Fox News’ Corrosive Influence On Trump’s Coronavirus Response

When it comes to his coronavirus response, President Trump listens to advice from warring realities: right-wing disinformation vs. scientific experts.
President Trump and Fox News Host Sean Hannity (AP)

President Trump and Fox News Host Sean Hannity (AP)

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

It is hard not to notice that American President Donald Trump changes his mind in fundamental ways on an almost daily basis. In dealing with the current pandemic he has oscillated between claiming the threat was largely imaginary (another hoax perpetrated by Democrats and the ‘Fake news’ to re-litigate his impeachment) and declaring a national emergency a few weeks later. Early in the crisis, he praised the Chinese authorities for containing the outbreak only to follow up a short time later by condemning Beijing. The same applies to the World Health Organization (WHO): praise was followed by condemnation and the withdrawal of American funding.

Over a short period of time, Trump publicly asserted it was the responsibility of the states to deal with the pandemic, followed almost immediately by his assertion of total authority to deal with the crisis himself. Then, turning full-circle, he reestablished the claim that managing the pandemic was the states’ governors’ responsibility, not his.

When his administration unveiled a plan for a carefully calibrated, phased restart of the economy, Trump the following day encouraged protesters in several states to stage public protests in defiance of what amounted to his own plan.

What’s going on? These are U-turns that George Orwell might have invented.

Psychiatrists, unsurprisingly, have tended to interpret Trump’s wild changes of direction in terms of a personality disorder. Malignant narcissism appears to be their preferred diagnosis. But understanding Trump’s curious behavior does not require a detailed psychiatric interpretation. Something simpler should do.

What does Trump want? Aside from protecting his personal fortune, he wants to be re-elected to a second term. Most of his behavior appears to be shaped with that goal in mind. How many people die or don’t die as a result of the COVID-19 infection is a matter of limited interest to Trump, except to the extent the mortality rate has a bearing on his approval ratings. In order to deflect criticism and responsibility for the pandemic the president is happy to blame any convenient target that comes along – Democrats, Barak Obama, “socialists”, governors, Congress, the Cookie Monster. It makes little difference, so long as he can place blame elsewhere.

This brings us to the advice Trump receives from those to whom he pays attention. First, a certain background needs to be considered.

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A Complete Disbelief Of Science

Even before his inauguration Trump expressed doubts about the accuracy of scientific findings in general. During his election campaign, he sided with the “anti-vaccine” movement in falsely claiming that routine childhood inoculations probably cause autism. Before and after assuming office, he denied the accuracy of climate science findings on global warming and its destructive effects on the earth’s atmosphere.

Accordingly, after assuming the presidency he loosened environmental protection regulations and weakened the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to protect the country’s air and water from further pollution. He appointed a lobbyist for the coal industry to head the EPA. Trump claimed repeatedly the whole environmental protection effort was largely a hoax designed by scientists to extract more funding for their largely bogus studies. Given this understanding, Trump ordered America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement and subsequently heaped ridicule on Greta Thunberg when the Swedish teenager won the Nobel Peace Prize for her crusade in support of protecting the environment.

In 2014, the Obama administration, in reaction to the spread of Ebola fever, created a Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense as part of the National Security Council’s apparatus. In 2018, the Trump administration dissolved this office just in time for the pandemic to strike the US: almost perfect timing.

Fox News Vs. Health Experts

This brings us to the medical advice the President has been offered in shaping his administration’s response to COVID-19. This advice comes from two principal sources: from inside the government his medical team, from outside the government Fox News commentators. We can best understand the wild swings in Trump’s statements on the pandemic when we see that they are determined largely by which of these sources the President chooses to follow at any one time, or sometimes both simultaneously – setting off the most self-contradictory of messages.

Inside his administration, Trump has received medical advice from at least one of his economic advisers, Peter Navarro. Navarro, a Ph.D. in economics, recommended the use of the anti-Malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. In daily briefings, Trump promoted the use of the drug as a treatment for the coronavirus. As subsequent results made clear, this medication has no benefit in ameliorating the condition and, in fact, may cause heart damage.

