How do we know whether the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic was a success? Should we measure this in terms of lives lost, total infections, total recoveries, or something else entirely? And once we land on a specific and quantifiable metric, is success measured in terms of how the U.S. stacks up relative to other countries? Or maybe it’s a comparison to how the U.S. has performed in comparison to past pandemics?
Right-wing media figures have offered a broad range of often contradictory measures for success during this crisis, but somehow they’ve always reached the same conclusions: President Donald Trump is responsible for every victory, and Democrats and the media are at fault for every failure. In success, we should cheer him; in failure, we should be grateful for his actions, which have no doubt saved us from an even worse fate. To them, he is infallible, and they’re more than willing to intellectually contort themselves to convince you of this, as well.
The lack of a specific, objective answer to the question of success makes it ripe for political spin and ever-shifting goal posts.
Between January and April, pro-Trump media have staked out a wide range of views on the virus, making use of whichever barometer for success makes the president look the most competent at the time. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether they’re echoing his words or he’s echoing theirs, but throughout, they’ve been remarkably in sync.
On January 22, Trump was asked if he was concerned about a possible pandemic. He responded, “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control.” On January 30, he said, “We think it’s going to have a very good ending for it. So that I can assure you.” On February 24, he tweeted, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. … Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” On February 26, he said that the virus was just “15 people,” and “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” On February 28, he said, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
Trump’s message was a clear attempt to project confidence in the administration’s response, and pro-Trump media were there to help spread this preferred narrative. Many of his most loyal supporters used the total number of cases and deaths in the U.S. to measure success, comparing the low total deaths from the virus to annual figures for other causes of death like the flu and car accidents.
Fox News host Sean Hannity, for instance, opened his February 27 show as he often does, with a full-throated defense of Trump and a celebration of his accomplishments. Hannity took time to laud Trump’s decision to restrict some travel from China, which he framed as the reason there had been zero American deaths from the virus. In an attempt to put this into perspective, Hannity noted that roughly 61,000 people died from the flu during the 2017-2018 flu season, and more than 100 people die each day in car accidents. See? Nothing to worry about.
As Trump continued to frame concern about the coronavirus as hype from his political enemies, his right-wing media allies followed suit. During a February 28 rally, Trump called Democratic concern about the virus “their new hoax” to hurt him politically:
Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They're politicizing it. ... One of my people came up to me and said, "Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That didn't work out too well. They couldn't do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they've been doing it since you got in.” It's all turning, they lost. It's all turning, think of it, think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know we did something that's been pretty amazing. We have 15 people in this massive country and because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.
Fox & Friends quoted and agreed with the “hoax” language the next morning, and Hannity used it during his March 9 show, saying, “I mean, they're scaring the living hell out of people. And I see it again as like, oh, let's bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”
This was a common position to take among Trump’s media supporters up until about a month ago. During the February 17 edition of Fox Business’ Varney & Co., Fox News medical contributor Dr. Marc Siegel said, “I can't believe how well they are handling this. The proof is in the pudding. We have 15 people in the United States with it. That's it. No one has died.” Weeks later, Siegel would shift to saying that in the “worst case scenario it could be the flu,” during an episode of Hannity. On February 24, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh said that “the coronavirus is the common cold” and claimed that it was “being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump.” During the March 8 edition of Fox & Friends Weekend, co-host Pete Hegseth said, “I feel like the more I learn about [the virus], the less there is to worry about.”
Less popular, more fringe right-wing pundits struck similar notes in their coronavirus commentary. The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh tweeted on January 26 that “it’s totally irrational to panic over this virus” if you’re not also panicked over the flu, adding that there were just “3 cases in the US. No deaths. Among 330 million people.” On February 25, Walsh doubled down on this position, tweeting that “by every measure, the flu is worse” and brushing off coronavirus deaths as happening “in China where their hospitals are literally falling apart.”
Conservative sportscaster Clay Travis, who has been tweeting about the coronavirus for months, offered a bit of perspective in early March, tweeting: “Every year, on average, 50,000 people die from the flu in the US yet most people won’t take the time to get a flu shot. Two people have died of coronavirus and the country is losing its mind. Chill. Out. People.” “The coronavirus is not going to be a massive issue,” he wrote in another post, following that up with a claim that deaths would be “WAY less than the yearly flu in the US. It’s less contagious. Will be far fewer cases. I’d be surprised if we get into the thousands honestly.”
When projections rose, pro-Trump media made some quick revisions to their measures of success.
