On Monday night, Fox News figures gave President Donald Trump the North Korea-style propaganda he’s always wanted, fawning over him following his return to the White House after being hospitalized with COVID-19. Their pathological obsequiousness and desperate need to bolster the president’s reelection bid is going to get a lot more people killed if network executives don’t put a stop to it.
Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week after he spent months publicly downplaying the danger posed by the novel coronavirus that causes it and recklessly ignoring public health recommendations to lower the risk of getting it. His case is part of a White House outbreak that appears linked to indoor events in which the participants did not wear masks. The president and his aides and physician spent the weekend covering up the state of his health and the timeline of his diagnosis. Medical experts questioned the wisdom of his discharge from Walter Reed Medical Center based on the scant information released to the public.
Sean Hannity, the Trump political operative with a prime-time Fox show, led the way. His fanatical opening monologue celebrated the president as “a leader who's willing to fight every minute of every day for the country, for the people of the country” and lauded him as the epitome of the nation’s “rugged individualist” spirit. The host invoked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inspirational words during the Great Depression and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s willingness to face danger during the Battle of Britain, comparing them to Trump’s purported vanquishing of the virus. “In times of great hardship you must fight for survival,” Hannity said. “And that is exactly what the president has done during this country's battle against COVID-19.”
Hannity was not alone on Fox in valorizing Trump for getting the virus. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, Trump was praised for his “energy” and “animal spirits,” described as “a fighter” who “keeps coming back and usually stronger,” and compared to “a general [who] gets wounded by the invisible enemy, goes and gets patched up and then gets right back to the front lines.” One network regular concluded, “The truth is this president had it and he's fought through it for America and he’s ready to start leading. So these people need to realize that it is time for us to decide who is the strongest leader.”
Trump’s critics, meanwhile, were treated as the enemy within, a corrupt lot determined to stop the valiant president at all costs.
But Fox commentators did not merely embarrass themselves with starry-eyed praise of the president. Several suggested that Trump’s personal triumph over the virus shows that his lackluster handling of the virus has been correct all along, encouraging their viewers to take it no more seriously than the president had done. Their arguments echo Trump’s Monday afternoon exhortation that people shouldn’t let the virus “dominate your life,” which in turn mimics the arguments the president likely heard on Fox over the weekend.
“Trump walked out of the hospital under his own steam after just three days; 74 years old and the virus didn't really slow him down. In fact, he looks fine,” Tucker Carlson said on his prime-time show Monday. This, he claimed, was evidence “the coronavirus isn't quite as scary as they're telling you it is” and that efforts taken to slow its spread had been misguided
“It's not that dangerous and it looks like he’s going to be fine even though he's a 74-year-old man who is mildly overweight,” argued regular guest Alex Berenson. “So that's the lesson we should take here: We need to live.”
Laura Ingraham took a similar tack, opening her own prime-time broadcast by using Trump’s recovery to promote a response to the virus that actively seeks to achieve “herd immunity” through higher infection rates. Fox contributor Mollie Hemingway claimed later in the program that Trump’s hospital discharge shows that “you don't want to destroy your entire life or your entire country” over the virus.
Using the president of the United States’ apparent recovery from the virus in this manner is incredibly dangerous because his access to medical care is not remotely representative. He took a helicopter to and from a medical facility that features a personal suite reserved for his use. A phalanx of doctors treated him, including with an experimental therapy not broadly available to the public. He returned to a home where he has a team of doctors standing by at all times and on-site medical facilities.
This conflation of the president’s personal fight with the virus and the nation’s struggle with it is “a standard trope in the genre of authoritarian politics that Trump practices,” as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has noted. It also demonstrates the dangerous power of the Trump-Fox feedback loop, as the network encourages Trump to follow through on his worst impulses.
The coronavirus has killed more than 200,000 Americans in the interim. Public health experts warn that the months to come could be bleak and are urging the public to take steps to protect themselves and others. But the president and his Fox supporters are encouraging people not to take precautions because, they claim, the virus simply isn’t that deadly.
Video by John Kerr