Is America’s “One Nation Indivisible” Being Killed Off by the Coronavirus?

An armed protest in the Michigan state legislature has brought to light how the pandemic 
is dangerously deepening divisions across America.

Shortly after noon on Thursday, Dayna Polehanki, a Michigan state senator, was confronted by armed protesters marauding through the capitol, in Lansing, and demanding an end to the coronavirus lockdown. “Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us,” Polehanki tweeted frantically from the Senate floor. The accompanying picture, shot from her desk, showed men in fatigues, with assault rifles, in the gallery above. “I was a high-school teacher for almost twenty years and I was aware someone could come in and shoot things up. I consider myself a tough gal, but this seemed all too real,” she told me the following day. “When anger is stoked like that, and people have guns, things can go wrong.” She said her hands shook as she took the picture.

The protest erupted as the Michigan legislature debated whether to extend the state of emergency issued by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, which was about to expire. Under Michigan law, all political signs are banned from the capitol, so protesters at the “American Patriot Rally” had to leave their banners and placards at the door, but not their loaded weapons, which are legal to carry in public, even in the legislature. “I’m afraid that is the way it is in Michigan right now,” Polehanki said.

The Michigan legislature, dominated by Republicans, rejected an extension of the stay-at-home order. It voted instead to initiate a lawsuit challenging the authority and actions of Whitmer, a Democrat, in dealing with the pandemic. “We can no longer allow one person to make decisions for ten million people,” Mike Shirkey, the Michigan Senate Majority Leader, said on Thursday. The governor countered with an executive order extending the state of emergency another twenty-eight days. “covid-19 is an enemy that has taken the lives of more Michiganders than we lost during the Vietnam War,” she said on Friday. Whitmer was right. More than twenty-six hundred Michigan residents died during the decade-long U.S. presence in Vietnam. In just two months, more than thirty-eight hundred have died in Michigan from covid-19. At least forty-two thousand have been infected since the first case was confirmed, on March 12th. “While some members of the legislature might believe this crisis is over,” Whitmer added, “common sense and all of the scientific data tells us we’re not out of the woods yet.”

The pandemic has dangerously deepened divisions across America—a nation already riven in recent years by race, class, religion, and trash-talking politics. The concept of “one nation indivisible” seems ever more elusive, even unattainable, in these anxious days of deadly pathogens, soaring joblessness, and food shortages. For many, the future seems so uncertain. So does survival, a privilege taken as a virtual right by the majority of Americans courtesy of economic and medical achievements since the Second World War.

The coronavirus crisis has added new layers to our national divide: the tested and the untested; the food deliverers and the food receivers; the mask-wearers and the beach-goers; the less vulnerable young and the vulnerable old. Four new classes have been produced since covid-19 swept from coast to coast, according to Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The “Remotes” are the privileged professional, managerial, and technical workers still at their jobs, usually remotely and usually for the same pay. The “Essentials” range from medical staff to workers in the food-supply chain, the police, and truck drivers; many are putting their lives at risk with limited physical or economic protection. The “Unpaid” are the growing numbers of the unemployed. Forty-three per cent of adults said that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a pay cut owing to the pandemic, the Pew Research Center reported last week. More than thirty million Americans have lost their jobs in just two months. U.S. unemployment could soon hit twenty-five per cent—unprecedented numbers since the Great Depression of the nineteen-thirties, Reich warned in a piece for Common Dreams. The final class is the broad range of the “Forgotten”—the homeless, migrant workers, Native Americans, the disabled, the elderly, and the imprisoned. Outbreaks in nursing homes, homeless shelters, and prisons have proved among the most merciless. The death rate in the Navajo Nation is higher than in thirteen states.

And this may only be the opening phase of the latest political chasm. Historically, disease has been a divider. “Disgust and fear of infection lead people to favor contact with those who are familiar and trigger prejudice toward so-called outsiders,” including members of minority groups, Ashley Quarcoo and Rachel Kleinfeld wrote, in a new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In medieval Europe, the bubonic plague led to pogroms against Jews. In the mid-nineteenth century, cholera widened discrimination against the Chinese in San Francisco. And in the past decade, Ebola spawned prejudice against Africans. “Today, the desire to identify culprits for a public health disaster has already led to global increases in hate crimes and xenophobia,” the authors noted.

The most dangerous divide emerging from the pandemic is the oldest in American history—over the rights and duties of the states versus the power of the federal government. We fought a war over the issue a hundred and sixty years ago; it has flared again during the pandemic—and now threatens to tear the nation apart in new ways. Last month, President Trump urged protests in Michigan and told Virginians to “save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

On Friday, the President demanded in another tweet that Whitmer negotiate over a life-or-death issue—in one of the hardest hit states—with protesters who had swarmed the state capitol. “Give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry,” Trump wrote. “They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.” At a press conference, Whitmer condemned the swastikas, nooses, and Confederate flags that were waved at the protests. “We came together as the arsenal of democracy to defeat the Nazis,” she said. “We will not be making decisions based on an arbitrary timeline, or political or legal pressure. I’m not here to play games.”

Amid mounting anxieties, Americans are increasingly confused about who is supposed to lead, set standards, determine solutions, provide aid, and ultimately be held accountable. The President has changed his position on the issue often and opportunistically. As the pandemic swept the country in mid-March, Trump told governors that they were on their own in finding ventilators and protective gear. In mid-April, the President claimed he had “total” authority over all issues spawned by the pandemic. “That’s the way it’s got to be,” he said, at a press conference. Constitutional scholars and notable governors, including Republicans, disputed his assertion. A few days later, he backtracked in a teleconference with the nation’s governors, “You’re going to call your own shots,” he reportedly said, possibly to avoid being held responsible in an election year if anything went wrong. The President’s exchange this week with the Michigan governor only added to the confusion. The problem is mirrored at a lower level in the divide—between cities and their state governments, notably in Texas.

The impact could outlast the pandemic’s pathogens. The American social contract—based on the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence—was already eroding; the interpretations were being redefined, a process begun by Reaganism in the nineteen-eighties as part of a sustained attack on the role and meaning of government, David Blight, a Yale historian, told me. From the Civil War to the nineteen-seventies, government expanded its reach to try to insure the same rights for African-Americans, women, Native Americans, the disabled, veterans, the elderly, and the ill. Government grew to fight wars and secure the homeland, improve the economy, advance education, and institute the first environmental protections. “But part of our political culture has never really supported this long and seismic change and done the best to roll it back,” Blight, who grew up in Flint, Michigan, told me. During the pandemic, those opposed to expansive government have decried shelter-in-place orders as excessive and questioned the recommendations of the government’s top health officials. “Only a society with sufficient hostility to government action and regulation could allow the Second Amendment to really authorize people to carry assault rifles into the state capitols while they protest,” Blight said.

The existential but conflicting issues spawned by the pandemic—the right to life and physical health versus the right to liberty and economic health—have provided the perfect vector for new fissures in America. The gun-toting protesters may be a minority, but polls show that the President’s positions on the role of the state during the pandemic have solid public backing. In the midst of Trump’s skirmish with Whitmer, his job-approval rating soared by six points, to forty-nine per cent, according to a new Gallup poll released on Thursday. It tied for Trump’s personal best in Gallup’s polling data. Forty-seven per cent disapprove. America is a country evenly and bitterly divided. But Americans should remember, Blight added, “there won’t be any blue or red rooms in heaven.”

Robin Wright