How one right-wing Virginia talk radio host is fueling backlash against social distancing

The John Fredericks Show
Molly Butler / Media Matters

A Virginia-based talk radio host and member of President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign advisory committee is promoting local protests against COVID-19 restrictions and spreading misinformation about the virus.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted talk radio’s unique ability to reach local audiences. John Fredericks, host of The John Fredericks Show, is one of many conservative media figures who have railed against public health measures designed to slow the spread of the virus. But in addition to pushing familiar right-wing talking points, Fredericks’ show provides a valuable platform for regional protest organizers looking to boost turnout and Trump surrogates hoping to reach a local audience.

A profile of Fredericks for The Washington Post noted, “A local host can repeatedly bolster or attack a local politician, whereas a national host simply doesn’t have the time.” Protests against social distancing have largely been organized at the state and local level. While nationally syndicated hosts like Rush Limbaugh cheer on these protests from the sidelines, only local hosts like Fredericks can afford to spend airtime engaging with local organizers and encouraging audiences to attend specific protests.

Trump’s media allies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of social distancing, and many have voiced support for protesters calling to reopen the economy. Fredericks has been a strong supporter of these protests, even offering up his show as a megaphone for organizers. As he argued during a discussion with one local protest organizer on May 14, “We have got to get out of our pajamas and stop this. And the only way you’re going to stop it is by direct action.”

Much of Fredericks’ criticism has been aimed at state and local officials in Virginia, and he has interviewed several protest organizers in his home state. On April 21, Fredericks encouraged his listeners to attend a rally in Richmond and asked, “When are we going to wake up and stop this nonsense?” Later during the same show, Fredericks interviewed one of the protest organizers with Reopen Virginia.

John Fredericks: "When are we going to wake up and stop this nonsense?"

Audio file

Citation From the April 21, 2020, edition of MAGA Radio Network's The John Fredericks Show

Fredericks has also thrown his support behind protests at the county level. On May 14, a local vineyard owner appeared on the show to promote a “peaceful flash mob” advocating for Loudoun County to be reopened. The next day, Fredericks hosted a local organizer from the group Reopen Fauquier County and praised a recent protest designed to pressure county officials.

In what he has dubbed his “Reopen America Tour,” Fredericks has also been broadcasting his show in recent weeks from several different states, including Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, and New Jersey. Fredericks has interviewed a number of local politicians in those states, alternately praising Republican governors for reopening quickly and criticizing Democratic governors who have failed to do so. Fredericks also recently created a public Facebook group called #OpenAmerica, which appears designed to advocate for reopening the country as a whole.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Fredericks has espoused many of the same conservative talking points voiced by national right-wing media figures. Like Limbaugh, Fredericks has argued that Democratic governors are insisting on lockdowns in order to inflict political damage on Trump. On April 17, Fredericks claimed that Democratic governors are planning to “eradicate and assassinate as many small businesses as they can, which represent Trump’s base.” Fredericks has also repeatedly compared COVID-19 to the flu, arguing on May 15 that the “the level of people that die, the numbers, … it’s on a par with the common flu.”

A self-described “anti-masker,” Fredericks has criticized members of the White House coronavirus task force and has spread a conspiracy theory about the pandemic online. In an interview with Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) on April 27, Fredericks said, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx “have to go,” and Fredericks has also used the Twitter hashtag #FireFauci multiple times. Fredericks even posted a link to the film Plandemic, which has since been removed from YouTube for spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories, calling the film a “must watch.”

The host’s ties to the Trump administration extend back to the 2016 campaign, when Fredericks served as the chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign and interviewed the candidate numerous times. Since then, Fredericks has maintained close ties with various Trump surrogates and former members of his administration, including former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former adviser Steve Bannon.

In one of his first appearances discussing COVID-19 on the show on March 10, Lewandowski agreed with Fredericks that the Democrats are “weaponizing” the virus to hurt Trump politically, and Lewandowski has made multiple appearances in the months since to discuss the pandemic. Bannon is also a frequent guest. In fact, Fredericks helped launch Bannon’s War Room radio show by providing him with airtime on The John Fredericks Radio Network. Like Lewandowski, Bannon has used his appearances to push right-wing talking points, such as arguing on May 5 that Fauci “has done a grave disservice to the president, just the way he’s presented things, the way he’s presented numbers, the way the goal posts have shifted.”

Current members of the Trump administration have appeared on Fredericks’ show as well. Since February 28, deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley has made at least four appearances to discuss the pandemic. White House coronavirus task force member Seema Verma has also made at least three appearances within the same time period.

By spreading national talking points and elevating local organizers, Fredericks’ show represents a dual threat in right-wing media’s attack on public health measures.