Right-wing media personalities have long struggled to find a conservative hero in their culture war, someone to serve as an ideological martyr for their cause -- and they’ve made some pretty ridiculous attempts to force it along the way.
Gun owners? Rosa Parks. A police officer who arrested a Black man for breaking into his own home? Rosa Parks with a badge. Rogue rancher Cliven Bundy? Rosa Parks on the open range. If only conservative media were more interested in Rosa Parks herself, maybe they’d understand why those comparisons are ludicrous. But that hasn’t stopped conservative media figures from continuing to draw parallels between civil rights activism and a new front in the right-wing culture war: opposition to stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic.
Weeks after the network began hyping protests against the coronavirus safety measures, Fox News has found a folk hero in Texas salon owner Shelley Luther, who defied the state’s stay-at-home order to reopen her salon and refused to comply in a court appearance. The network — unlike conservative commentator and former Rep. Allen West — hasn’t made explicit comparisons between Luther and Parks just yet. But Fox has used its platform to promote local sheriffs and business owners who are defying lockdown orders. And it's made Luther into the de facto face of the anti-lockdown movement against big, overreaching government, utilizing an old playbook to turn a public health emergency into a battle in the culture war.
Fox News worked to portray Luther as a martyr to stay-at-home orders.
Luther reopened her salon on April 24 in defiance of the state’s stay-at-home order. On April 28, District Judge Eric Moyé issued a temporary restraining order against Luther. On May 5, after she refused to follow that order, Moyé found Luther in contempt of court and sentenced her to seven days in jail, though she would be released less than 48 hours later.
The order Luther violated was issued by Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and came with a maximum penalty of $1,000 in fines and 180 days in jail. Moyé offered Luther the opportunity to avoid jail time if she would acknowledge that she had broken the order and agree to shut down her salon until the stay-at-home order was lifted, but she refused. Luther claimed that she needed to keep her salon open to feed her kids, even though she had applied for and received $18,000 in financial aid through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. And given that a GoFundMe page had been set up for her a day before she first reopened, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a public relations stunt; thanks to Fox News, it would be a very successful one.
Abbott, along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, criticized the judge for enforcing Abbott’s own executive order. Fox News quickly hosted Patrick multiple times on the network, where he advocated for Luther and accused Moyé of making “a giant overreach.” (Luther, for her part, has advocated for removing Moyé, who is up for reelection this year.)
On May 6, Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity interviewed Luther’s boyfriend, Tim Georgeff, and compared Luther’s punishment to the Mel Gibson character's execution for treason in the movie Braveheart. Prime-time host Tucker Carlson invited Luther’s attorney Warren Norred to appear on Tucker Carlson Tonight the same day and said that he hopes Luther’s story “awakens people.” In the interview, Norred criticized “tiny tyrants” in government and complained that the judge treated Luther as a “heretic” and demanded that she “bend the knee.” Luther herself appeared on the May 8 edition of Hannity after she was released, and Hannity again compared her ordeal to that of William Wallace in Braveheart.
Fox News devoted 2 hours and 48 minutes of coverage to Luther’s story between May 5 and 2 p.m. EDT May 8. To put this in context, Fox News covered the high-profile killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot in Georgia while out for a jog, for only 47 minutes between May 3 and 2 p.m. EDT May 8.
Fox News is using an old playbook to turn a public health emergency into a battle in the culture war.
For years, Fox News has propped up conservative figures as heroes in a war against big government. In 2014, Fox went all-in on Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his protests that led to an armed standoff with the federal government. Fox did the same in 2014 as it worked to portray Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson as a martyr when A&E temporarily put the show on hiatus after he made anti-LGBTQ comments. Similarly, in 2015, Fox News and other right-wing media outlets rallied around Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage certificates for same-sex couples.
The strategy of portraying conservatives as the victims of liberal policies -- even when, as was the case for Luther, the policy being violated was implemented by a Republican -- makes sense as part of Fox’s political messaging, as it furthers a narrative of conservative oppression.
In addition to Luther, Fox has recently taken to elevating other anti-lockdown activists. An Arizona sheriff named Doug Schuster appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to discuss his decision not to enforce the state’s stay-at-home order. Sheriff Chad Bianco of Riverside County, California, appeared on Fox & Friends. Three other sheriffs who’ve made recent Fox News appearances to decry stay-at-home orders have ties to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, an extremist group. Business owners Eliot Rabin, Juan Desmarais, and Rick Savage have all appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to discuss their decisions to defy stay-at-home orders by keeping their businesses open.
In April, Fox News helped uplift the anti-lockdown protests with an overwhelming amount of coverage. In just over one week, Fox News ran 91 segments about those protests, amounting to roughly six hours of programming. As the pandemic stretched into May, Fox began attempting to shift focus away from the mounting death toll and the president’s lagging approval ratings on his handling of the disaster, limiting what pandemic-related stories it aired to pieces about conservatives who were supposedly harmed by stay-at-home orders. The raging pandemic is starting to become an afterthought on the network, and Fox is moving on to topics like the Department of Justice’s decision to drop charges against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and the phony “Obamagate” scandal. With its coverage of Luther’s case, Fox has found a way to portray conservatives as the real victims in this public health crisis.
Conservatives keep fighting their culture war amid a deadly pandemic.
While a certain intellectual gladiator of the right may claim that “facts don’t care about your feelings,” Fox News knows this isn’t quite right. The network needs to downplay the pandemic to protect President Donald Trump. But you can't convince an audience that a deadly pandemic is just an acceptable fact of life with #facts and #logic; you need to sell them on it by playing to their emotions, giving them a hero to cheer for and a villain to rage against.
Taking Luther’s story as an example, a rational analysis of what happened would show her as a person who didn’t think the law the rest of us are expected to follow should apply to her, who was given an opportunity to avoid jail after violating the law and refused, who applied for and received government assistance, and who raised nearly $500,000 from a GoFundMe page started before reopening the business. To convince an audience that the victim in this situation is the salon owner -- especially an audience that likes to think of itself as supporting “law and order” -- you have to appeal to their emotions to override the massive amounts of cognitive dissonance involved.
A pandemic is no time for culture war gamesmanship, but as Fox News’ latest cavalcade of conservative martyrs shows, it’s the only game the network knows how to play.