Trumpist media claim his COVID diagnosis validates their war on public health recommendations -- and the president is listening

Fox covid Trump

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Some of President Donald Trump’s most avid media supporters are counterintuitively claiming that his diagnosis and hospitalization for COVID-19 proves they were right to downplay the effectiveness of public health recommendations to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. It’s a recipe for more carnage from a pandemic that has already killed more than 213,000 Americans, so of course the president seems to be adopting their view.

Trump recklessly ignored the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for reducing the risk of getting the virus, instead relying on a flawed rapid testing regime that did not prevent him from contracting it. Where the CDC calls for people to stay at least six feet apart from others, he has continued to hold rallies and other well-attended public events, as well as indoor receptions, where social distancing is scarce. The CDC urges people to wear a face mask in public settings and around people from outside your household, but the president both scorns donning one himself and discourages his staff and supporters from putting them on. While the CDC suggests quarantining if you learn you have been exposed to COVID-19, Trump instead held a fundraiser at his New Jersey golf club.

Trump’s diagnosis could have finally triggered some soul-searching among his media supporters. For months, they have sought to bolster the president’s political standing by minimizing the danger posed by the virus, denouncing public health recommendations, and calling for the swift return to economic normalcy. Their propaganda put their audiences at risk -- including the president -- whose worldview they shape. But rather than acknowledging this and behaving more responsibly in light of Trump’s hospitalization, several are using it as evidence they were right all along. 

Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show is the most-watched program in cable news history -- and ground zero for the network’s war on “power-drunk” public health officials. Carlson regularly denounces what he portrays as their futile and dictatorial recommendations, including on masks and social distancing. For the Fox star, the key fact about COVID-19 is that it “just isn't nearly as deadly as we thought it was.” His huge audience often includes Trump himself, who has repeatedly taken action on the virus in response to what he has seen on the show. 

For Carlson and his Friday guest, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the lesson of Trump getting the virus after ignoring public health recommendations is that there’s no point in implementing those recommendations. “If this virus can get into the Oval, into the body of the president, there is no place where it could not possibly infect one of our fellow Americans,” Gaetz claimed, adding that “there is no lockdown that can be a panacea to save everyone from everything, and this is proof positive that's the case.” 

Carlson agreed, explaining that “if the president can get this virus, then it tells you a lot about our ability to protect ourselves from it.

“I mean, how many people watching have college-age kids who are suffering through the restrictions, the draconian restrictions colleges are imposing, who got COVID anyway?” he continued. “So it just tells you maybe we should spend more time working on therapeutics to help people once they're infected. Why does that occur to no one?”

“The answer is not to hunker down, shut down, hide under your bed, and hope that the virus won't ever find you,” Gaetz replied. “The answer is to ensure that we live our lives, protect the vulnerable, and then recognize the critical importance of making sure that we continue to make progress on those therapeutics so that we continue to become more and more survivable against the virus.”

“I'm so glad that you said that,” Carlson responded. “It's such an obvious point. I wish I'd said it first. But you did.”

In the past, the president has also repeatedly live-tweeted Fox host Steve Hilton’s Sunday night program, adopting his views on the need to end business and school closures undertaken due to the virus. If he was watching this week, he saw a similar take.

“We don't want to put anyone in danger, of course, but it's like the flu, and we have seen that, even though it's more powerful,” Fox contributor Sara Carter offered. “We have got to continue to live life.”

“I totally get what you're saying there, Sara, which is that, like other diseases and illnesses that we experience, we have to actually find ways to live with it, without shutting down our whole economy,” Hilton replied.

Fox hosts like Hilton and Carlson have bigger audiences and a more direct line to the president, but the same argument is also coming from the pseudointellectual right’s leading Trump sycophant, Hugh Hewitt. “If, as expected, [Trump] is released today and fully recovers quickly, resumes campaigning, expect debate about the ‘Sweden model’ to return, intensify,” he tweeted Monday morning. Conservatives have been pushing for the U.S. to adopt Sweden’s relatively lax strategy for fighting the coronavirus for months, despite that strategy’s subpar results. 

Just as Trump’s case is not a good one to invoke in arguing that there’s little value in following public health recommendations -- because he very clearly did not follow them -- he is a weak example to cite on the quality of coronavirus care currently available to the American public. “From his team of providers to his helicopter flight to the hospital to the experimental drug that fewer than 10 others have received outside a clinical trial, Trump has access to care available to few of the other 7.3 million people in the United States infected so far by the coronavirus,” The Washington Post reported Saturday. This is not a scalable treatment regime.

It’s disgusting to watch the president’s propagandists use this news to try to prop up their flawed conception of the virus. But it’s unnerving that Trump himself appears to be listening, and positioning his own messaging to match them. 

The New York Post reported Saturday on a message that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said had been dictated to him by the president. In the message, Trump claims that he “had to confront [the virus] so the American people stopped being afraid of it so we could deal with it responsibly” and cites “tremendous progress on treating this disease” to claim that after beating it, he “will be able to show people we can deal with this disease responsibly, but we shouldn’t be afraid of it.” He offered similar comments in a video message released that night. 

It’s worth parsing out what’s happening here. The president appears to be using his own diagnosis to promote a strategy of more people getting it because they will be able to recover from it quickly. But Trump got the virus after increasing his own risk by behaving recklessly, and subsequently had access to a level of medical care not available to most Americans. 

The result might be Trump supporting the “herd immunity” strategy of allowing the virus to spread through the U.S. population that White House coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas reportedly prefers. That’s an idea that, if implemented, could bring a staggering death toll.

And why is Atlas in position to offer that advice in the first place? Because the president liked his regular appearances on Fox. Trump’s willingness to take advice from his media supporters has colored virtually every aspect of the U.S. response to the pandemic -- and there’s no sign his own bout with the virus will stop that feedback loop.