Last week, at long last, the United States woke up to the threat of a global pandemic. The stock market tanked, as investors began to doubt the Trump administration’s ability to handle the coronavirus. Sales of masks soared as cities across the country began to report new cases. On Saturday, Washington state reported the first American fatality, with five more following over the next two days.
Though not known for its sober, measured approach to current events, the conservative media has been clear in its response: Everything is fine.
Rush Limbaugh, who was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, told his audience of millions that the virus is really just the “common cold.” He claimed that it was being overhyped by the director of the National Center of Immunization—who just happens to be the sister of former acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a bad guy in the world of conservative infotainment, thanks to his role in the Mueller investigation—to damage the president.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham dismissed the fear about a potential pandemic as “a new pathway for hitting President Trump,” and speculated that it had been engineered by China as payback for the president’s trade war.
Fox News’s Sean Hannity said on Thursday that there was little to be afraid of—no Americans had died, he noted, days before they inevitably did—and that the virus was simply the latest desperate anti-Trump ploy from Democrats. Having struck out on impeachment, they were now “sadly politicizing and weaponizing an infectious disease as their next effort to bludgeon President Trump.”
It is the same defense that Trump’s supporters have trotted out for the past four years: Obfuscate the truth, laud the president, blame the Democrats. But this time is different. They’re trying to spin a pandemic, with potentially lethal consequences.
Conservative media’s typical response to Trump’s crises is to invert them. So Russian election interference becomes a story about Democrats trying to steal an election that they fairly lost. The president’s firing of James Comey becomes about the deep state trying to take down the president. The real villain of Trump’s attempt to get Ukraine to meddle in the 2020 election is Joe Biden’s son. Coronavirus is no different. This time, the Democrats are practically praying for a pandemic to strike to tank the economy—and therefore the president’s reelection chances.
Unable to oust the president or deny his accomplishments, Democrats allegedly have resorted to conspiracies, smear tactics, and fearmongering. With coronavirus, they’ve found the perfect vehicle to undermine the president’s greatest “accomplishment”: the soaring stock market. It sank over 12 percent last week (though it did rebound slightly on Monday). The president picked up on this argument on Wednesday, tweeting, “Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible. Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape!”
Conservative media, like the Trump administration, is treating the threat of coronavirus as a political and economic crisis rather than a public health one. Trump and his allies got the cause of last week’s stock market plunge all wrong. Investors were spooked not by Democrats and the media’s exaggerating a “common cold”–level virus, but by the administration’s evident lack of preparedness. By downplaying the seriousness of the risk and referring to the virus as a “hoax,” Trump and his enablers only made things worse for themselves. Their nonchalance amplified doubts about the president’s competence, resulting in a walk-back that began over the weekend.
The politicization of coronavirus on the right is creating a hazardous situation, in which Fox News viewers and Rush Limbaugh listeners are being fed a potentially deadly narrative. The right has convinced its audience that the numerous scandals and crises of the Trump era are really nothingburgers, and that the president’s enemies will stop at nothing to cost him the second term that he deserves. They’ll even create a pandemic and cause a depression! But the decision to make coronavirus a political crisis first, an economic crisis second, and a public health crisis third is creating an environment in which Fox News viewers—who are disproportionately older—may ignore the warnings of public health officials.
The bet for now is that coronavirus will fizzle—that the panic will dissipate, markets will return to normal, and Hannity and Limbaugh can devote their shows to telling Democrats, “I told you so.” But it is easy to see something different happening: elderly conservative audiences, told by their leaders that they have nothing to fear, doing too little until it’s too late.