How Trump Is Dividing People During the COVID-19 Crisis

The president is using the pandemic to mobilize his clientele. But the U.S. would be immeasurably stronger if it stood united in the crisis.

If it is true that the coronavirus strengthens extremes in a political system, if good governments govern better and bad governments govern increasingly worse, if dysfunctional bureaucracies collapse and organized polities neatly manage the crisis—then no country on earth will suffer more from the coronavirus than the U.S. For years, a fight of extremes has been raging here that may make the country the most strongly polarized of today’s democracies.

The polarization of the U.S. is not Donald Trump’s invention and is only peripherally related to the divide between rich and poor, which, after all, is almost an established constitutional principle. American society is extremely individualistic and freedom-loving, but it also demonstrates extreme solidarity and closeness, especially in crises. American politics is uncomfortably competitive and destructive, especially at the federal level, but also—especially in the federal America of the states—pragmatic and able to compromise. Yes, there is the narcissist-in-chief, but there are also governors who are fighting the coronavirus valiantly and responsibly and are being overwhelmed by expressions of sympathy.

So when the president, in his daily entertainment show from the White House, not only puts pressure on governors who represent states governed by Democrats—calling for “liberation” as if the country were under foreign occupation, announcing objective guidelines for easing restrictions—but also a few minutes later refuses to provide help with tests or hospital beds, that is the typically erratic Trump whose only constant is his unpredictability. Trump has now finally gotten hold of the virus; he grabs it with the political tool that already gained him the presidency and that is the only thing that he has ever reliably mastered: He divides and polarizes.

In the case of the governors, he has also had so much success because he does not need to garner any respect among voters in the states dominated by Democrats. Trump just wants to mobilize his clientele, and they are not located in New York or Chicago.

American Has Always Been Open for a Great Reconciler. Is His Name Joe Biden?

The core of the problem with the American government—whether in dealing with the pandemic or as a leading world power—lies in the country’s polarization. Trump has exploited this divide throughout his entire life; it brought him into office and shapes his dealings with officials, federal institutions, science and the world outside of the U.S. No president before him has ever drawn so much power from this conflict.

But it is also true that, in moments of national tragedy, the U.S. has always developed unimagined fortitude when the powerful figure leading the nation played off his conciliatory influence. From Roosevelt to Obama, history is full of examples of how a president of all Americans has been able to profit from crises and strengthen the country. Clearly, Trump is not such a president. But because the country is open to a messianic leader in times of great need, the gap in the market keeps growing. Will Joe Biden be able to fill it?

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