From President Trump himself to conservative commentators on Fox News, conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are putting lives at risk.
At first, it seems hard to believe that reactions to the now worldwide coronavirus pandemic would divide American political leaders and ordinary citizens along ideological lines. But, in fact, it has.
It began with President Trump’s initial take that the disease was a political ‘hoax’ along the lines of other unfounded efforts to discredit him and his administration. When COVID-19 reached the U.S., Trump initially told reporters there were only a few cases and whatever danger the disease posed would go away quickly, leaving the country no worse for wear.
Here are some remarks President Trump made and the dates he made them:
January 22: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
February 2: “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”
February 14: “There’s a theory that in April, when it gets warm – historically, that has been able to kill the virus.”
February 26: “We’re going down not up. We’re going very substantially down as they get better, we take them off the list, so that pretty soon at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time.”
February 27: “It’s going to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear. And from our shores, we, — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”
Other figures in the “conservative” movement were quick to follow Trump’s lead. Fox News (e.g. Sean Hannity) and Rush Limbaugh, the influential talk-radio personality, mocked the threat. It was all a product of the liberal imagination. To quote Washington Post journalist Robert Costa:
“Inside the Republican Party and the conservative movement Trump commands, there is now a deep divide as the nation confronts the coronavirus. For weeks many on the right…minimized the virus, if they considered it at all. Even in recent days, as much of the world shuts down to try to stop its spread, some Republicans mocked what they saw as a media-driven frenzy.”
Fox Business host Trish Regan went as far as to accuse Democrats of using coronavirus as “another attempt to impeach the President.” Her show has since been suspended.
— Ahmed Baba (@AhmedBaba_) March 10, 2020
Accordingly, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida donned a large-sized gas mask and wore it in the halls of Congress to show his contempt for the whole COVID-19 “hoax”. This proved ironic as he later had to self-quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19.
One day you’re trolling people worried about #COVID2019, the next you’re self-quarantined.
Life comes at you fast @RepMattGaetz.
In all seriousness, I hope he’s well and learns a valuable lesson about integrity from this. pic.twitter.com/5JRRIKdxWs
— Ahmed Baba (@AhmedBaba_) March 9, 2020
Then there is the devil-may-care reaction. Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Kevin Stitt, the GOP governor of Oklahoma, urged citizens to go to bars and restaurants over the weekend of March 13-15 (when the impact of the coronavirus had become apparent) and have a good time.
ICYMI @SundayFutures with @MariaBartiromo important Coronavirus info|
-Don’t Panic there’s no food shortage/ stay home if you’re sick/ Elderly folks with health issues are vulnerable/ If healthy, support local workers and economy-shop and eat local! pic.twitter.com/uE6R5naUvH
— Devin Nunes (@DevinNunes) March 15, 2020
Some on the right who came to take the threat more seriously, explained the disease in conspiratorial terms. For example, RepublicanSenator Tom Cotton of Arkansas claimed the coronavirus was a bio-weapon, engineered by a bio-chemical warfare unit in Wuhan to weaken China’s American adversaries. Other conspiracy theories were not long in appearing on social media. These efforts seem to have been intended to personalize the threat.
Thus Bill Gates, the enormously wealthy founder of Microsoft, was claimed to be behind the whole thing because his philanthropy had invested, evidently, in a program of biological research on livestock diseases. Then, of course, there was the old standby George Soros, to add a touch of anti-Semitism to the conspiracy. Soros, a liberal-minded billionaire investor of Hungarian origins, has become a target for right-wing abuse in both Europe ( Viktor Orban’s Hungary especially) and America (through his sponsorship of the New America Foundation). Other conspiratorially-minded tweeters asserted that the country’s major pharmaceutical manufacturers had conspired to spread COVID-19 in order to sell more anti-viral drugs.
The initial dismissal of the threat posed by the coronavirus by President Trump and other GOP leaders had consequences for the Party’s voters and supporters. A USA Today poll, taken some weeks ago, found that Republicans were substantially less likely to regard the virus as a serious health risk than other Americans. The same difference also applied in the case of frequent hand-washing, the first precaution mentioned and repeated by public health officials. GOP supporters were significantly less likely to heed this warning than citizens in general.
A similar difference seems to fit state practices as well. Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC television commentator, reported that seven states had not yet adopted state-wide public health directives to fight the infection. After checking with the National Governors’ Conference, she listed Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho, and Wyoming as behind the curve.) All these states have in common is that they all have Republican governors.
A handful of GOP leaders, though, were quick to react to the pandemic. Take the case of Senator Richard Burr, chair of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee. In his capacity, Burr receives almost daily briefings on national security problems facing the United States. After being warned by intelligence officials. of the threat posed by COVID-19, Burr informed a private meeting of wealthy constituents more than a month ago (February 2020) about the severe threat of the emerging pandemic – at a time when President Trump was downplaying the danger.
As reported by the BBC, Burr and his wife took advantage of this ‘insider’ knowledge by selling $1.7 million worth of stocks before the market crashed. Another GOP senator and Intelligence Committee member, Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, sold assets worth approximately $3 million immediately following the committee briefing. The BBC account goes on to point out that US law makes it a crime for members of Congress to trade based on ‘insider information’. Will the Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr choose to bring charges? One cannot help but be skeptical.
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Nevada. See his profile here.
© Leonard Weinberg. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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