The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made 2020 a real slog of a year. I’ve found myself unsure of the day of the week, and if you were to rattle off a list of this year’s news events, I may struggle to assign them the correct month. The pandemic has warped my sense of time, turning my brain into a Dalí painting -- and I’m not alone.
Pandemic brain-rot met life-threatening misinformation when I opened Twitter to see that President Donald Trump, less than a day removed from his stay at Walter Reed Medical Center, was downplaying COVID-19 by comparing it to the flu. (Twitter added a flag to this tweet for spreading “misleading and potentially harmful information related to COVID-19.”)
I experienced an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Didn’t he already do this? I thought to myself. Yes, this was something he’d done before, back on March 9. At the time, the country was at the very beginning of the outbreak, just nine days removed from the very first recorded U.S. death from the virus. Trump’s tweet was meant to put the 22 COVID-19 deaths in perspective by comparing them to the tens of thousands of people thought to have died from the flu.
His tweet wasn’t reassuring at the time, and as that the death toll from COVID-19 has blown past any flu season the overwhelming majority of us have experienced in our lifetimes, it makes even less sense now. But as Trump and right-wing media seek out a winning message, expect to see more old and debunked messages making a return.
For months, pro-Trump media promoted the false idea that the novel coronavirus was little more than the flu.
Trump’s repeated comparison of the coronavirus to the flu didn’t come out of the blue. It was a message pro-Trump media figures regularly pushed on air. In February, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh falsely claimed that the coronavirus was “less [deadly] than the flu.” In March, Fox News medical contributor Marc Siegel outright said that “this virus should be compared to the flu, because at worst, at worst, worst case scenario it could be the flu.” Also in March, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro compared the virus to the flu, saying that “all the talk about coronavirus being so much more deadly doesn't reflect reality.”
This type of misinformation was wildly irresponsible at the time, but it continued to be pushed as the COVID-19 death toll climbed. Multiple studies on the effect of COVID-19 misinformation by right-wing media -- including claims that the virus was comparable in lethality to the flu -- found that exposure to these types of claims negatively correlated with knowledge of the risk the virus poses and personal actions people take to protect themselves from it.
Right now, there’s not a coherent right-wing media message being put forth, so Trump and his media enablers are playing the hits while they run out the clock.
Looking at the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic and his own behavior, how do you defend the indefensible? How do you spin objectively terrible news brought on by the repeated open flouting of public health recommendations to your advantage? That’s what Trump, Fox News, and the rest of the right-wing ecosystem are grappling with.
While Trump was contagious and under treatment at the Water Reed Medical Center, right-wing media cheered him on when he decided to ride around in a hermetically sealed SUV so he could wave to fans (and endanger the life of his Secret Service detail). PragerU’s Dennis Prager and Fox News kept hyping the drug hydroxychloroquine even though it wasn’t part of Trump’s treatment.
Fox’s “straight news” anchor Shannon Bream, and Fox guests contributor Mollie Hemingway and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, renewed the network’s on-again, off-again war on the science behind masks and the people who wear them. On Fox Business, Fox contributor Tammy Bruce did the same the morning Trump announced his COVID-19 diagnosis.
The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles shrugged off the suggestion that society should take any actions to prevent infection at all because “we’re all going to get COVID-19” anyway. Similarly, Fox News host Tucker Carlson echoed colleague Sean Hannity from earlier in the year by urging us to confront our mortality.
Then when it was announced that he was being discharged, Fox News treated Trump like a warrior returning triumphantly from battle. Fox host Jesse Watters compared him to “a general [who] gets wounded by the invisible enemy, goes and gets patched up and then gets right back to the front lines.”
Pro-Trump media know that there’s little room for bad news as they try to push him across the finish line, and they’ve lost whatever connection they had left to reality in the process. That’s why they’re throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks and also why they’re rehashing old messages.
To his supporters, Trump needs to be viewed as an all-powerful embodiment of masculinity, and that’s the image Fox News and others are trying to create. But as Trump and his right-wing media allies search for the perfect message, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re turning back the clock while they try to find something that will stick. Today, Trump’s framing it as less deadly than the flu. Perhaps tomorrow he’ll tell us about how there are just 15 cases that will soon be down to zero, or he’ll start crowing about the greatest economy in history.
Trump has done this throughout his life. Whether it was his racist “birther” attacks on President Barack Obama or his reliance on empty catch phrases like “Build the wall,” “Lock her up,” or “Make America great again,” he’s found ways to control the news narrative. Trump does not do well with vulnerability, and right now that’s all any outside observer can see. Sick in the hospital, Trump fired out a flurry of all-caps tweets that read like the world’s worst brainstorming session. “PRO LIFE! VOTE!” “PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH (BRING OUR SOLDIERS HOME). VOTE!” “SPACE FORCE. VOTE!” This is the president backed into a corner and trying desperately to take the public’s mind off his own health, making the attempt to downplay the virus as less deadly than the flu a predictable move on his part.
The one thing that the president and pro-Trump media need to shield the public from is what’s right in front of their faces. They can’t let audiences see the president as frail and negligent. They can’t let viewers think about their friends and loved ones who’ve died because of this virus. They can’t let the economic devastation brought on by COVID-19 to set in. They can’t let reality get in the way of reelection.
Things will only get more unhinged as the election nears, and none of us can truly prepare for whatever comes next.