Washington • In the movies, when the asteroid hurtles toward Earth, or aliens invade, or a quake pulverizes cities, or a nuclear-mutated dinosaur wreaks havoc, humanity links arms to save itself.
Gone are divisions over race or class. Countries lay down arms and grudges. Politics be damned.
“We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore,” President Thomas Whitmore says in “Independence Day.” “We will be united in our common interests.”
But that’s Hollywood’s version of a life-altering crisis.
In reality, as humanity faces the coronavirus pandemic that has ended hundreds of thousands of lives and upended the livelihoods of billions, the divide seems to have widened.
Country vs. country. States vs. Washington. Republicans vs. Democrats. Urban vs. rural. Hoarders vs. sharers. Shelter-in-place vs. open it up. The masked vs. the maskless.
“The reality is we don’t always come together in crisis,” says Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “There are often deep and bitter divisions over how to respond to terrible situations.”
The coronavirus outbreak has made that more pronounced, it seems, with an us vs. them attitude taking hold across the United States and the world at large. There are plenty of examples of acts of kindness, for sure, and previously unacknowledged grocery store clerks and long-haul truck drivers are now earning hero status, not to mention nurses and doctors.
There are also armed protesters at state capitols, scammers hawking fake medicines, trolls hacking diversity commission Zoom meetings with racist chants and untold cases of open defiance of laws meant to aid the greater good.
And there are many reasons, experts say, why that’s so, starting with a cavernous divide in how people in big cities have been personally affected by the COVID-19 disease while folks in rural swaths often feel they aren’t. Fear of losing a business, for some, tops the fear of possibly catching the virus.
This time there is no unifying message coming from the top, either. President Whitmore is fictional; President Donald Trump is not.
‘A problem that’s going to go away’
Sen. Mitt Romney last week took to the Senate floor to thank the front-line workers who are helping those afflicted with COVID-19, manufacturing medical products or serving food to the hungry.
The Utah Republican wore a mask, in contrast to other senators who spoke with uncovered faces in the chamber.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has proclaimed that masks should be part of everyone’s “fashion statement.”
In response, state Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, said he wouldn’t.
Trump refuses to wear a mask as well, even as two White House aides have tested positive for COVID-19 and face coverings have been required in the West Wing.
The mask debate, in some ways, epitomizes the ongoing split over the pandemic and stems in part from the mixed messages emanating from the White House. On one hand, we hear expert advice from top medical officials and warnings about the long haul ahead. On the other, promotion of an unproven drug that the government later warned against using except in hospitals or clinical trials.
As news about the novel coronavirus began to emerge at the beginning of the year, Trump, in a visit to New Delhi, said he wasn’t worried about it. China, he said, was “getting it more and more under control.”
“So I think that’s a problem that’s going to go away,” he proclaimed Feb. 25.
A few days later, back at the White House, Trump remained upbeat.
“We have done an incredible job,” he said, noting the virus is “going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows. The fact is, the greatest experts — I’ve spoken to them all. Nobody really knows.”
At that point, there were 60 confirmed cases in the United States, and top experts were raising red flags.
The president, who is up for reelection, brought together the nation’s top scientists and backed, for a while, the need for the country to shutter nonessential businesses and for people to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus.
Still, weeks later, he backed protesters who wanted a speedy return to normal, tweeting support to “liberate” several states.
Trump blamed China. Blamed the World Health Organization. Blamed Democrats.
And he credited himself and his administration for stepping up.
“Vaccine or no vaccine, we’re back,” Trump proclaimed Friday.
The president’s message has taken hold among his supporters, with polls showing Democrats are more fearful than Republicans of contracting COVID-19. Some 37% of Republicans said the government should allow some businesses to open even if it puts some lives at risk, according to the same poll.
Zelizer, the Princeton professor, says it’s a tough issue, possibly due to the fact Americans no longer agree on facts.
“There are large portions of the public who simply don’t believe basic scientific facts,” Zelizer says. “And there is a media ecosystem to fuel different facts rather than common points from which to start the debate.”
Add to that perspectives from various sides about how to restart the economy, from throwing open the doors immediately to a phased and calculated “new normal.”
“Despite what the president says, everyone is pro opening the economy, but it is not easy to do and there are differences on how to do it,” Zelizer says. “It’s also extraordinarily damaging to go through — from those suffering health effects to those without jobs to those who are isolated and lonely. So tensions are running high.”
