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Understanding Responses to the Pandemic: A Rudimentary Exercise in Political Psychology (or, How Trump Broke the Left)

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

Mark S. Stephens, PhD.

Part One: Formulation of the Question

This paper began as an affable summertime difference of opinion born in an Austin neighborhood pool.  The issue then at hand was whether denizens of the political Left and Right had respectively exhibited predictable, pronounced, and antipodal reactions to the Covid pandemic.  

For most observers it is self-evident, even axiomatic, to note that conservatives and liberals tend to perceive the world around them from divergent perspectives.  But, like most “rules of life,” there are usually notable exceptions to such broad behavioral generalizations- surely the Left and Right can agree on something, can’t they? One might reasonably presume that a common “scientific” reaction to a global pandemic could easily be one of these rare instances of concurrence.  

But, alas, such a supposition seems unfounded, as one can actually demonstrate that Democrats and Republicans have, for some reason(s), typically displayed diametrically opposed approaches to surviving the Corona virus.  This essay attempts to address that conundrum in following form: “Is there a political correlation with and explanation for the fact that certain American populations and jurisdictions have manifested such disparate reactions to the Covid menace?”  

Perhaps philosophical differences associated with political party identification explain the exceptionally wide range of contrasting pandemic policies.  Let us begin attempting to resolve this conjecture with some polling results.

My first data set is an October 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey that found a stark partisan divide regarding the pandemic.  For one, this study revealed that Democrats were then almost three times more likely than Republicans to wear a mask in public.  Another announced result was that 75% of Democrats considered the virus to still be a “significant crisis,” while only 15% of Republicans felt the same.  This poll also revealed that 93% of Democrats had been Covid “vaccinated,” while only 59% of Republicans had taken the jab.  Perhaps even more consequential, three-quarters of queried Democrats had (or will) inoculate(d) their children, while only half of Republicans harbored a corresponding intention.  Confirmatory survey results were revealed by a Rasmussen Report from early December of 2021.  This inquiry found that 64% of Republicans were concerned about mRNA “vaccine” side effects, while only 52% of Independents and 45% of Democrats shared that apprehension.

The accuracy of these data sets was affirmed by subsequent (and more elaborate) surveys, the results of which are summarized below.  Due to formatting issues, I have been compelled to compile the data below in a certain web-compliant manner.  Accordingly, I must ask readers to remember that the left listed numbers correspond to Democrats, the center figures represent the views of Independents, and the numbers listed on the right are the opinions of Republicans.

Table One

Heartland/Rasmussen Poll

January 5, 2022

1,016 Likely US Voters

           

Dem.    Indep.   Rep.

Issue:

-Support the national vaccine mandate:

78%      41%     22%

-Favorable View of Dr. Fauci:

75%     38%      21%

-Support fines for the unvaccinated:

55%     25%     19%

-Support indefinite house arrest for the unvaccinated:

59%      X         X

-Oppose such home detention:

X         71%     79%

-Favor criminal penalties for anyone who questions vaccine efficacy:

48%     18%    14%

-Support sending unvaccinated people to detention camps:

45%      X        X

-Strongly oppose concentration camps for the unvaccinated:

X         64%     78%

-Support seizing the children of  the unvaccinated:

29%     11%      7%

Table Two

Economist/YouGov Poll

February 12-15, 2022

1500 US Citizens

  

Issue

-Canadian truckers’ “Freedom Convoy:”

Support     18%     40%     71%

Oppose      68% 45%     19%

-Vaccine requirement for truck drivers entering USA:

Support     71%     41%     25%

Oppose      17% 42%     61%

-Concern about catching Covid:

Very/somewhat worried     77%     41%     28%

-Attend a religious service in last two weeks:

Yes     16%     19%     38%

No      82%     77%     59%

-Mask wearing frequency:

Always/most of time     78%     46%     30%

Never                             6%     25%     38%

-National Covid cases are:

Increasing      22%     18%     12%

Decreasing     47%     47%     62%

-Worst of pandemic is behind us:  

32%     51%     68%

-Are you vaccinated:

Yes     84%     62%     56%

No     16%     38%     44%

-I will not vaccinate my kids:

10%     45%     41%

-Who should decide if kids wear masks:

Parents                    19%     40%     72%

Official authorities   64%     44%     17%

-Vaxx mandate for K-12 school children:

Support     64%     31%     14%

Oppose      20%     49%     74%

-Indoor mask mandate:

Support     78%     49%     23%

Oppose      14%     38%     68%

-Businesses having mask mandates for customers:

Support      77%   55%     31%

Oppose       14%     31%     57%

-Should there be Covid restrictions in your community now:

Yes              57%   20%      8%

No               30%   70%     85%

-It is now safe to resume normal life activities:

                    10%     36%       58%

-The Pandemic has already ended:

                      4%      20%     36%

Two questions in this survey also revealed that the politically aligned intangible attitudes referenced above were translated into tangible local government policies.

