Fox News hosts are rallying to the cause of conservative activists who are protesting Michigan’s social distancing measures, raising the probability that similar movements will spread across the country with potentially catastrophic results.
In order to enforce limited face-to-face contact and reduce the spread of the contagious and deadly novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, governors across the country have banned large gatherings, closed schools, bars, restaurants, and non-essential businesses, and issued shelter-in-place orders instructing people not to leave their homes unnecessarily. These efforts appear to have succeeded in limiting deaths caused by the virus, but at the cost of an unprecedented unemployment surge.
The economic decline is triggering a backlash among conservatives against social distancing measures. President Donald Trump is reportedly fixated on reopening much of the country on May 1. Fox hosts are similarly pushing for a swift end to the lockdown, claiming that the lowered death projections show not that social distancing has succeeded but that public health experts were wrong to recommend it because the virus isn’t that dangerous. And conservatives are beginning to launch protest movements against the measures, with the support of Trump’s political allies.
This is incredibly dangerous. Public health officials, governors, and members of Trump’s own hand-picked council of business leaders are all warning that if people return to work without a drastic increase in testing capacity, it will both lead to a new wave of COVID-19 cases and fail to significantly improve the economy. And the increasing calls for public defiance of the measures are reportedly raising alarms inside the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, with officials worrying that the president’s base may stop following public health recommendations.
Wednesday saw the largest public demonstration against social distancing measures so far, as thousands of people swarmed the state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, in a protest against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. The protest, dubbed “Operation Gridlock,” was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, a group linked to the DeVos family, which heavily funds right-wing organizations and politicians in the state and nationwide.
Fox served up fawning coverage of the Lansing protesters throughout the day on Wednesday, devoting more than a dozen segments to their cause.
“NO TO THE ‘NANNY STATE’” read the headline of the lead story on the website’s front page that afternoon. Daytime anchors either falsely claimed the attendees were observing social distancing or blamed Whitmer for their failure to do so. And protest organizers got softball interviews to promote their cause to millions of viewers.
Fox host Tucker Carlson concluded one such interview by describing Whitmer’s actions as “mindless and authoritarian,” expressing the hope that she loses her job, and telling his guest, “Thank you for exercising your constitutionally protected rights as an American. Bless you.”
Fox host Jeanine Pirro gushed over the protest on Hannity. “They want to keep us away from churches and synagogues. They want to make sure we don't go back to work. They don't get it. The American spirit is too strong and Americans are not going to take it,” she said. “And what happened in Lansing today? God bless them, it's going to happen all over the country.”
On Twitter, Fox host Laura Ingraham wrote of the Michigan protests, “Time to get your freedom back.” She also suggested similar protests would pop up around the country as people “stand for their right to work, travel, assemble, socialize and worship.”
Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade picked up that thread on Thursday morning, predicting more such protests across the country against “ridiculous” efforts by governors to curtail the virus’s spread.
Pirro, Ingraham, and Kilmeade are almost certainly correct that protests like the one in Lansing will continue.
A right-wing coalition is mobilizing to demand that officials defy the warnings of public health officials and reopen the economy, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. That effort is reportedly being led by the heads of major conservative organizations that helped organize the anti-Obama tea party protests in 2009, as well as Stephen Moore, a former Fox contributor with ties to the White House. Moore gave a preview of what the group intends to do, telling the Post, “in the next two weeks, you’ll see protests in the streets of conservatives; you’ll see a big pushback against the lockdown in some states.”
Fox’s coverage will be crucial in helping those protests grow exponentially larger. The network’s hosts are both a key information source and irreplaceable validators for Trump’s base, and their platform will allow organizers to reach a huge audience of potential protesters. This could be a repeat of what we saw with the tea party protests, as right-wing protesters backed by the finances of conservative organizations saw their ranks swell thanks to aggressive Fox promotion.
In 2009, Fox and the protesters it backed were standing against efforts to rescue the economy following the financial crash. This time, it's literally a matter of life and death. These protests are explicitly designed to make it much harder for governors to maintain the stay-at-home orders that have helped keep the virus’s spread from spiraling out of control. And the events themselves pose a high risk of becoming super-spreading events if participants fail to maintain social distancing.
Fox hosts could stop this from happening. They could explain the risks to their viewers, or simply deprive the protests of the oxygen they need to thrive. But out of cynicism or stupidity, they are courting disaster instead.
And if Trump sees Fox’s protest coverage and endorses the effort, social distancing will become even more politically polarized. The hard-won progress in the fight against the virus could evaporate in an instant, leaving behind a shattered economy and an influx of COVID-19 deaths.