As the virus spread across the country and increasing numbers of people began dying from COVID-19, Trump and his media allies shifted to treating the pandemic as a serious threat that would be much worse without Trump’s leadership.
“There are now more than 6,000 confirmed cases in the United States. We’ve been telling you this is happening,” Hannity said during his March 17 show, ushering in the new era of right-wing media’s pandemic messaging. “Sadly, over now 100 deaths in the U.S. Now, those numbers, as I’ve been saying, will likely rise seemingly and dramatically in the next days and weeks.” This was a starkly different message from what he had shared just a week earlier.
Hannity’s attempt to whitewash his own record -- and by extension, that of the president -- happened only when it became clear that denial was no longer politically expedient. The case numbers and death toll would continue to rise, making it crucial that Trump be seen as a decisive leader who saved the country from a near-existential threat. Trump had begun a similar public relations campaign, saying, “We’re at war. In a true sense, we’re at war. And we’re fighting an invisible enemy,” during his March 22 press briefing, also calling himself a “wartime president.”
By March 31, Hannity had revised his definition of success. Suddenly, anything less than the 2.2 million deaths estimated in the worst-case scenario would be a testament to Trump’s swift action and great leadership. During the April 6 edition of his radio show, Hannity absurdly claimed, “If it weren't for Donald Trump, New York would not survive all this.” That night on Fox, Hannity said, “All New Yorkers and the country should be thanking the president,” adding, “Donald Trump came to the rescue of New York state.” The quick shift by right-wing media figures from defining successful leadership as keeping the death toll below that of the annual flu to cheering on the president for anything yielding fewer deaths than an apocalypse is jarring to witness, even if it was not entirely unexpected.
Like Hannity, Fox & Friends’ Hegseth would eventually adopt a revisionist version of history to frame both himself and the president as people who took this crisis seriously from the beginning. During the March 27 episode of Fox News’ Outnumbered, Hegseth said, “You cannot say that this president has not taken this seriously from the beginning. If anything -- I saw, my friend Brian Kilmeade sent me an audio clip of Dr. Fauci in mid-January even then sort of saying, we don't know how bad or big this is going to be, there were a lot of people still at that time wondering how big could this become. Could early restrictions keep it at bay in our own country.”
Walsh, who had shifted from saying the threat of coronavirus was overblown because it hadn’t caused a single U.S. death to asking why experts hadn’t apologized by March 25 for warning “that thousands would be dead by now” (a figure the U.S. reached just days later), eventually landed on an April 1 message chiding “the media” for comparing the possibility of 100,000 COVID-19 deaths to the number of Americans who died during the Vietnam War; this after repeatedly using flu comparisons to downplay the virus.
Travis’ pivot can be seen in an April 8 tweet in which he celebrated that one model he saw predicted just 60,000 deaths and claimed that “Donald Trump saved millions of lives.” Setting aside the fact that it was states and municipalities that implemented the social distancing policies that helped bring the projected death totals down, Travis also ignores the fact that just four days earlier he had argued that a larger than expected number of cases “actually means the opposite. … We should not have shut down the economy at all.”
Conservative commentary is an exercise in reverse-engineering ways to make Trump and Republicans correct.
No matter the outcome, these conservative commentators were always going to come to the same exact conclusion: Whatever Trump did or didn’t do was correct, and whatever Democrats did or didn’t do was incorrect.
The conservative media ecosystem is little more than a series of moving targets. Hannity is a great example of this. In the eyes of right-wing media personalities, a successful response to the virus will always be anything under the death total plus one. If a Democrat was in charge, anything above the death total plus one would be considered an epic failure. It’s easy to look at this as a case of pundits holding politicians from different parties to different standards, but a more accurate explanation may be that their comments are not centered on standards at all but are just attempts to reverse-engineer propaganda to fit whatever facts are available.
It should matter when pundits get things wrong, and it should matter when these people stake out positions only to revise them later to better suit their personal and professional agendas. Bad predictions, faulty analysis, and dangerous messaging should come with a social and professional cost.
Author A.R. Moxon recently suggested on Twitter that “media figures who present predictive opinion pieces should have their record posted like sports teams ‘Now, to discuss the Iran crisis, here's Steve Hilton, who is 3-115 on here since 2017, and thought we should reopen the country during the COVID19 pandemic. Steve?’”
Perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Documenting these inconsistencies, especially during events like a pandemic without objective markers for success, is essential if there’s ever any hope of holding conservative media outlets and commentators accountable for turning tragedy and crisis into an opportunity for dishonest political point-scoring.