-There are currently Covid restrictions in my community:

Yes             51%     38%     33%

No              30%     39%     51%

-Masking is not currently required in my community:

                  20%      31%     44%

These data unquestionably confirm that there is a remarkably strong and consistent political correlation to attitudes and policies regarding the Covid crisis.  We now know, inter alia, that when compared to Democrats, Republicans are almost four times more likely to oppose a vaxx mandate for school children and nine times more likely to believe the pandemic to be over. 

More concretely, one has readily observed that Democrat-run places (like New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, DC) have been vigorously enforcing prophylactics such as mask and vaccine mandates, while Republican areas (like Florida and Texas) have actually legally prohibited such requirements.  In California, to cite one example, the Department of Social Services staged a “simultaneous multi-school raid” because of a single report that two-year olds were not all wearing masks all day.  Conversely, Republican Governor DeSantis has moved to punish Florida school districts that enforce mask mandates.  Quelle Contraste!  

Continuing this trend, a Spring 2022 New Hampshire law barring the state from enforcing federal vaccine directives passed along almost perfectly partisan lines.  Simultaneously, in Rhode Island, a bill was introduced to double the income taxes of residents with unvaccinated children- all six of its (co)sponsors are Democrats.  This same bill also provides for stiff fines against all employers who have unjabbed workers.

At the federal level, a telling example could be seen as the House Judiciary Committee considered HR 350, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2021.   In the Spring of 2022, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) introduced the following amendment:

“None of the funds authorized to be appropriated in this Act shall be used to monitor, analyze, investigate or prosecute any individual solely because that individual declined the administration of a vaccine to COVID-19 or expressed opposition to such administration.”

 In other words, Rep. Biggs was simply trying to prevent injection skeptics from being treated like terrorists.  But, according to Rep. Thomas Massie, every Democrat on the Committee voted against the amendment.   What is all this?  To my astonishment, it appears that the “core slogan” of liberalism, “My body, my choice,” has been turned completely on its head, virtually overnight (and, in a related development, the old pacifist Left is now practically a war party!)

There are really too many examples of the partisan Covid divide to list in this space.  Suffice it to say that the well-traveled comedian, Bill Maher, has personally observed the striking correlation between politics and pandemic policies, concluding that Red States are a “joy” to visit, while Blue States are “a pain in the….”  While it is, of course, preposterous to believe that viruses behave less dangerously in places controlled by conservatives, public health officials across the country are almost acting as if they do.  This strikingly curious behavior is in need of explication.

Part Two: Explanation of the Answer

Now that the strong correlation between partisan identification and pandemic reaction has been firmly established, I turn to understanding why this incredibly strong behavioral disparity is so robust.  The most obvious answer might be that, since American Leftists are philosophically more persuaded by the benign efficacy of governmental controls, such a belief naturally translates into a more statist prescription for dealing with the Corona virus.  At first glance this reasoning seems plausible, but its deficiencies soon become apparent. 

For one, the notion that Republicans are more reluctant to resort to state power than Leftists is problematic.  While it is true that, since Ronald Reagan, anti-statist themes prominently resonate throughout the rhetoric of the Right, this orientation proves to be weaker than one is sometimes led to believe.  Yes, Republicans do indeed give considerably more lip-service to “laizzez faire” economics than Democrats, but the reality of Rightism belies this supposed affinity for the unhampered market economy.  For example, Republicans have alternately controlled national courts, Congress, and the presidency for generations. Yet the federal government only gets bigger and more powerful with each succeeding year.  The Right has not abolished the Ex-Im Bank, the Federal Reserve, or the tens of thousands of pages in the Internal Revenue Code (to name just a few instances of heavy-handed or “anti-free market” policies).  Moreover, Republicans are at least as likely to start foreign wars as Democrats, or pursue state-led repression in the form of the war on drugs.  Right Wingers are also just as likely as liberals to want state intervention into the abortion question (but with opposite outcomes), and even more likely to support the ultimate domestic state power- the death penalty.

