As the coronavirus spread across the world, Fox News became the epicenter of disinformation about the crisis. Jeanine Pirro dismissed the virus as less deadly than the flu. Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham accused Democrats of being “panic pushers” and of fomenting “mass hysteria” to further their partisan agenda. Fox Business anchor Trish Regan said it was “yet another attempt to impeach the president.” The message from Fox was clear: The disease was all hype. Americans had little to fear.
There was one exception, however. Since January, Tucker Carlson has been warning about the dangers of the coronavirus. The following month, while his fellow anchors were laughing off the growing global pandemic, he returned again and again to the threat—and China’s responsibility for it. Until recently, he was a lone voice on Fox News, castigating, though never naming, the president for not acting. On March 7, he met with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago and reportedly implored him to take the threat more seriously.
That meeting marked the turning point in the White House’s response to the coronavirus—and in Fox News’s coverage. Since then, both the president and Fox News have begun to sound more like Carlson, particularly when it comes to attacking China. Mike Pence may be technically heading the administration’s coronavirus response, but the president is taking many of his cues from Carlson. And Carlson is taking advantage of the opportunity to push his own agenda.
Carlson initially started covering the coronavirus for two reasons. The first was that he was bored with impeachment and its predetermined outcome. “It’s irresponsible,” he told The Los Angeles Times over the weekend, “to spend all of your time covering something that you can explain in two minutes and yet the other channels were absolutely wall to wall on this.” The other was that it was a genuinely huge and frightening story, and Carlson is not quite so brainwashed that he failed to see that. He told Vanity Fair that a conversation with a government official convinced him that the “Chinese are lying about the extent of this. They won’t let international health inspectors in. They’re blocking WHO and this could infect millions of people, a high percentage of them.” He stressed that this was a nonpolitical story: an existential threat to the world that transcended the partisan squabbling that has defined media coverage of the Trump administration.
While his colleagues, particularly Hannity, play follow the leader, using their platforms to lick the president’s boots and defend him against his enemies, Carlson has developed a distinct ideology. He has championed nativism and economic nationalism, railed against establishments of all stripes, and attacked both multiculturalism and internationalism. He has embraced the politics of white grievance, referring to Indigenous People’s Day as an “attack on civilization” and dismissing white supremacy as a hoax. Carlson’s economic argument—that globalization has impoverished millions while enriching elites—frequently merges with a racial one: that diversity itself is a threat to the country and that immigrants make it poorer and dirtier.
For all of Carlson’s talk about it being a nonpartisan issue, the coronavirus is tailor-made for his brand of demagoguery: a literal manifestation of the threat of open borders and diversity, an invisible enemy that has now crept into the country to decimate it. Carlson has spent the past four years criticizing China, which he blames for everything from income inequality to the opioid crisis.
The two-step he has done in defense of Trump’s decision to call the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” exemplifies his approach. Carlson has tried to intellectualize the term, arguing that it is justified because China “hid the truth about the disease and continues to do so.” Trump, of course, is doing something slightly different, stoking divisions along racial and cultural lines while attempting to divert blame for his own missteps. Carlson then seized on the backlash as further proof that the left and the media’s priorities are out of whack. “That’s what the media is talking about in the middle of a life-threatening pandemic: The Chinese know this,” he said. “They know that wokeness is our Achilles’ heel, and they know they can control us with it.”
Carlson has gained the most attention during this crisis for targeting Republicans, however. Many Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, applauded him on Thursday night, when he demanded that Senator Richard Burr resign and be prosecuted for selling off millions of dollars in stocks following a classified briefing about the threat of the coronavirus. “He had inside information about what could happen to our country, which is now happening, but he didn’t warn the public,” Carlson said. “Instead, he dumped his shares in hotel stocks so he wouldn’t lose money. There is no greater moral crime than betraying your country in a time of crisis.”
Burr, it should be noted, is not particularly popular with many of Trump’s backers due to his work on Russian interference in the 2016 election as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It’s safe to say that Carlson was doing two things: trying to claim the scalp of someone who is incidental to his vision for the future of the Republican Party, while burnishing his own reputation as an enemy of corrupt elites. Here, it seems, was the dividing line between Trump and Carlson. At a news conference on Friday, the president shrugged off the accusations against Burr and others, saying, “I don’t know too much of what it’s about, but I find them to all be very honorable people.”
Still, while we don’t know what Trump might do next, we do know this: He’ll be tuning in to Tucker Carlson.