s a strong impulse in the public to limit international travel and close the borders so that containment efforts have some limited chance at success. As Steve Erlanger writes in the New York Times, this feeds right into Trump’s worldview.
Globalization, that awkward catchall for our interconnectedness, was already under assault from populists, terrorists, trade warriors and climate activists, having become an easy target for much that ails us.
Now comes the coronavirus. Its spread, analysts and experts say, may be a decisive moment in the fervid debates over how much the world integrates or separates.
Even before the virus arrived in Europe, climate change, security concerns and complaints about unfair trade had intensified anxieties about global air travel and globalized industrial supply chains, as well as reinforcing doubts about the reliability of China as a partner.
The virus already has dealt another blow to slowing economies, and emboldened populists to revive calls, tinged with racism and xenophobia, for tougher controls over migrants, tourists and even multinational corporations.
The Republicans have used a public health scare to their advantage before, most notably when a few isolated cases of the Ebola virus showed up in the United States during the 2014 midterm cycle.
Republicans fared spectacularly well in the 2014 mid-term elections, re-capturing the Senate while also making gains in state legislatures. While analysts generally attributed this success to the older, more conservative make-up of the electorate, it turns out the GOP had a secret weapon going for it: the Ebola virus.
Newly published research finds fear of the infectious disease, which was widely in the news in the month before the election, increased voters’ intention to vote Republican. This effect was primarily found in red states, which means the outbreak effectively turned them a deeper shade of red.
Fear of a coronavirus pandemic are many times more rational than the fears of Ebola were in 2014, primarily because COVID-19 is less lethal and it is therefore much harder to identify and isolate people who are contagious. It’s quite possible to be infected with this virus and never know it, but you can still spread it to someone who will die as a result.
This kind of helplessness feeds panic, and panic will lead people to support illiberal policies they would never ordinarily consider.
As Erlanger notes, there is a preexisting upswing in resistance to globalization in the West that is evident on both the right and the left, and a pandemic that arises out of China has a lot of potency to feed that resistance.
…the spread of the virus to Europe will also have a significant impact on politics, likely boosting the anti-immigrant, anti-globalization far right, Mr. [Simon] Tilford [director of the Forum New Economy, a research institution in Berlin] said.
“We already see a lot of populist concern about the merits of globalization as benefiting multinationals, the elite and foreigners, not local people and local companies,” he said.
Politicians who insist on control over borders and immigration will be helped, even as the virus transcends borders easily.
It shouldn’t take a lot of imagination to picture how even the left in America could start to embrace more border enforcement or even exploit the crisis to advance their anti-trade and anti-corporate ideologies.
A true pandemic that is facilitated by air travel and corporate interconnectedness is a good reason to reexamine assumptions about how we’ve organized the world, but thoughtfulness doesn’t flourish among panicked people in a presidential election year. It’s more likely to make people look for protection from a strong leader and to prefer drastic efforts instead of timid ones.
So, if the Democrats think it’s to their advantage to exploit the government’s less-than-adequate efforts to contain the virus, they ought to think again. Calming the public, if possible, is a better political play than arousing their fear that the government isn’t doing enough.
Reassurance is the way to go, and this can done by explaining the relatively simple steps they can take to improve the government’s ability to protect the public, starting with putting the science over the politics.
In the meantime, the House Democrats should invite scientists to testify and create a supplemental spending bill that is aimed at containing the crisis based on their advice. This is good policy and their obligation as our representatives, but it’s also good politics. If they help Trump limit the death toll, they’ll actually be helping themselves more than they’ll be helping him.