Then, after internationally comparing global pandemic responses, the liberal versus conservative explanation weakens even further. When one recalls that arch-socialist redoubts like Sweden and Denmark had dramatically less draconian virus policies than Austria and Australia, a simple “political spectrum predictor” for health protocols seems seriously weakened.

A better fitting account for differences in pandemic responses might need to incorporate not simply incongruities in rival political philosophies, but also an appreciation for political (or, better yet, psychological) fatigue.  More specifically, I contend that when Covid arrived as a serious threat, in early 2020, a large segment of the US public was already mentally weakened, having been subjected to the relentless anxiety of a literally unbroken four-year demonization campaign against Donald Trump.  Rightly or wrongly, Americans were ceaselessly reminded, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that “the leader of the free world” was an evil racist monster.  Among other allegations, the public was told that their nation’s standard-bearer was delusional, deranged and dangerous because of his belief that he and his team had been “wiretapped” as part of a vast conspiracy of state and non-state actors utterly determined to bring down the president at any and all cost (imagine that!)

Perhaps the most stress-inducing allegation was that Trump was a diabolical womanizer who saw the female half of humanity as nothing more than a “p**** to grab.”  The strategic 2016 release of that Access Hollywood “hot mike” remark was particularly transformative.  Many conservative, traditionally-minded women were disgusted, even petrified, by that embarrassing leak.  The outrage among this “Leave it to Beaver” demographic (among others) was particularly intense because these sorts of people were largely unaware that many men use such locker-room language on a quotidian basis.  I remember waiting for someone in the media (or anyone of stature) to publicly confess something along the following lines: “I’m sorry ladies, but while I am not excusing Trump’s profanity, I gotta let y’all in on a secret…most guys talk like that all the time (or, at least when no women are present).”  But, to my knowledge, not one person of repute ever made such a confession of post-pubescent reality…not one. 

I have struggled to convey, in writing, how deeply some American women were traumatized when hearing their future president so casually use such crude and derogatory language.  However, I have finally found the appropriate analogy in a certain episode of the Dave Chappelle Show.  The skit I have in mind is the one in which the assembled members of a KKK chapter suddenly discover their (previously gloved and hooded) leader to be a black man…and their heads literally explode from the shock.  

On top of such unfavorable impressions, Trump was relentlessly portrayed as a threat to “the very values of the free world,” a “danger to democracy” who was actively conspiring with a foreign government to destroy America and everything that was good in the world.  And the president was not the wicked agent of just any alien power- he was a puppet of that other “most evil” person in the world, Vladimir Putin.  

A concatenation of the words publicly used to describe Putin literally reads as follows: the Russian president is “a thug and a bully…a kleptocratic…unreconstructed Russian imperialist…[and] poisonous oligarch…[who is] the worst dictator on the planet…a war criminal…a small grey ghoul…[and] an evil man…intent on evil deeds…Russian scum…[who] likes to make the bodies bounce…[and] doesn’t [even] have a soul.”  And those were descriptions of Putin made before the Ukrainian invasion!

Together, the Trump-Putin demonic duo was portrayed as working to unleash perdition upon the Earth.  Their paired vilification campaigns were about the most extensively widespread messages of deprecation and fear in US history.  Never before have so many emotionally stressful and personally negative portrayals been so unrelentingly disseminated with such perfect ubiquity (to the effect that sizeable segments of the population actually believed they were under the rule of Nazis).  

After years of fervidly fretting that the leader of their country was a misogynist monster from hell, millions of Americans were, quite simply, “stressed out” (in direct proportion to the extent that they believed this narrative).  Hence, when the pandemic arrived, those most exhausted by the infinitely scary Trump-danger had the most emphatic reactions to the virus-threat.  They had been “worn down,” if you will, by years of psychological strain, and as Covid propagated they were more likely to “snap” into a more alarmed (some say authoritarian) response (since their “tanks” of mental reserves or resistance were “on empty.”) Previous angst had made these individuals more susceptible to subsequent worries.

