Trump's fans were shrugging off COVID-19. Now it's a war, and he's their leader

Until this week, many in the American right downplayed Coronavirus talk in the U.S., casting it as hype from Democrats and the media to hurt Trump's re-election. That's changing. Like the president, they've begun stressing the seriousness of the threat. Now it's a war, and Trump is their leader.
U.S. conservative media have shifted to a far more aggressive tone in talking about coronavirus, which until a few days ago several were deriding as a Democrat exaggeration. Now, like President Donald Trump, Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity, seen here speaking at a 2018 political rally, are calling it a generational threat. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The MAGAverse has gotten the memo: Coronavirus is a bona-fide emergency that requires myriad actions from citizens and government in order to avert catastrophe.

The message to American conservatives is now being driven home in stark terms on President Donald Trump's favourite morning TV show. On Tuesday, the co-hosts of Fox & Friends eschewed their normally cozy seating arrangement on a shared couch and took up positions in distant parts of their studio.

Lest any viewer fail to grasp the new reality, co-host Steve Doocy emphasized it with a public-service announcement to lead off the 6 a.m. show. He cited guidelines from the U.S. Centers For Disease Control to keep six feet of distance from other people in explaining the change in policy.

"Stay away from each other," Doocy urged his viewers. "Because you don't want to get infected, and you don't want to spread infection.

"Usually we sit about 18 inches apart," Doocy added, referring to his co-hosts. "[Now] I'm up here on the curvy couch, all by myself."

A few hours later, Trump was at the White House podium promising emergency measures to send money to Americans, and also to bail out the airline industry, on top of numerous other health and economic actions.

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What a difference a week makes. 

The hosts of Trump's favourite morning show, Fox & Friends, usually sit pretty close together on a couch, as in this 2016 photo. Not anymore. On Tuesday, they explained that they would practice social distancing and each appear on camera from different parts of their studio. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

The whiplash-inducing change in tone from American conservatives comes after prominent voices on the American right derided coronavirus as an exaggerated crisis at best — and at worst, a plot hatched by the media-Democrat industrial complex to take down Trump.

That what-me-worry attitude had potentially lethal real-world effects — with Trump's own fans facing the biggest risk. Republican voters overwhelmingly believe what the president says, according to one new survey, in contrast to the overall public.

After weeks of White House messaging downplaying the severity of the threat, it's no surprise several surveys showed Republicans being far likelier to shrug off health warnings.

One indicated Republicans were twice as likely to think that coronavirus news was exaggerated, and likelier to proceed with planned gatherings. Another showed similar findings. 

But the latest of these surveys shows a narrower gap in attitudes between the left and right on an issue of basic public health.

Everything changes

What's changed? 

For starters, Trump's message. 

After COVID-19 case numbers undeniably grew in the U.S., and global markets unquestionably collapsed, and allies like Steve Bannon and Fox News host Tucker Carlson urgently pleaded with him, Trump ramped up his response.

Just a few days ago, he was spinning sunny messages of continued economic prosperity that had been central to his re-election strategy. 

Trump was saying things about the virus like, "We have it totally under control … it's going to be fine" (Jan. 22), and "We've pretty much shut it down" (Feb. 2). He added that cases would drop to zero "within a couple of days" (Feb. 26) or disappear "like a miracle" (Feb. 27), and was quoting a Fox host approvingly when they blamed CNN for stoking panic.

Now that same Fox host has been sidelined by the network. 

And now President Trump is treating the virus for what it is: a historic health, economic and political crisis that is the biggest test of his presidency.

He insists he always took it seriously. For example, he points to his Jan. 31 restriction on travel from China. "I've always known this is a real … pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic," Trump said.

"I feel the tone is similar."

His favourite TV personalities were certainly striking a different tone. On the morning Fox show, hosts expressed horror at pictures of crowded Florida beaches and suggested the federal government might have to order a shutdown.

Just a few days earlier, the conservative commentariat was mocking the idea of shutting down big events, especially Trump campaign rallies. 

FDR and Trump: Wartime leaders

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the before-and-after messaging came from Trump friend and prime-time Fox host Sean Hannity.

On March 9, Hannity bemoaned "mass hysteria," the "newest hoax" from Democrats, and "manufactured, irresponsible, over-the-top rhetoric."

He lumped it in with a variety of other ailments to fret about: "You should be concerned about the flu. You should be concerned about a cold," he said, but added that the media coverage of COVID-19 was "beyond despicable."

Fast-forward a week. In his show this Tuesday, Hannity had a picture of Second World War leader Franklin D. Roosevelt on the screen — and he cast this virus as a war, with Donald J. Trump as America's wartime leader.

He called the coming 15-day period critical in containing the spread. Rest assured, Hannity said, America and its leader are up to the challenge.

"We're going to get through this," Hannity said.

"This country defeated Nazism, fascism, communism, Imperial Japan. We made it through a Great Depression, the Great Recession, 9/11, the Cold War. We're the American people. We face our problems head-on."

A week ago, Trump friend and Fox host Sean Hannity was mostly complaining about the crisis as a media exaggeration. (Fox News television)
A week later, Hannity is calling coronavirus a generational battle that he says America will win, like the Second World War and the Cold War. (Fox News television)

That choice of language brings to mind another lesson of the American presidency, embodied in the trajectory of George H.W. Bush: a tanking economy cost him re-election, but he was popular as a wartime president.

In his press conferences Monday, Trump twice referred to the virus as a war effort; five other times, he called it an "enemy" to defeat.

Other partisan allies have also backpedalled from their laissez-faire messages that downplayed the virus threat.

The Republican governor of Oklahoma deleted a weekend tweet where he promised to keep visiting restaurants — on Monday, he issued an emergency declaration, and on Tuesday he shut schools.

Last weekend, senior Republican congressman Devin Nunes told people to stop panicking and go out: "If you're healthy, you and your family, it's a great time to just go out. Go to a local restaurant … don't run to the grocery store and buy $4,000 of food, go to your local pub."

The next day Nunes blamed "media freaks" for distorting his message. He said he was simply encouraging people to go get takeout.

When it comes to brushing off urgency measures, however, nobody did so more brazenly than Rush Limbaugh.

Trump surprises Rush Limbaugh with honour

4 years ago
Duration 2:10
U.S. President Donald Trump awards Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the state of the union address.

The right-wing radio host spent days ridiculing responses to the virus. In one episode alone, on March 12, he called sports leagues "wimps" for shutting down; promised to keep traveling; accused Democrats of conspiring to shut down Trump rallies; also accused Democrats of trying to use the virus as an excuse to cancel the rest of their presidential primaries; urged listeners to stop watching the news; and said the deaths are being blown out of proportion.

"How many deaths are we talking about? And yet we are reacting this way?," Limbaugh fumed. "We're wrecking the United States economy … I don't like all these shutdowns. I think this is so overblown. But remember, this is political."

Things were different just a month ago, in those simpler times, when Trump was awarding Limbaugh the presidential medal of freedom.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.