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The Coronavirus Crisis Drives Some Americans Further Apart


9/11, World War II, the Cuban missile crisis - they're all times when the U.S. was under threat and the country came together. Well, once again, the country is now under threat, this time from the coronavirus. But a few days ago, former President George W. Bush released a three-minute video that, among other things, seemed to warn Americans against partisanship as the pandemic plays out in the U.S.


GEORGE W BUSH: We are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise.

SHAPIRO: To talk through what the usually quiet former president was talking about, we're joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Hi, Mara.


SHAPIRO: We've seen protests around the country against restrictions put in place by governors, especially in Michigan last week directed at Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. How much are those protests motivated by partisanship?

LIASSON: Well, they're - that one was motivated, in part, by partisanship. Gretchen Whitmer is a Democrat. The protesters - some of them were carrying assault-style weapons. A lot of them were not wearing masks. And Michigan is an important battleground state. Whitmer is a governor the president has attacked as half-wit, and he's called her that woman. He's also tweeted liberate Michigan, so he's identified with some of the protests.

That being said, protests like that are a minority. But there is a real debate over how fast you can open up safely, and it falls into that red-blue divide. The protesters, like you saw in Michigan, are on the front line of that.

SHAPIRO: So put that into context for us with these...

LIASSON: Part of the culture wars.

SHAPIRO: Yeah - these opinion polls that show overwhelming support for the public health orders keeping the economy, for the most part, closed.

LIASSON: That's true. There is a lot of solidarity. There certainly is support for medical workers. You see, you know, people cheering them on at 7 p.m. as they go into their shifts. There's a lot of support for frontline workers, a lot of them minorities and immigrants, who are delivering goods, cleaning the subway.

But there's also this culture war, where one Republican strategist told me that he thinks COVID is going to be the new climate change. There's going to be a question of, which side are you on, the mask-wearing side or the MAGA hat-wearing side? Do you believe in locking down the economy, or do you think the people who say to lock down the economy are just elitists who can work from home? And the big question is, which direction do we go in?

People - a lot of people agree with George W. Bush. We rise and fall together. This is a moment for solidarity and collective action and supporting each other. But we're a very polarized country, and there's a lot about this debate - about COVID - that falls right into those polarized lines.

SHAPIRO: You know, in the early days of this crisis, Congress came together quickly to push trillions of dollars of aid out the door in a very bipartisan way. Now it seems deadlocked again. Do you think that moment of unity has passed in Congress?

LIASSON: Unclear. It's true that the first bills passed remarkably quickly. Republicans in the Senate unanimously voted for a lot of things they are ideologically opposed to - paid sick leave, income support, beefed-up unemployment insurance, help for gig workers. Now, they voted for it temporarily, but still, they voted for a big beefing up of the social safety net.

Now that we're talking about the phase four bill, you see lines being drawn. The president says we won't pass anything without a payroll tax cut. Mitch McConnell says, I won't pass anything that doesn't have tort reform, liability protection in it. Democrats want help for states. I think phase four will be harder to find bipartisan compromise on, but that will depend on how the economy looks in a couple of months.

SHAPIRO: And just briefly, where does the president fit into all of this?

LIASSON: The president often preaches unity, talks about how well he gets along with some Democratic governors. But he still fans the flame of - flames of division. Divisiveness is what got him into the White House. He is an us-versus-them politician, and he sees no reason to stop now.

SHAPIRO: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.