There is an abundance of peer-reviewed literature and vernacular online material chronicling the seriously deleterious effects of persistent, long-term anxiety.  This “chronic stress” is defined by Yalemedicine.org as “a consistent sense of feeling pressured over a long period of time.”   Among the symptoms of that condition, mental health expert Dr. Elizabeth Scott includes “feelings of helplessness [or] loss of control.”  This is precisely the vulnerability that effectively served as the “receptor site” into which the more emphatic Covid-reaction was so readily “inserted.”  This is why the Trump “fear years” left Leftists in a state prone to relatively robust responses when confronted by the virus menace. 

My intuitive conclusion here seems scientifically vindicated by subsequently discovered research, such as found in an article from the April 2018 issue of Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology.  This study, titled (in part) “The Effects of Chronic Stress,” concludes (in part) that extended exposure to “social stressors can increase vulnerability to stress” events experienced later in life.    Of course, I am neither a neurobiologist nor a psychiatrist (and they are not political scientists), but my interpretation of their professional literature seems consonant with common sense and experience.

On the other hand, Republicans (who were more likely to have disregarded the Trump-is-a-demon message) were less susceptible to “Covid phobia-” their “tanks” of mental reserves were still “full.”  Accordingly, they were more easily able to resist the temptation for intense pandemic responses because they maintained a stockpile of energy, hopefulness, and self-confidence that was lacking in those who were already weakened by year after year of the media’s “we’re all gonna die ‘cause of Trump” pandemonium.  Like a dam, fortified before a flood, the Right could psychologically defy the Covid deluge more adamantly than the Left.  Hence, one can perceive how the aftereffects of extended stress and fear, not simply respective political philosophies, may contribute to an understanding of the proven partisan correlation of American pandemic attitudes and responses.

Optimum data-mining by which to better establish the validity of my “Trumpophobia” hypothesis would consist of the trifurcation of (future?) survey questions delineating subdivisions of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats according to  “Likes Trump,” “Neutral,” and “Dislikes Trump” categorizations.  If my thesis is correct, such polling will reveal that those few Republicans who do support stringent virus policies are also the cohort of Republicans who hated or feared the president.  These conservatives  were likely subjected to similar psychological trauma as Leftists since they believed the denigration campaigns’ assertions were valid, leaving them in the same state of constant “fear and loathing.”  

More specifically, I am predicting that the overwhelming majority of those 7% of Republicans who support seizing the children of the unvaccinated are “never Trumpers.”  Similarly, I also predict an analogous breakdown for the 14% of Republicans who want to criminalize vaccine criticism.  Conversely, I contend that the 14% of Democrats who oppose indoor mask mandates are mainly those liberals who never really feared Trump, etc. (see Tables above).

However, the factor that could best explain partisan pandemic disparities might be epistemological in nature.  As un laitier astucieux (i.e., an astute vendor of dairy products) recently reminded me, Liberals and Conservatives have long consulted contradictory channels of information propagation- i.e., they have typically read websites and newspapers offering contrary interpretations of the world.  But, since Trump, inhabitants of the Left and Right have been finding that their respective versions of “reality” have become characterized by progressively more intractable and irreconcilable phenomenological incongruities.  In other words, the traditional gulf between the political poles was dramatically widened by the “Trump effect,” as supporters and opponents of the president began to live in increasingly mismatched worlds.  Their progressively more divergent universes subsumed such fundamentally contradictory natures that they came to house incompatible versions of “science,” “fact,” and even “reality” itself.

      

In one universe, Hydroxychloroquine is empirically proven to be a life-saving treatment for Covid; in the other, it is indisputably known to be useless.  In one universe, Ivermectin is a Nobel Prize winning Covid miracle drug; in the other, it is deadly horse paste.  In one universe, science definitively establishes the mRNA vaccines to be dangerous and ineffective; in the other, science demonstrates the exact opposite.   In one world, Trump is undoubtedly an upstanding super-patriot; in the other world he has been undeniably proven to be a treasonous madman.  In one world, five capitol police officers were murdered by violent and delusional insurrectionists on January 6; in the other world, the citizens peacefully demonstrating against an obviously stolen election killed absolutely no one.  In one reality, 2 plus 2 always equals 4; in the other reality, the sum of 2 and 2 does not matter, since math is inherently racist.  In one universe, it is not only possible, but heroic, for men to become women; in the other, such transitioning is not only utterly impossible, but is also abominable madness of the highest order.

