“I’ve always known this is a real — this is a pandemic," Trump said. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic."
That followed a press conference Monday when for the first time he seemed to acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis (“this is a very bad one”), amid the expected self-congratulation (“we’ve done a fantastic job from just about every standpoint”).
So the message has now gone forth: It’s time for Trump supporters to stop denying that the coronavirus is a big deal and focus on praising Trump’s extraordinary leadership in this time of crisis.
This is a shift that will take a bit of time to diffuse through the right, but it has a few key elements to it.
The first will be to wipe away recent history: Before long, you’ll hear Trump supporters say that Trump never denied how serious a public health challenge the virus posed, despite the fact that until this week he had been doing nothing but denying this.
That position has become untenable, so it’s necessary to forget that anyone ever held it. “We have a problem that a month ago nobody ever thought about,” Trump said on Monday.
This is, of course, completely false; a month ago, China had already locked down Wuhan, the World Health Organization had declared a global health emergency, the virus had spread to Europe and the United States, and Trump himself had taken the only significant action he would for weeks, shutting down travel from China.
We’ve heard this line from Trump on a variety of subjects: Because I didn’t understand something, that means no one did. The point of this revisionist history is to retroactively wipe away Trump’s own negligence, to make his repeated efforts to play down the virus fade into the mist. In the new version of history, we didn’t go through a period where people were begging Trump to take it seriously; instead, we all realized what was happening at exactly the same moment.
And at that moment, it was only Trump’s nearly god-like decisiveness and wisdom that saved us. As Sean Hannity said on Monday: “The president’s China and European travel ban, I predict will go down as the single most consequential decision in history. That’s not political. It bought us time.”
You might think this would cause cognitive dissonance among conservatives, to have been told for weeks that the coronavirus was no big deal but then suddenly be told that it is in fact a big deal. It will certainly take time and repetition to dislodge the former idea. As a new NPR/Marist poll shows, 54 percent of Republicans say the coronavirus has been blown out of proportion. Republicans are also less likely to express worry over the effects or to have taken steps to reduce exposure.
But it would be a misunderstanding of how the rhetoric of conservative media operates to think the reversal will meet much resistance.
In the world created by Fox News and conservative talk radio, policy issues and ways of understanding controversies are fluid and subject to change. When those changes arrive, Fox and Rush Limbaugh will helpfully provide simple arguments buttressing the new position that are easy to understand and repeat, both to people you know and, absolutely critically, to yourself. It doesn’t matter whether they stand up to scrutiny; what matters is that you have something, anything, that you can repeat when your position is challenged.
What is unchanging are the meta-themes that run through all their coverage: The world is frightening and dangerous. Things were better in the past. White people are besieged and put-upon, while ungrateful minorities have all the advantages. The non-conservative media always lie and so can never be trusted; only what we here at Fox News and other conservative outlets tell you is true.
Beside all those meta-themes, which have been in operation for a few decades now, is one of more recent vintage: Trump is always right. He was right yesterday, and he’s right today, even if yesterday he said the opposite of what he’s saying today.
So no matter how terrible the situation becomes, Trump and all who support him will insist that two things are true: It would have been far worse had it not been for Trump’s masterful leadership, and anything bad that is happening is the fault of Democrats and the media.
Before, Democrats were hysterically fear-mongering about the virus: “Democrats and their media cronies have decided to weaponize fear" against Trump, said Laura Ingraham a couple of weeks ago.
Soon, we’ll be told they were keeping Trump from doing enough to fight it. Indeed, a headline on “Hannity’s” website already reads: “As Democrats Pursued Impeachment, Coronavirus Quietly Spread.”
Watching all that, you may ask yourself how anyone believes a thing they say. But this is what their propaganda machine was built for.