The conservative media’s coverage of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has mutated faster than the virus itself. One day, Covid-19 is an insidious Chinese weapon, the next a hoax ginned up by the Democrats, before it mysteriously morphs into a historic challenge that President Trump is working day and night to overcome. But through this dense thicket of self-induced media amnesia, you can still discern one consistent theme: skepticism about whether the social distancing measures scientists have recommended to contain the crisis are necessary.
In early March, as death tolls continued to rise in China and Italy, Fox News personalities went out of their way to downplay the severity of the disease. Host Jeanine Pirro likened it to the common flu, Republican operative Matt Schlapp said that it was “very, very difficult to contract this virus,” and host Jesse Watters declared that if he got it, he would “beat it” with the “power of positive thinking.” Even less overtly agitprop-minded conservatives have embraced the same don’t-tread-on-me mentality. A columnist at The Blaze equated governors’ stay-at-home orders to martial law and warned that “there is no limit to what these politicians might do with their divine right of kings.” Over at the theocratic magazine First Things, an editor decried Andrew Cuomo’s determination to save “just one life” as “sentimentalism.” And a columnist at National Review wrote that he was grateful to the skeptics who saw the crisis as overblown: “they at least remind me that we have free men among us.” An unlicensed dermatologist writing for The Federalist, meanwhile, suggested that those who were tired of isolation could meet up for “chickenpox parties” and inoculate themselves through “controlled voluntary infection.”
It’s tempting to see this widespread resistance to public health decrees as wishful thinking on the part of a media ecosystem that remains fiercely loyal to Trump: If the virus were mild enough to beat with positive thinking, the president would have less blood on his hands when the crisis passes. But in fact, these subversive soothsayers were resisting the dictates of social distancing for another, even more fundamental reason: It’s in their DNA.
The founding principle of the conservative media is its opposition to the elites, to the establishment, to whoever is pushing the conventional wisdom. Whether a consensus comes from Washington, Hollywood, or the Ivory Tower, outsider personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have been quick to poke holes in it. Although the president now often speaks to Hannity before bed, the people who tune in to his show still rankle at authority. Thus, Fox and The Federalist have an almost genetic responsibility to offer “alternative facts.” Their brands were built on the erosion of trust in the government and the wisdom of experts, and they have won a loyal audience by holding firm even when the experts are right. In the end, this contrarian strategy may prove even more dangerous than Trump’s dithering response to the virus: No matter who occupies the Oval Office next, counterfactuals such as these are sure to see a seasonal resurgence.