Enter the armed protesters in Michigan and Wisconsin. The barbers in Colorado and Pennsylvania defying closure orders. The sign held high in Long Island, N.Y., urging the hanging of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The reaction to the pandemic was not the rally-around-the-flag moment so pervasive in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“When 9/11 hit, unity came pretty quick,” notes Brad Meltzer, a bestselling political thriller novelist who just published “The Lincoln Conspiracy.” “President [George W.] Bush went to ground zero, put together an international coalition, and flags appeared across the country — making everyone feel like we were on the same team, for at least a little bit.”
That, he adds, was “just like ‘Independence Day.’ Sadly, where we are right now feels like the virus version of ‘The Hunger Games,’ with President Snow thriving as citizens battle it out. Don’t blame Hollywood writers; blame those in power.”
Politics, of course, have played a role in the divide — a divided Congress that readily agreed to pour trillions into the economy during the pandemic is now back to sparring over more relief measures — but there’s more to humanity’s response to the virus: the human part.
‘It affects people differently’
Sociologists and psychologists are already studying the response to the coronavirus, the biggest pandemic to hit the world in more than a half-century.
Ming Wen, chairwoman of the University of Utah’s sociology department, says that no one has experienced this before “and we’re all processing what’s going on here.”
In general, she says, individuals respond to their reality according to their personal situations, be that age or gender, race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, location, beliefs, health or priorities. And people also respond based on their environment, which includes family contexts, work- or school-related factors, exposure to information and peer pressure.
“All these are theoretically important factors contributing to individual attitudes and behaviors,” Wen says, “but we wouldn’t know which set of factors are the most important determinants of COVID-19-related attitudes and behaviors until we empirically study them.”
Dr. Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychologist who studies risk perception, says the coronavirus has its own “special qualities” that not only make it devastating but also hard to manage.
“It’s invisible in many of its forms and the carriers can be asymptomatic,” Slovic says. “It affects people differently.”
More than 22,000 people have died in New York of COVID-19, while 78 people have died of the disease in Utah. Black people, Latinos, Native Americans and older populations have been hit much harder.
“A high percentage of the people who have died are from certain specific groups that seem, you know, maybe different from us,” Slovic says. “So we can say, ‘Well, it’s over there, and it’s not happening in our community.’ And everything looks normal and benign. If your community has a low incidence, everything looks normal, except you can’t go to work.”
And that plays into how people are reacting to the pandemic.
In psychology, Slovic says, there’s a phrase called “unmotivated cognition: the psychological realm that shows how people kind of spin the information and the arguments in ways that give them the answers that they want.”
Feelings, in many ways, overpower facts.
“We interpret the facts to help us feel good, to feel virtuous, to feel, you know, that we’re doing the right thing,” Slovic says. “Those of us who study the psychology of risk and decision-making, we used to think that everyone went around like, you know, with calculators in their brains calculating the costs and benefits like the Office of Management and Budget does.
“But we do those calculations in our brain in milliseconds through firing of neurons that create feelings in us,” he continues. “So our feelings are the compass that guides us through our day. We assess things and we make trade-offs.”
Are we uniting?
One could argue, of course, that people are uniting — but not coming together.
Cellphone tracing showed Americans took stay-at-home orders or guidance seriously. Freeways became freer. Pollution ebbed.
“We’re more united than people give us credit for,” says Geralyn Dreyfous, an Oscar-winning producer and founder of the Utah Film Center. “I mean, by and large, people are following the rules, and they’re doing what’s being asked of them, which is new and very confusing and scary.”
That includes customers helping customers at grocery stores, neighbors aiding neighbors and community support for food banks and mental health needs.
What would help more, she says, is more of that ground-level action to come from the top.
“We're looking for leadership right now,” she says, “not for people to be blaming people.”
Kevin Coe, an associate professor of communication at the U. who studies messaging, says it’s clear that the reason Americans haven’t come together as in past world wars or major disasters is the lack of a unifying and reassuring voice from the top levels of the government.
“I would think first and foremost, of course, about President Trump,” Coe says. “If a president at a moment like this immediately comes out and pushes messages of unity, of optimism and so on, then I think that might encourage the average citizen to move towards that position. But we didn’t see that. We didn’t see that really in any way at any point from the very get-go. What we saw instead was overt blaming.”
Coe uses Whitmore’s moving address from “Independence Day” in his public speaking classes because the words draw a dramatic, unifying response.
“It’s hard to watch that and not feel moved even if, you know, it’s all a bit absurd,” Coe says. “And it’s all a bit Hollywood.”
But, he adds, “you still feel moved because there is something in us that wants to feel that connection. Good leadership and good rhetoric can help us see that. It can help us see that potential, that even if it might not affect us immediately in this moment, we know that it is affecting those around us more broadly, and we know it’s affecting the nation we love and we know it’s affecting the world that we’re all a part of.”