On Thursday evening, the January 6 committee presented what amounted to its season finale: a gripping, two-hour prime-time event that revealed the full extent of Trump’s complicity in the riot on the U.S. Capitol. But if you flipped over to Fox News, there was little mention of the hearings or their revelations. Instead, the network’s hosts were focused on a much bigger scandal: the fact that Joe Biden contracted Covid-19.
For Fox’s hosts—and for much of the American right—Biden’s diagnosis was a moment to spike the football. Their glee was palpable. His diagnosis quickly became a metaphor for every argument from the fever swamps about both the president and the larger, years-long push to vaccinate the country against the virus: that Biden is deeply physically and mentally unwell, that the vaccines are a sham, that the ultimate goal isn’t health and safety but control. Here was delicious proof, at long last, that they had all been right all along.
Much of the response on the right rested on a typically boggy foundation. Cherry-picking quotes from Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has run the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, and Biden himself, pundits insisted that the president’s diagnosis undermined the pro-science crowd’s core message: that if you got the vaccine, you wouldn’t get the virus.
“Just look around observed reality,” snarled Tucker Carlson on his prime-time Fox program. “You don’t know anyone who’s gotten the vaccine and then got Cov—oh, wait, everybody who got the vaccine got Covid. How does that work? Well, they never explained. They stopped telling you it was a pandemic of the vaccine because it was so obviously untrue.” Sean Hannity spiked the football, telling his viewers, “So much for Joe Biden and Doctor Fauci’s science!” That Biden became infected—for the first time, in the midst of a massive Covid wave—was seen, bizarrely, as proof that the vaccines themselves were faulty, part of a campaign for the government to control your body rather than to keep people safe and prevent hospitals from being overrun.
That vaccinated people can still contract Covid-19 has been apparent and obvious for more than a year; research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in February that there was evidence that about 60 percent of Americans had caught the virus—a number that has surely increased with the emergence of highly transmissible variants. Never mind, of course, that this wasn’t the core message behind the vaccine push. Instead, Biden, Fauci, and nearly everyone in the medical and scientific community argued that the vaccines made transmission less likely and, most importantly, sharply lowered the risk of death or hospitalization. That has been borne out many times over in the subsequent months; the point received no airing on Carlson’s show or anywhere else on the right, a profound disservice to viewers who were instead being fed a smug and misleading anti-vaccine argument.
That Biden was unwell and perhaps even demented similarly received a great deal of attention on the right, even in its newsier corners. Fox News’s midday programming flashed graphic after graphic about the 79-year-old president’s various co-morbidities. A Thursday gaffe in which Biden said he had contracted cancer also received a great deal of attention, with the implication being that the president either was sundowning or that the administration was lying to you about his medical condition—perhaps both. “So, it’s been a tough week, overall. Wednesday, it was cancer. Thursday, it was the coronavirus,” Carlson gloated. “Tomorrow, you’ve got to think it’s going to be monkeypox.” That Biden is a Potemkin president, a figurehead standing in for the real power behind the throne—whether it be Kamala Harris, George Soros, or the “deep state”—has been a core conspiracy on the right since the 2020 presidential campaign.
Even on the newsier side, the conspiratorial mindset took over. Fox News aired clips of Biden sputtering, coughing, and looking unwell a week ago during his trip to the Middle East. Mark Halperin, the disgraced stenographer who currently serves as an analyst on the juche network Newsmax, chided Biden for not masking. Here too, the implication was sinister: The president had knowingly infected those around him—perhaps hundreds of people!—during his foreign visit. There is no evidence that this is true.
The truth about Biden’s Covid-19 diagnosis is that it’s ordinary: He was one of more than 100,000 people who contracted the virus yesterday. There is an administration scandal here: The administration promised to end the pandemic but has instead balked at providing necessary funding for testing and other measures that would slow its spread. But the treatment of Biden’s diagnosis on the right points to a more insidious scandal: The right-wing media and many Republicans have deliberately misled their audience and sowed doubt about the efficacy of vaccines to score cheap political points.