American politics is famously polarized these days, but it's hard to envision any solution to the COVID pandemic and associated economic crisis that doesn't require a lot of bipartisan agreement. Democratic and Republican officeholders need to cooperate in order to enact economic aid legislation and other measures designed to ameliorate the effects of the outbreak. Supporters of both parties need to respect the authority of state and local officials to impose restrictions on public gatherings in order to slow the spread of the virus. And the future expiration of these stay-at-home orders will not produce an economic rebound unless Democrats as well as Republicans feel safe enough to resume their normal consumption activities.
As my political science colleague Frances Lee points out in Insecure Majorities, her excellent book on the modern Congress, breakdowns in bipartisanship often benefit the party out of power, by denying the ruling side the policy achievements and broad popular legitimacy that it would gain from productive cooperation. Tamping down partisan divisions in order to focus on fighting the virus and helping those affected by the deteriorating economy thus especially serves the interest of the Republican Party, the current holder of the presidency. November's election will serve as an unavoidable referendum on President Trump, and citizens' perceptions of his performance in handling the COVID crisis will not only influence the outcome of the presidential race but will extend to congressional and even state-level contests as well.
Under the current circumstances, then, we might expect an incumbent president to pursue a strategy of staying above the partisan fray, reassuring Americans of all political preferences that he was committed to protecting both their health and their wealth from the current threats while finding some common ground with the leaders of the opposition. But Trump's instincts—especially in moments of potential vulnerability—compel him to attack his perceived enemies and ratchet up the general level of conflict. He has even suggested at times that he will condition federal aid to states and localities on the amount of deference he receives from their elected officials. There has been no apparent attempt by his administration to build credibility with the public outside the 45 percent or so of Americans who already like and trust the president.
Trump's personality is what it is. But his combative style is shared by many of his partisan allies. Other major elements of the Republican party network, such as conservative interest groups and the conservative media universe, are increasingly promoting Trump's position that the threat of the coronavirus is exaggerated and that prevailing social distancing restrictions are excessive. Familiar Republican targets—not only Democratic politicians but also scientific experts and the mainstream media—are under fresh attack from an American right that has become suddenly anxious about the president's chances of re-election during conditions of national economic catastrophe.
The contemporary Republican Party has been built to wage ideological and partisan conflict more than to manage the government or solve specific social problems. So perhaps it shouldn't be shocking that an array of subjects, from what medical treatment might help COVID patients to how important it is to take measures protecting the lives of the elderly, have been drawn into the perpetual political wars. But leading conservative figures like Trump, Sean Hannity, and the Heritage Foundation will find it much easier to persuade existing supporters to take their side in a fight with "liberal" scientists, journalists, and public safety authorities than to win over the American public as a whole.
Republicans need a party-wide reset of priorities. There has seldom been a time in recent political history when daily partisan point-scoring has been rendered more irrelevant. The general election is far enough away that good policy is good politics: the best way for the ruling party to serve its own electoral interests is to work as hard as possible over the next seven months to render COVID manageable and prevent economic freefall. The widespread public confidence that will be necessary for "normal life" to resume simply can't be jawboned back into existence via daily press conferences, radio broadcasts, or Fox News monologues. If Republicans lose the battle with the coronavirus, they won't have much of a chance to win the fight against liberalism.