Long after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed and the bodies have been buried or cremated, historians will try to understand how a country that made up only 4.25% of the world’s population somehow managed have 22% of the worldwide number of people infected with the virus.
They’ll puzzle over statistics showing huge numbers of deaths in the rural American South and Midwest, far away from the most populated areas. They’ll consult physicians and epidemiologists for a rational explanation, but will find none. They’ll look at per capita income and marvel at the fact that this country harbored the wealthiest people on the planet, with even its middle class enjoying a (relatively) prosperous standard of living compared to other nations caught up in the pandemic.
Why then, they’ll ask, did so many people die? Why were so many infected in the first place?
A review of hundreds of hours of programming and social media traffic from Jan. 1 through mid-March — when the White House started urging people to stay home and limit their exposure to others — shows that doubt, cynicism and misinformation about the virus took root among many of Mr. Trump’s boosters in the right-wing media as the number of confirmed cases in the United States grew.
It was during this lull — before the human and economic toll became undeniable — when the story of the coronavirus among the president’s most stalwart defenders evolved into the kind of us-versus-them clash that Mr. Trump has waged for much of his life.
The Times carefully traces back the response by the right wing in this country to what is rapidly emerging as the greatest public health threat in U.S. history. That response was striking in its knee-jerk, reactionary cynicism. From Candace Owens’ sarcastic tweeting in late February, laughing about the dire warnings of medical professionals as a “Doomsday cult of the ‘Left’” (she actually doubled down just this week, advising her audience to consider the number of deaths with “a little perspective”), to Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, who in February called the virus “a new pathway for hitting President Trump,” to the sudden about-face of Sean Hannity—in exact tandem with Trump’s vacillating messages about the seriousness of the pandemic.
The blaming by the right continues to this day, as media figures continue to try to concoct new distractions for Americans from Trump’s abysmal negligence and disregard, even as the horror unfolds in Americans’ living rooms, broadcast from hospital floors in living color on the nightly news. As Peters notes, this blame game is also nothing new.
The pervasiveness of the denial among many of Mr. Trump’s followers from early in the outbreak, and their sharp pivot to finding fault with an old foe once the crisis deepened, is a pattern that one expert in the spread of misinformation said resembled a textbook propaganda campaign.
A “propaganda campaign” it was, and continues to be. Modern conservatism and what we understand as the “right,” with its torch-bearer, the Republican Party, does not thrive in this country based on its inherent ideas or philosophy. The absolute dearth of legislation passed by the Republican-dominated Congress during the first two years of the Trump administration (beyond a singularly skewed tax cut for corporate America) is the best evidence of that. Republicanism and conservatism do not exist because of their “ideas,” because, frankly, their ideas are largely repugnant to most Americans. That is why they rely on inflaming division and prejudices in their base while seeking to suppress the votes of as many non-Republicans as possible. Their “ideas,” to the extent they have any, are toxic and unpopular.
So the right wing always needs an enemy to blame, someone “conspiring” against them, and they need a media apparatus to stoke fear of that enemy in their supporters. The enemy can be African American, Latinx, Muslim, or a member of the LGBTQ community; the villains can be teachers, government employees, or even college professors. More generically, that enemy can be the “media,” “liberals,” or “Democrats.” And even more broadly, “financial elites”—which, roughly translated, usually means “Jews.” It really doesn’t matter.
Tobin Smith, a former Fox News contributor and anchor, explained last year in an op-ed for The New York Times how the network deliberately creates enemies for its viewers, to bind them to the network by providing them a sense of grievance, of someone conspiring against their interests. He explains the psychology as activating the Fox viewer’s “fight or flight juices,” making the viewer feel as if he is being attacked. He compares it to the administration of a highly addictive drug, prompting the viewer to come back again and again for another “conspiracy fix.”
Believing in conspiracy theories is a psychological construct for people to take back some semblance of control in their lives. It inflates their sense of importance. It makes them feel they have access to “special knowledge” that the rest of the world is “too blind,” “too dumb” or “too corrupt” to understand.
The COVID-19 pandemic has offered the right a litany of enemies on whom to place blame. The Times identified a systemic pattern among right-wing media’s response to the coronavirus—so systemic that the Times was able to categorize four stages of blame-shifting at various times by the right, as they continued to deny, deflect, and above all, defend Donald Trump. The stages were, in the order they were rolled out: 1) Blaming China; 2) minimizing the risk (and in some instances, ridiculing it); 3) sharing “survivor” stories to further minimize the risk; and 4) blaming the left (or “Democrats”).