Then we confront the recommendations of physicians inside the alleged ‘deep state’, most notably Drs. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Jerome Adams, US Surgeon General, Deborah Birx, Co-Ordinator White House Task Force on the Coronavirus, and Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Health’s Infectious Disease division.

These physicians have little interest in tailoring their advice to Trump to suit his foremost goal – his re-election. Their interest is in arresting the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives — whether or not the measures they recommend gain or lose Trump votes in November. Most of the government’s plans to stop the disease spread, e.g. social distancing, shutting businesses, is the result of their work.

The only adviser who has aroused political controversy is Dr. Fauci who had the audacity to contradict Trump on one or two public occasions. Given the fact that Trump does not tolerate being contradicted in public, there were rumors Fauci was going to be fired for offering the American public scientific evidence rather than the president’s ‘gut’ instincts. Fauci hasn’t been forced to resign, at least so far. Nevertheless, a stream of right-wing chatter has surfaced online labeling Fauci a “liberal” and threatening him with physical harm. He now receives security protection.

The other major source of medical advice Trump receives comes from Fox News, the “conservative” cable news network. By many accounts, the president spends several hours a day watching Fox news and often seeks the advice of its leading personalities, notably Sean Hannity.

The principal personalities in the Fox stable of right-wing observers are: Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and Jeanine Pirro. Their educational experiences are listed below.

  • Sean Hannity (New York University, drop out, Adelphi University, drop out)
  • Laura Ingraham (BA Dartmouth College, J.D. University of Virginia Law School)
  • Tucker Carlson ( BA in History, Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut)
  • Jeanine Pirro ( BA University of Buffalo, J.D. University of Albany Law School)

None of these four Fox commentators appears to have had any university-level training in medicine or microbiology. This fact hasn’t restrained them from offering Trump (or their viewers in general) advice about how to respond to the COVID-19 disease.

Overall, the Fox Four have not denied the existence of the pandemic, hard to do as the bodies of the disease’s victims are being stacked in refrigerated trucks in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere. Rather their tactic has been to relativize the disease and identify bogeymen to hold responsible for spreading it.

Aside from Sean Hannity’s “prescription” of hydroxychloroquine to treat the disease (based on Navarro’s “findings”), the Fox News commentators have compared COVID-19 outbreak to the yearly flu’s toll, the number of Americans killed in automobile accidents and swimming pool drownings assessed on an annual basis. When they report such figures to their audience (Trump included), the disease seems to be less menacing.

(A Fox News broadcast from early March)

(A Fox News broadcast from early March)

Some viewers have noted the Fox Four’s lack of medical knowledge. To fill this void, Fox News editors invited a team of widely known TV doctors to offer their assessments. The doctors involved have been Dr. Phil McGraw, Dr. Drew Pinsky, and Dr. Mehmet Oz. “Dr. Phil”, M.C. of a popular daytime television show, has a Ph.D. in psychology (but doesn’t have a license to practice).

The others are genuine physicians, but neither Pinsky nor Oz claim expertise in epidemiology nor virology. Pinsky’s television show “Celeb Rehab” is widely seen in the Los Angeles area; his promotion of a weight-reducing drug has come under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration. When Dr. Oz, a cardiologist, was interviewed by Hannity he advocated the quick reopening of the public schools as a way of “getting our mojo back.”

These then are the voices Trump listens to, the voice which influence his daily ‘tweets’. They also promote right-wing protests against Democratic state governors in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington (state), governors who seek to keep social distancing measures in place to reduce the fatality rate. Thanks to Fox News the ‘bogymen’ responsible for keeping the American economy shut, citizens confined to their homes etc., are the country’s Democratic governors, precisely the leaders seeking to prevent COVID- 19s spread – based on the Trump administration’s own recommendations.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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News // CARR / Coronavirus / Donald Trump / Fox News