It is as if we have become bifurcated into parallel planets, one of matter and the other of anti-matter. “Trump trauma” has seemingly riven the American people into incompatible dimensions of time and space, where even the laws of physics are mutually exclusive.  Sometimes, it almost feels like we are living in that Star Trek episode where the Starship Enterprise is somehow caught between two parallel dimensions.  In one universe, you find the “good” Captain Kirk and Officer Spock, while in the other cosmos everything is precisely opposite, populated by an evil Kirk and a wicked Spock (the latter even sporting an appropriately sinister moustache).

Some indirect evidence for this “two worlds” thesis can be seen in a recent EKOS survey of Canadians (a population sociologically closer to Americans than any other).  This poll found stark foreign policy differences between vaccinated and unvaccinated people.  As reported in the Toronto Star (March 19, 2022), EKOS president Frank Graves concluded that the attitudinal disparities revealed by his survey resulted from its participants inhabiting different universes of fact.  He explained that unvaccinated people were the victims of “disinformation [about Russia]….They’re reading this [political news] online, they’re consuming this from the same sources that were giving them anti-vaxx stuff.”  In other words, his respondents inhabited two incompatible realities.

Graves’ conclusion is also a reference to the bourgeoning “counter-corporate,”  “alternative,” or “neo-samizdat” media that have arisen in response to the collapse in public confidence for legacy news outlets (I expect an international roll-out of establishment maneuvers designed to cripple this new media).  The facts of life as reported in this revisionist press differ markedly from what is presented in the mainstream organs.   One can observe the effects of living with opposite sources of information (about Russia, vaccines, and seemingly everything else) in the table below (the vaccinated are on the left, unvaxxed on right)

Table Three

EKOS polling

March 9-13, 2022

1,035 Canadians

Do You Favor/Agree ?

Vaccinated Unvaccinated

-Imposing tougher economic sanctions on Russia:

86%                          13%

-Seizing the assets of Russian oligarchs associated with President Putin:

85%                           13%

-Cutting off oil shipments from Russia:

81%                           21%

-Sending additional military equipment to Ukraine:

82%                           18%

-Providing additional loans and non-military aid to Ukraine:

78%                           15%

-Providing Ukraine with fighter jets:

52%                           15%

-Dispatching military force to Ukraine:

30%                           11%

-Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine:

88%                           32%

-The Russian invasion of Ukraine is justified:

2%                             26%

This poll reveals how deeply alienated political populations are becoming.  The vaccinated are almost three times more likely to want war with Russia than the unjabbed.  But, given that people are self-segregating themselves into mirror-worlds of opposite everything, including science and politics, perhaps this is not surprising.

Conclusion

Ultimately, however, it may be that rudimentary psychological elucidations will prove insufficient to fully explain something as vast as the response to Covid-19. Perhaps something more purposefully deliberate should be invoked to understand the full range of virus survival strategies.  I am thinking here, for example, of Klaus Schwab’s boast that his World Economic Forum “future leaders” program(s) has been responsible for the previous conditioning of certain contemporaneous elites’ behavior (but this avenue would need to be the topic of another paper). 

In sum, a simple “elephant vs. donkey” explanation for the wide disparity in pandemic policies is insufficient- apparently Occam’s Razor doesn’t always “cut the mustard” with something as multifaceted as this notable question.

 Accordingly, we are left with the following conclusion: a years-long systematic inculcation of unrelenting hatred, fear, and fatigue can leave whole (segments of) subjected populations mentally vulnerable to the onset of a new existential crisis which, intensified again by (those same) organs of information dissemination, can tip people “over the edge” into certain (more alarmed) attitudinal and, in turn, political reactions.  In combination with differing beliefs in government benevolence and divergent “universes of fact,” one can perceive how particular mental conditions enabled (or even compelled?) the Covid crisis to manifest as antipodean socio-political apparitions.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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Richard
Richard
June 6, 2022

Not sure what this guy is saying.

Charles Smith
Charles Smith
June 23, 2022

how about people who were trump fans (republicans) were turned off to the media because of media’s portrayal of trump. they became inclined to disbelieve anything the media propagated. people who hated trump, e.g. because he defeated a woman (democrats) were attracted to and believing in a media who supported their views. then, this same media told us how bad covid is/was. anti-media republicans tended to reject their enemy’s thesis while democrats tended to embraced it. the antipodal conditioning of either side was then reinforced by talking heads espousing views consistent with either conditioning. then they answered the polls.

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