The Times amply documents all of these tactics, as evidenced by Fox News, Limbaugh, Hannity, and the entire right-wing apparatus. China-blaming started early on, with Fox News as the “launching pad” for halting all travel from China, the promotion of the phrase “Chinese virus,” and the conspiracy theories of Republican politicians such as Tom Cotton, who suggested that the virus had been concocted in a Chinese bioweapons lab. This China-bashing continues to this day, with administration officials peddling the “Wuhan virus” designation to inflame their base’s sense of xenophobia and anger.
As the Times reports, minimizing or ridiculing the risk was a staple of right-wing propaganda from January onward, with recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh exclaiming: “Flight attendant working L.A.X. tests positive. Oh, my God, 58 cases! Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” and Sean Hannity gleefully feigning fear: “The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours. And it’s all President Trump’s fault,” the Fox News star said, adding, “or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think.” Limbaugh claimed that the coronavirus “appear[ed] less deadly than the flu,” but warned that the media kept “promoting panic.” The Times notes that a Breitbart news editor named Joel Pollak merrily published supposedly “scientific” articles minimizing the threat and emphasizing the “best possible outcomes.”
Just one day after Pollak urged Americans to “chill out” about the pandemic, the first American died.
Their audience smiled and nodded, sure that this was all a liberal plot. While thousands around the world were becoming sick and dying from the virus, the “tone of the coverage from Fox, talk radio and the commentators who make up the president’s zealous online army remained dismissive.” This is probably what will be most remembered by those future historians, perplexed at the startling body counts in places like Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, because governors in all these states took their cues directly from such dismissiveness from people in power, and people with a platform.
The idea that this was all a “liberal hoax” was not only articulated by Trump himself, but amplified a thousand times over by Fox News and its ilk. That this cynical gamesmanship was occurring not in reference to a political campaign but a dire public health threat seemed not to matter to any of these people. They were collecting their fat paychecks, and that was apparently all that mattered to them.
After the deadly effects of COVID-19 became impossible to ignore, Fox & Friends ran a segment happily celebrating how its impact would really be quite minimal. “Survivor stories” such as Jerri Jorgensen’s were highlighted, suggesting to viewers that the virus was not a “big deal.” Limbaugh picked that one up, joking to his 15 million listeners that callers expressing concern about potential exposure weren’t phoning him from “beyond the grave.”
Finally, as the pandemic became more and more prevalent and could not be disregarded, came what Peters characterizes as the “Blame the Left” phase.
By the middle of March, the story of the virus on the right was one of how Mr. Trump’s enemies had weaponized “the flu” and preyed on the insecurities of an emasculated America.
Mr. Limbaugh blamed “wimp politics — which is liberalism.” Mr. Pollak, whose tone grew more serious, said the virus had spread while Democrats stretched out the president’s impeachment. “We now know the cost of impeachment,” he wrote.
Frank Luntz, the veteran political strategist who advises Republican leaders, said many on the right were applying the scornful, “own the libs” mentality of social media to a deadly and frightening health crisis.
We’re still at the tail end of that phase now, with conservatives and rightwing trolls attacking coronavirus task force expert Dr. Anthony Fauci with death threats, and others who have successfully punctured the right’s toxic bubble blaming January’s impeachment proceedings for Trump’s gross negligence and inaction, and, once again, blaming the Chinese. It’s not clear who the right will blame next for Trump’s colossal failure. But by the time they get around to it, many of their followers will already be dead.
Because all of this had an impact—in our politically polarized nation, how could it not? It caused millions of Americans who trusted such sources—who trusted Donald Trump—to let down their guard, to throw caution to the wind. It caused Republican governors to ignore the harrowing warnings of established science and advise their constituents to carry on as if the threat did not exist. It led those citizens to genuinely believe everything was going to be all right.
But we’re not going to be all right. Thanks to these monstrously amoral and unconcerned purveyors of Republican propaganda, many, many people are going to die who could have and should have lived. Families that should have remained intact are going to suffer the loss of people they love. And people who did actually understand the gravity of this pandemic are going to be infected by those who were lulled into complacency by that propaganda.
The full horror of what the right-wing media has done is just now becoming apparent, but in the coming weeks it will be impossible to ignore.