In the conservative media, talking heads and talk-radio hosts have labored to convince their audiences that—despite what they may have heard—the president never doubted the gravity of the coronavirus. Central to this case is Trump’s decision in late January to restrict travel from China, when the severity of the outbreak in Wuhan was becoming clear.
Skeptics on both the right and the left have dismissed the move as a token measure that did little to prepare the U.S. for an imminent outbreak. A more generous assessment may be that while restricting travel from China slowed the spread of the virus on the West Coast, Trump’s delay in restricting travel from Europe helped turn New York into the pandemic’s global epicenter. In any case, the policy is cited incessantly on Fox News as proof of Trump’s prescience. Sean Hannity has predicted that it will “go down as the single most consequential decision in history,” and mused, “How [much] worse could this have been if the president didn’t act that quickly?”
To sharpen their narrative, Trump’s allies have taken to juxtaposing his travel restriction with cherry-picked clips of journalists downplaying the threat of the virus earlier this year. Donald Trump Jr. recently shared such a supercut with his 2.6 million Instagram followers alongside an all-caps message: “THE MEDIA WANTS YOU TO THINK MY DAD DIDN'T TAKE CHINA VIRUS SERIOUSLY. WELL LISTEN TO THIS.”
Perhaps the strangest subplot in the crusade to vindicate the president has revolved around a once-obscure anti-malaria drug. Last month, Trump latched onto the idea that chloroquine, and the related hydroxychloroquine, held the key to combatting the coronavirus. This theory had little evidence to support it beyond a handful of anecdotes and flawed studies. But the drug was being touted by Dr. Mehmet Oz, a TV star and Fox News regular, as well as Rudy Giuliani—and the allure of a miracle cure was apparently too tempting to resist. The president hyped the drug in one briefing after another, dubbing it a potential “game-changer,” and urging sick patients to take it. “What do you have to lose?” he mused.
When these presidential prescriptions drew criticism from some in the medical community—who noted, among other things, the drug’s potentially fatal side effects—Trump was defiant. Overnight, hydroxychloroquine was transformed into a right-wing weapon of culture war. The drug became a prime-time staple on Fox News, and a fixation of MAGA memes. A conservative group called the Job Creators Network launched a digital campaign to promote the drug using targeted texts and Facebook ads.
As the drug grew more controversial, false claims about its effectiveness circulated widely on social media. To see where the chatter was coming from, Graphika—a data firm that tracks online disinformation—used suspicious Twitter accounts identified by an independent security researcher named Eric Ellason to map the conversation. The firm told me that the drug appears to be especially interesting to conspiracy theorists: Among those discussing hydroxychloroquine in the U.S., the most common hashtags included #Gates, #Soros, and #darktolight, a QAnon rallying cry. But the “vast majority” of the conversation, Graphika found, was taking place among right-wing users, many of whom are invested in making the president look like a visionary.