Team Trump has finally found itself in a crisis it cannot propagandize its way out of. Unfortunately, this has not led Team Trump (the administration and its various Fox News-based media arms) to pivot to the brash notion of telling the truth. No, of course not.
For the first time ever, though, Team Trump is very confused about which lie to tell. Historically, the Trump administration and Fox News have been meticulous messengers, able to turn almost everything into a way to “own the libs.” But COVID-19 is providing Trump very few opportunities for lib ownership.
Previously, before we hit the crisis stage, we got weeks of obfuscation, and the president’s conviction that “it’s going away. We want it to go away with very, very few deaths.” Now, Trumpists are trying to grapple with the possibility that the global pandemic may in fact be real. As COVID-19 has decimated Italy, killed thousands of Chinese nationals, and spread like a brush fire through at least 47 states, it’s becoming harder and harder for Trumpists to deny the truth.
But because they’re Trumpists, they are still trying desperately to stick to the party line. The problem is they’re not completely sure what that party line is. The Trumpists’ messaging has become completely inconsistent, vacillating between Laura Ingraham’s conviction that COVID-19 is a way for Democrats to “to smear the administration in a number of ways,” and Newt Gingrich saying that it was “the Wuhan that poisoned the world. That’s what you get when you get Chinese trade.” Trumpists seem completely conflicted between their love of racism and their passion for denial of obvious facts. How can Trumpists learn to message a pandemic they’ve been saying isn’t real for weeks?
Many Trumpists will do what Jerry Falwell did Friday morning, which was to dismiss the pandemic while also using it for a little racism and conspiracy talk. After going on the president’s favorite morning show, Fox & Friends, and saying that people are “overreacting,” Falwell tweeted, “Could Covid-19 be the ‘Christmas gift’ North Korea’s leadership promised America back in December?”
That the disease is no big deal but also the fault of North Korea is a hard needle to thread. Some won’t even bother threading it. One of Trump’s most sycophantic sycophants, Sebastian Gorka, took the opportunity to praise Dear Leader, saying that Trump "has been utterly proven correct" on the "Wuhan virus." Of course Trump has been saying for weeks that the virus would “disappear,” which is obviously not correct, as we are up to 1,700 infected today, and that’s without widespread testing that would put the real number even higher.
One of the few Fox pundits who is taking COVID-19 seriously is Tucker Carlson. Tucker said on Monday, “People you trust—people you probably voted for—have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem.” It’s almost as if he realizes killing his loyal viewers is bad for business.
Of course, I don’t want to congratulate young Tucker too much, because right after that he did an entire segment about how it’s totally not racist to call COVID-19 the Wuhan virus where he put one of my tweets up on the screen, which meant that then my Twitter direct messages were flooded with charming notes from Tucker viewers saying that I was “the real racist for calling it racist.” Not entirely sure how that would work, but logic isn’t really a tenet of Trumpism.
As the conservative media finds itself stuck between embracing the pandemic as a way to blame China for something and saying Democrats are overreacting in the hopes of making Trump look bad, it’s important to remember that people actually believe these talking points, and a lot of the people who believe these talking points are in the age group for which COVID-19 is the most fatal (the death rate for people over the age of 60 is more than 4.5 percent, and it rises sharply with every decade).
In Friday’s Washington Post, an elderly retiree said, “People are too worried. The flu has killed more people than the coronavirus, and people haven’t been as concerned over the flu.” The conservative media’s messaging may be messy, but its results will be toxic. The average age of a Fox viewer is 65 years old, and the people most likely to die from COVID-19 are over the age of… 65 years old. For these people’s sake, we should hope that Fox world abandons its Trish Regan “Coronavirus is an impeachment scam” messaging before it’s too late for the Boomers who believe it.