Not Even the Coronavirus Will Unite America

History suggests that rallying Americans requires a powerful human enemy, not a faceless danger.

A woman wearing a face mask in front of an American flag.
Ron Haviv / VII / Redux

In recent decades, the glue binding America has come undone, as political polarization has reached record levels and trust in national institutions has crumbled. Could the fight against the coronavirus forge America, once more, into a unified nation, or will the terrifying global trauma become just another front in the partisan war? The latter seems far more likely.

People across the United States face a common enemy, which doesn’t distinguish between red America and blue America. The pandemic has inspired incredible acts of generosity and courage, not least from health-care workers who persevere in the face of danger and exhaustion. In the last line of his novel The Plague, Albert Camus wrote that the titular disease arose “for the bane and the enlightening of men.” The coronavirus could enlighten Americans by revealing the deep interconnections of society and creating an era of public investment, including new policies such as paid sick leave.

But even the coronavirus can’t seem to overcome polarization. Polls measuring approval of Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis show Americans about evenly split on the president’s performance. Meanwhile, Trump’s overall approval numbers have barely budged since the start of the year, remaining in a narrow band of 42 percent to 44 percent. Even threat perception is deeply divided along partisan lines: Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to see the coronavirus as a grave danger. Nearly twice as many Republicans (30 percent) as Democrats (16 percent) believe in the conspiracy theory that the virus was deliberately created in a lab. This partisan gap on public-health issues is nothing new: Democrats were more supportive than Republicans of Barack Obama’s handling of the H1N1 virus in 2009 and the Ebola outbreak in 2014. At the elite level, there’s no coronavirus ceasefire; instead, the politics, have, if anything, become more furious, as Congress squabbles over a stimulus and Trump continues his feuds with journalists and governors.

Every aspect of the crisis is colored by partisanship, including beliefs about which information sources to trust and views about who is worthy of federal aid. Even the act of social distancing is political—another way to show tribal colors—as liberals urge people to stay at home and conservatives chafe against government restrictions. The evangelical Liberty University has decided to welcome back thousands of students as early as next week and has instructed professors to hold office hours in person.

Why won’t coronavirus bring Americans together? History suggests that rallying Americans requires a powerful human enemy—like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. A human foe causes people to form in-groups and exhibit a “one for all” mindset with more trust toward fellow group members. By contrast, faceless dangers such as climate change and the coronavirus don’t seem to unite people nearly as effectively. War is Norman Rockwell; coronavirus is Edward Hopper.

In 1917–18, America’s campaign in World War I aroused an extraordinary degree of nationalism. When President Woodrow Wilson took the country into war, flags flew up and down city streets and The Nation described a “rebirth of American patriotism.” Wall Street bankers, students, and union leaders all backed the crusade against Germany. Civic associations like the American Legion and the Boy Scouts mobilized to support the war effort. In Iowa alone, thousands of churches and other organizations joined a mass campaign to conserve food. Of course, not everyone was welcomed into the in-group—anti-war figures faced harsh repression—but overall, the Great War produced a profound rally effect. “I cannot be deprived of the hope that we are chosen, and prominently chosen,” Wilson said, “to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”

The Spanish Flu in 1918–19 caused a very different response. Globally, the pandemic killed perhaps 50 million people, more than twice the number who died in World War I (20 million). But as the historian John M. Barry put it, “In 1918, without leadership, without the truth, trust evaporated. And people looked after only themselves.” In Kentucky, a Red Cross chapter chairman said hunger was rife, “because the well were panic stricken and would not go near the sick.” In Philadelphia, the rising tide of cases stoked selfishness and rage, and the city began to turn on itself. Doctors and nurses performed heroically, but wider society stopped answering the call. The head of Philadelphia’s Emergency Aid said, “There are families in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food.” Undertakers were accused of ratcheting up prices sixfold and making the bereaved dig graves for the dead.

Today, COVID-19 is triggering solidarity but also selfishness, with people hoarding, panic buying, or allegedly selling stocks based on insider information. The lasting image of the coronavirus may be shoppers fighting over a pack of toilet paper. The economic shock and the lockdown of entire industries risk immense social harm. The ties that bind the global economic system are coming under strain as societies turn inward and become more autarkic. How long will people tolerate social isolation? How long before suspicion becomes distrust and then boils over into anger? If people grow desperate, they may scavenge for supplies, sparking exaggerated stories of “looting” that breed paranoia, like after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The virus reveals—and may widen—the country’s economic divides. Members of the upper class work from home and have the resources to teach their kids and have supplies delivered, whereas for the working poor, losing their job may be a greater concern than catching the virus. America in the era of the coronavirus is less like a train engine pulling everyone along, and more like the movie (and upcoming television show) Snowpiercer, in which a cocooned elite rides out the storm in luxury.

America is not doomed to disunion. Ultimately, the domestic impact of coronavirus hinges on U.S. leaders’ capacity to build trust, tell the truth, and create bipartisan initiatives. Government can protect the most vulnerable and hold things together until the tempest abates. However, Trump’s polarizing style, his loose relationship with the truth, his disdain for alliances and international institutions, and his clumsy labeling of the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” all mean that COVID-19 is unlikely to become the bond Americans so desperately crave.

Divisions may only worsen if the 2020 presidential campaign becomes a contest between two dueling narratives of the coronavirus: Trump the hero who put America first versus Trump the villain who failed to act and called the threat a “hoax.” The politics are intense because this moment is so important: The winning narrative could decide the election and the future direction of the country. Trump said he’s a wartime president, but his enemy is not the disease. It’s Democrats.