The plague of Florence in 1348. Photo: AFP / ©Bianchetti / Leemage

You have to wonder whether the United States isn’t about to partially invalidate an Italian scholarly study that’s just being released.

From the Black Death to the Spanish Flu, according to the study, history teaches that social tension accumulated over an epidemic can lead later to significant episodes of rebellion.

“You have not been hearing much of the French Gilets Jaunes” in the last few months, says a press release from Milan’s Bocconi University.

That’s because “the social and psychological unrest arising from the epidemic tends to crowd out the conflicts of the pre-epidemic period, but, at the same time it constitutes the fertile ground on which global protest may return more aggressively once the epidemic is over,” writes Massimo Morelli, professor of political science at Bocconi.

That, right there, is the point where events in the United States may be offering evidence that deviates from the pattern the report’s authors found.

The American race problem has been around since 1619 or so – and it does NOT appear to be getting “crowded out” by “the social and psychological unrest arising from the epidemic.” Coincidentally or not, protest and rebellion over racial injustice have increased during this plague year, in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And now a journalistic report from Wisconsin suggests that Donald Trump may be succeeding in his effort to focus white swing voters’ ire on Black Lives Matter protests – and especially the rioting and looting (opportunistic, generally, it appears) that have accompanied some of them – while letting the president off the hook, to a corresponding degree, for failures of his pandemic response.

Here’s part of what today’s Washington Post says:

Four years after Trump stunned Democrats and won Wisconsin by a margin of 22,748 votes, or less than 1 percent, the state’s suburban counties around Milwaukee are once again a critical battleground in the presidential race — and, in the aftermath of recent events down the road in Kenosha, the unexpected crossroads of the nation’s reckonings on racial justice and Trump.

In the towns and small cities near Lake Michigan, the White suburban voters who form the backbone of the Republican Party’s power base in Wisconsin are weighing the visceral white grievance appeals from the president against Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s calls for racial reconciliation. Biden has also criticized looting and violence in the wake of the shooting of Blake, who is black, by a white officer and the arrest of a white teenager in connection with the killing of two protesters days later.

Trump will likely have to win big here to overcome an expected large turnout in Democratic cities, while Biden’s campaign is angling to eat into the suburban success Trump enjoyed here four years ago.

In a sign of the importance of Wisconsin to both campaigns, Trump and Biden each visited Kenosha last week, but with dramatically different audiences in mind — Trump, flanked by police, touring burned-out ruins of buildings destroyed during an outbreak of violence and Biden meeting with the Blake family and calling for an end to systemic racism.AD

On Monday, both Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-California), Biden’s running mate, and Vice President Pence will visit Wisconsin. Harris will tour a union training facility and speak with black business leaders in Milwaukee, Pence will speak on the economy in western Wisconsin.

The eruption of civic strife has not yet yielded definitive answers about who will capture the vote-rich counties in the state’s southeastern corner, with polls showing a tight race in the state overall. But the political terrain in Wisconsin has been churning — possibly not to Biden’s benefit — with the respected Marquette Law School poll showing approval numbers for the racial justice demonstrations in the state declining from 61 percent in June to 48 percent in August. And interviews with more than a dozen voters here revealed that Trump’s efforts to present himself as the “law-and-order” candidate are hardening at least a portion of his support base.

If I were a Biden-Harris campaign advisor I’d place first priority on sending Harris, who identifies as black, to persuade the protesters to take a break until after election day.

Validating the Italian study would rank far down on the reasons to dispatch the vice presidential nominee for that task. But let’s quote the Bocconi press release further and let the scholars have their say.

In a paper recently published in Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy, Morelli and Roberto Censolo (University of Ferrara) argue that we can get an informed opinion about the possible effects of Covid-19 on protest and future social unrest by looking at the great plagues of the past.

Massimo Morrelli. Photo: Bocconi University / Paolo Tonato

They analyze 57 epidemic episodes between the Black Death (1346-1353) and the Spanish Flu (1919-1920). They state that while the epidemic lasts the status quo and incumbent governments tend to consolidate, but warn that a sharp increase in social instability in the aftermath of the epidemic should be expected.

Revolts not evidently connected with the disease are infrequent within an epidemic period, but epidemics can sow other seeds of conflict. Government conspiracy, “the filth of the poor,” foreigners and immigrants have often been singled out as causes of epidemics.

“Overall, the historical evidence shows that the epidemics display a potential disarranging effect on civil society along three dimensions,” the authors write.

“First, the policy measures tend to conflict with the interest of people, generating a dangerous friction between society and institutions.

“Second, to the extent that an epidemic impacts differently on society in terms of mortality and economic welfare, it may exacerbate inequality.

“Third, the psychological shock can induce irrational narratives on the causes and the spread of the disease, which may result in social or racial discrimination and even xenophobia.”

Focusing on five cholera epidemics, Morelli and Censolo count 39 rebellions in the 10 years preceding an epidemic and 71 rebellions in the 10 years following it.

On the other hand, the authors note that, in the short-term, the necessary restrictions of freedom during an epidemic may be strategically exploited by governments to reinforce power.

Cock your ear and you can hear Donald Trump: “Exploiting the necessary restrictions of freedom during an epidemic to reinforce power? Who? Us?”

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