People For the American Way

Tactics from the Right-Wing Playbook on COVID-19

News and Analysis
Tactics from the Right-Wing Playbook on COVID-19
This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

This post first appeared on Right Wing Watch.

During this extremely challenging time, when the spread of the coronavirus threatens people’s lives and the nation’s well-being, Americans should be able to count on their leaders for honest and accurate information. But Americans who trust right-wing media, political, and religious leaders have too often gotten the opposite.

President Donald Trump himself has been a steady source of dishonesty, disinformation, and wildly mixed signals about the coronavirus outbreak. And his supporters in right-wing media, the religious-right political movement, and Republican Party leadership have employed a range of messaging strategies and tactics designed to mask administration failures, smear its critics, and promote narratives that serve to distract and misinform Americans about the crisis and the public health measures being taken to address it.

Here, briefly, are some of the ways Americans are being ill-served by conservative leaders, activists, and media.

Dismissing and Downplaying the Threat

In the early days of the spread of the virus, Trump and members of his administration downplayed the seriousness of the threat the virus posed to Americans. Trump’s allies and right-wing media have decried what they described as a hoax, hype, and fearmongering designed to harm Trump’s reelection prospects. Even now, as new cases and deaths continue to spike, Trump and his supporters send mixed messages about the threat and the importance of social distancing.

Distracting Americans with Conspiracy Theories and Finger-Pointing

A wide range of conspiracy theories about the virus and its spread have been promoted not only by fringe activists in online spaces but also by members of Congress and religious leaders with large audiences. Many of the conspiracy theories are meant to deflect accountability from U.S. officials’ decision-making by diverting attention and blame elsewhere. COVID-19 has been portrayed as a weapon of war launched by the Chinese or North Korean governments and as a plot by Satan, the Democratic Party,  globalists, big pharma, and other habitual enemies of the right-wing imagination. Others who promote the QAnon conspiracy theory popular in some corners of Trump’s base say the virus and social distancing measures are cover for Trump to make mass arrests of a deep-state pedophile ring. A new wave of hoax conspiracy-mongering is spreading on social media using hashtags like #coronavirustruth and #FilmYourHospital.

Pushing the Team Trump Line, Whatever It Is

The extent to which right-wing activists, leaders, and media have become public relations vehicles of the White House is evident in the ways that they have followed the Trump administration’s own dramatic shifts from dismissing fears of the virus as hype generated by the media to belatedly recognizing the seriousness of the situation and the need for strong public health measures. Trump’s supporters have learned from him not to bother acknowledging or explaining their abrupt shifts in position. One religious-right activist even defended Trump’s misinformation as a strategy for sowing confusion in the “enemy camp.”

Making the Most of It / Shameless Opportunism

Some right-wing leaders are taking advantage of the crisis to push preexisting agendas. Among them: promoting hostility to immigrants and immigration; shutting down access to abortion; promoting school vouchers; undermining environmental protections; fomenting nationalism and disparaging international institutions; disparaging federal aid to struggling individuals and promoting libertarian social darwinism; and weakening the separation of church and state. Others have used it to enrich themselves by selling bogus “cures.”

Playing God and Portraying Trump’s Actions as Part of a Divine Plan

Conservative evangelicals are Trump’s most loyal supporters. Many have followed his shifts, urging their followers to adopt the administration’s social distancing guidelines. But some have resisted restrictions on large gatherings, portraying them as attacks on religious liberty and telling supporters that believers have divine protection. Some have portrayed attending church as a test of their faith in God’s power to heal. Some have called the virus a sign of God’s punishment for abortion or homosexuality, and others have said it’s God’s way to focus attention on the church.

Some “prophetic” leaders have declared that God will bring swift and miraculous resolution to the crisis: one asserted that the tide was turning in mid-February; others decreed that the virus would leave Earth on March 23; and others have predicted divine intervention around Passover or Easter, when Trump himself has said he would like to see churches full. Some are depicting current events as evidence that we are living in the End Times and that believers should therefore expect “pestilence” and other events prophesied for the last days.

This post has been updated.