Trump Thinks Fear Is Good—Except When It Comes to Coronavirus

How Republicans strategically decide which threats to maximize and to minimize.

In the recent movie Bombshell, a Fox News producer played by Kate McKinnon tells a younger colleague how the network decides what to cover. “The world is a bad place,” she quips. “Ask yourself, what would scare my grandmother or piss off my grandfather? And that’s a Fox story.”

That calculus has also been the engine of Republican politics in the age of Donald Trump, who has raised fear-mongering to unprecedented heights. The country was under siege from immigration, terrorism, and crime, Trump asserted. Only he could make it safe—and great—again. As Democrats correctly noted, Trump has been exaggerating dangers to stoke voters’ prejudices and anxieties.

But coronavirus has scrambled politics in America, just as it has upended everything else. Until he declared a national emergency on Friday, Trump and his GOP media defenders were downplaying the crisis. And Democrats became the party of fear, warning that Americans should be afraid—very afraid—and that the GOP was in a state of denial.

In a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, roughly 60 percent of surveyed Republicans said they were not especially concerned that the coronavirus would disrupt their lives. Two-thirds of Democrats, meanwhile, said they were somewhat or very concerned about disruption from the virus. Most remarkably, Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say they were afraid that they or someone they knew could catch COVID-19.

In large part, that’s because of the tone set by Trump. Last month, he said that the virus “dies with the hotter weather” and that it “will go away in April.” He also said that the total number of coronavirus cases stood at 15 and would soon be “close to zero.”  Fox News host Sean Hannity quickly echoed the same sentiment and continually hinted on his broadcast that the entire crisis might be a hoax. Rush Limbaugh likened coronavirus to a common cold.

These claims also earned a sharp rebuke from a handful of conservative media figures, including Fox’s Tucker Carlson. “People you trust, people you probably voted for, have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem,” Carlson told viewers last week, in a clear reference to Trump. “People you know will get sick. Some may die. This is real.”

Carlson was calling Republicans back to their customary sweet spot, as the party of fear. According to numerous research studies, Americans who perceive more danger in the world are more likely to vote Republican, while people who are more optimistic and hopeful typically pull the lever for Democrats.

That was never more obvious than in 2016, when Trump rooted his campaign firmly in fear. And it worked. Two-thirds of Trump supporters feared being a victim of terrorism, as opposed to half of all Americans. And 83 percent of people supporting Trump agreed that the American way of life needed to be protected from “foreign influence,” compared to 55 percent overall.

Never mind that foreign influence—in the form of Russian interference—helped Trump win the election. The larger moral was clear: To motivate voters, as the Fox News producer in Bombshell noted, Republicans and the conservative movement should harp on things that will scare your grandmother.

Well, coronavirus is one of those things—or, at least, it should be. The people most at risk during this crisis are the elderly, of course, who make up a big swath of the Fox News viewership. The viral infection is tailor-made for both Fox and the GOP if they can wean themselves from their lockstep loyalty to Donald Trump.

Last week, Fox announced that most of its employees would work from home to prevent the spread of coronavirus. It also removed Fox Business anchor Trish Regan from her prime-time slot after she dismissed the crisis as “another attempt to impeach the president.”

But the president himself remains casual about coronavirus, as his behavior at Friday’s press conference madeevident. Even while declaring a national emergency, Trump shook hands—something health experts have strenuously warned against—with all but one of the CEOs he invited to the White House. And despite having stood next to a Brazilian press aide who was diagnosed with coronavirus, Trump said he would not self-quarantine because has has “no symptoms whatsoever.” Of course, asymptomatic carriers of the virus can spread it to others.

In the face of Trump’s ignorance and nonchalant attitude, Democrats need to keep emphasizing the perils of the virus. Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” we’ve been reluctant to engage fear as a political tool. Simply put, we’re afraid to make people afraid.

But sometimes, you have to do precisely that to move them in the proper direction. No matter our partisan affiliations, we should all be afraid of the coronavirus. Although most Americans who contract the virus will recover, they also threaten to infect those in greatest danger: old people and those with pre-existing health conditions. And if a huge number of people contract coronavirus in a very short span of time, they could overrun our hospitals and other medical facilities and compromise the care of those who need it most. Lives are truly at stake: if the virus itself doesn’t kill people, an inadequate response to it might.

The only thing we have to fear right now is complacency, not fear. And we need leaders—in both parties—who aren’t afraid to say that.

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Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” which will be published in the fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.