From the moment the coronavirus reached the United States, President Donald Trump has seemed determined to construct an alternate reality around the outbreak. In the information universe he has formed, COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is no worse than the seasonal flu; criticism of his response to it is a “hoax”; and media coverage of the virus is part of a political conspiracy to destroy his presidency.
As with so much of the president’s messaging, this narrative began with tossed-off tweets and impromptu public statements. But in recent days, as U.S. health officials have raised growing concerns about the outbreak, Trump’s efforts to play down the pandemic have been amplified by the same multi-platform propaganda apparatus he’s relying on for reelection in November. From the White House communications office to the MAGA meme warriors of Instagram, from the prime-time partisans on Fox News to the Trump campaign’s Facebook feed, the overarching message has been the same: Pay no attention to the fake-news fearmongering about the coronavirus. It’s all political hype. Things are going great.
Fact-checkers and scientists have scrambled to correct the misinformation coming out of the White House. (No, the virus has not been “contained” in America; no, testing is not available to anybody who wants it; no, people shouldn’t go to work if they’re sick.) But Trump’s message seems to have resonated with his base: A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that just 35 percent of Republicans are concerned about the virus, compared with 68 percent of Democrats.
The administration’s response to the outbreak has drawn some comparisons to that of the autocratic regimes in China and Iran, where information about the virus was tightly controlled to the detriment of the local populations. But what Trump has actually shown is that he doesn’t need to silence the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or censor the press to undermine politically inconvenient information about a public-health crisis—he can simply use his presidential bullhorn to drown it out.
Scholars who study modern disinformation tactics have identified this approach as “censorship through noise.” (Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist, has described the strategy in blunter terms: “Flood the zone with shit.”) As I reported in my recent feature on the Trump campaign, the purpose of this sort of propaganda blizzard is not to inspire conviction in a certain set of facts; it’s to bombard people with so many contradictory claims, conspiracy theories, what-abouts, and distortions that they simply throw up their hands in confusion and exhaustion.
Spend some time wading through the coronavirus content that’s spreading through the MAGA ecosystem, and it’s easy to see the strategy at work.
Trump supporters have been warned incessantly not to trust mainstream journalistic coverage of the issue. When the market tanked earlier this week, the president blamed it on “fake news.” When White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham appeared on Fox & Friends, she condemned the media for using the virus “as a tool to politicize things and to scare people.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s right-wing media allies are working to minimize the perceived dangers of the coronavirus. “Put it in perspective,” Sean Hannity told his Fox News audience this week. “Twenty-six people were shot in Chicago alone over the weekend. I doubt you heard about it. You notice there’s no widespread hysteria about violence in Chicago. And this has now gone on for years and years and years. By the way, Democratic-run cities, we see a lot of that.” The sentiment was echoed by Tomi Lahren, a Fox Nation host, who invoked California’s homelessness problem to deflect attention from the outbreak: “Call me crazy, but I am far more concerned with stepping on a used heroin needle than I am getting the coronavirus, but maybe that’s just me.”
A key strain of the president’s narrative is that concerns about the coronavirus are being weaponized by bad-faith actors—a notion that has spawned a broad range of conspiracy theories. On Fox Business, Trish Regan accused Trump’s enemies of trying to “create mass hysteria to encourage a market sell-off” that would harm his reelection prospects: “This is impeachment all over again,” she declared. Rush Limbaugh has mused that the president is the target of “virus terrorism.” And on Facebook and Twitter, a meme has begun circulating among Trump fans that darkly suggests a new disease is introduced every election year to influence politics.
Pro-Trump social-media stars have ridiculed people who are afraid of the coronavirus, casting them as ridiculous, or perhaps unmasculine. (“Stop being a baby and go to the gym,” one well-known troll recently wrote beneath a selfie emphasizing his biceps. “Obesity is the real pandemic.”) At the same time, many Republicans are seizing on the outbreak to build support for restrictionist immigration policies and a trade war with China. “We need the Wall more than ever!” Trump tweeted this week.
To the president and his allies, it doesn’t really matter that all these narrative threads don’t perfectly cohere. Muddying the waters is the name of the game, and it’s a strategy that’s carried Trump through numerous political battles over the years.
But sowing strategic doubt about the facts of a global pandemic is fundamentally different from doing it with, say, an impeachment hearing. The dangers are more tangible and immediate to voters, regardless of whether they support Trump. The stakes are higher. And in a crass, political sense, the long-term effectiveness of the effort is limited. Hundreds of new coronavirus cases are being confirmed every day in the U.S. Public events are being canceled, schools are shutting down, containment zones are being implemented by governors. As daily life is disrupted for more and more Americans, Trump’s alternate reality is bound to implode.
Some on the right seem to understand this. Prominent conservative writers such as Ross Douthat and Michael Brendan Dougherty have been covering the outbreak with a sense of urgency. This week, National Review published an editorial criticizing the president’s lackluster response to the virus. Perhaps most notably, Tucker Carlson broke with his prime-time Fox News colleagues this week with a withering monologue that seemed to address Trump without ever saying his name.
“In a crisis, it’s more important than ever to be calm,” Carlson said. “But staying calm is not the same as remaining complacent. It does not mean assuring people that everything will be fine. We don’t know that. Instead, it’s better to tell the truth. That is always the surest sign of strength.”
Will Trump, who has taken cues from Carlson’s show in the past, get the message—or will it be drowned out by the din of the noise machine he helped create?