Trump Rally
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

It would have been unthinkable in a previous era, a belief-defying oddity out of a dystopian novel: the public response to a global health crisis epidemic has become partisanized. The liberal half of the country is taking it more seriously; the conservative half is not. And the likely consequence is that thousands of people will die needlessly for purely political reasons, led astray by the pied pipers of conservative infotainment and cynical politicians more interested in managing the business cycle than saving lives.

The numbers are staggering:

A majority of registered voters, 53%, say they are very or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family might catch the coronavirus, but that is sharply divided by party. About seven in 10 Democrats are that worried (68%) compared with 40% among Republicans. Six in 10 overall (60%) say the worst is yet to come from the coronavirus outbreak. And just 6% think the worst is behind us.

Most say their daily lives have changed at least somewhat as a result of the virus (71% total: 45% in a small way, 26% in a major way), while about eight in 10 see changes in the future. Forty-one percent see at least major changes in their day-to-day lives in the future and another 39% say there will be at least small changes in the future. Democrats are also more likely to say they think there are future major changes coming to their day-to-day lives because of the virus, 56% say so vs. 26% among Republicans.

Sixty two percent of Republicans think the news about coronavirus is greatly exaggerated, when the reality is that it’s likely not remotely alarmist enough because news agencies are trying not to start a panic.

It’s hard to blame them, contextually. Donald Trump is telling his true believers that America has the pandemic under control and spends most of his time obsessed with calming the stock market and rattling off the names of CEOs. GOP celebrity congressman Devin Nunes is telling people to go out to restaurants and bars. Sheriff Clarke—once strongly considered for a cabinet appointment by the president—is speculating that COVID-19 is a Soros plot and telling people to demand that the government reopen all the schools.

The dark irony of this, of course, is that American conservatives are, statistically speaking, the most at-risk population in America. Even if they lacked any moral compass beyond their own political survival, one might imagine that Republican politicians and conservative media figures would want to tell their voters and audiences the truth just to make sure they survive to vote in November and buy into reverse mortgage scams advertised on Fox News. But the Pavlovian urge to win the short-term news cycle, own the libs and defend the economic interests of corporate America and Trump’s re-election are combining with the predilection for conspiracy-minded thinking on the right. Conservatives have also bought into the notion that America really is the greatest country on earth, that nothing bad will ever happen to them, and that other countries are only suffering now because of their inferior morals, work ethic and lack of divine protection. They cannot help but deride a proactive response to the coronavirus, and insist on their libertarian God-given right to eat at a crowded Red Robin whenever they want.

This is going to get a lot of people killed. Just as climate change will destroy your way of life whether you believe in it or not, coronavirus will infect you and quite possibly kill you whether you believe it’s a Soros plot to hurt Cracker Barrel’s bottom line or not.

We’re at the point in the exponential curve of this virus where a large number of untested people are very likely carrying and shedding the virus all over the country asymptomatically. That will change very soon. America will likely go from putting travel bans on countries like Italy to becoming a national Wuhan-level petri dish without enough hospital beds in the space of less than a week.

When it does, Republican America is going to face a reckoning as reality clashes with doctrine. Unfortunately, the history of cults and cult thinking does not suggest that they will see the light anytime soon. The Fox News mindset is best understood less in terms of partisanship than cult, and history suggests that cult members double down on their beliefs when faced with harsh cognitive dissonance.

Not only is this situation going to get a lot worse before it gets better in purely human terms. It’s going to get a lot worse in political and partisan terms, too.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.