Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt is in many ways a poster child for today’s Republican Party. A businessman whose company was accused of shady practices (sound familiar?), he ran for the top job in the Sooner State in 2018 as an ultra-conservative whose distrust of Big Government extended even to the science of vaccinations.
“I believe in choice,” Stitt said when explaining why he not only did not inoculate his own kids — who were home-schooled — but would not sign a bill requiring vaccinations to attend public school in Oklahoma. “And we’ve got six children and we don’t vaccinate, we don’t do vaccinations on all of our children. So we definitely pick and choose which ones we’re gonna do."
Stitt’s anti-vax extremism didn’t stop either Vice President Mike Pence from campaigning for him or his election that November as Oklahoma’s 28th governor. Given that history, it probably won’t surprise you to learn Stitt’s gut reaction to today’s coronavirus crisis, and the growing advice from health experts to mostly stay at home and practice social distancing.
On Saturday night, Stitt tweeted a photo of him and two of his unvaccinated sons mugging for the camera in a crowded food hall and bragging that “it’s packed tonight! #supportlocal #OklaProud.” He later deleted the tweet amid a social media outcry, but the episode felt emblematic of a bigger phenomenon that many have noted as the coronavirus crisis escalates — that how seriously one treats the global pandemic may depend on one’s politics.
Some of the evidence is anecdotal. Garrett Felber, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi, posted on Twitter Saturday night that it was "[t]ruly incredible to travel from Oregon, where people are buying out stores, to Nashville, where we’re met by a driver to [the] carpark who tells us ‘this is overblown and will be over in a month.’” Felber called his journey from the sometimes lampooned epicenter of modern leftism to Fox News-fried, blood-red Tennessee “[a] study in the power of media.”
This isn’t just Felber’s imagination. Pollsters are seeing something with the coronavirus crisis that they’ve not seen previously in national emergencies: A steep partisan divide in people’s concern over its seriousness. The numbers in a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey released on Sunday morning are stark.
Democrats are twice more likely (61 percent) than Republicans (30 percent) to say they plan to stop attending large gatherings like the crowded food hall visited by Oklahoma’s Stitt and his kids. There’s a similar Democrat-Republican divide over canceling travel plans ( 47-23 percent), a belief that daily life will change (56-26 percent), and worries that they or a family member might contract coronavirus (68-40 percent).
What’s up with that? Many are quick to blame America’s denier-in-chief, President Trump. (The slow, inept and often dishonest response from the Trump White House has been so predictable that I haven’t even columnized about this, because I don’t know what more to say beyond “I told you so.”) The president’s weeks of don’t-spook-the-stock-market denial — which peaked when he told a packed South Carolina rally on Feb. 28 that coronavirus concerns were the Democrats’ “new hoax,” post-impeachment — has certainly resonated with his GOP base that has increasingly become a cult of personality.
But coronavirus may also be another case where Trumpism is a symptom of a deeper disease — one that festers in a media petri dish where the average Republican spends his or her waking hours immersed in talk radio and outlets like the Fox News Channel or Fox Business. Downplaying the health warnings from white-coated eggheads with all their university degrees — in a way that amplified Trump and ridicules the liberal media — was right in their wheelhouse.
In the most publicized incident, Fox Business prime-time host Trish Regan went even too far for her conservative bosses in a monologue that accused Democrats of using the coronavirus crisis “to destroy and demonize this president,” against a logo that read, “Coronavirus Impeachment Scam.” (She was later put on hiatus.)
Regan may have been an extreme case, but she was also emblematic of a feedback loop between Trump and conservative media in seeking to downplay the public health threat. On March 6, the president visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and cited what he was seeing on Fox News as evidence coronavirus in America was under control, just an hour after that network’s medical correspondent told viewers there was no evidence coronavirus was more serious than the flu (most experts strongly disagree).
Wrote Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s on-fire media columnist: “Imagine if [Fox mogul Rupert] Murdoch ordered the network to end its habit of praising him as if he were the Dear Leader of an authoritarian regime and to instead use its influence to drive home the seriousness of the moment.”
Yet that’s hard to imagine — because the misinformation about coronavirus from a Republican president and his state-run media isn’t an anomaly, but the culmination of a war on science, expertise and intellectualism that has been going on for more than a generation. To be sure, the anti-vax conspiracy theories of Oklahoma’s Stitt are on the extreme end of this (although just last November Fox and Friends, Trump’s favorite show, lauded actor Rob Schneider for “standing up for free speech” in an anti-vaccine diatribe).
Instead, consider the daily denial of climate-change science on Fox News and other conservative media as Patient Zero, now contaminating viewpoints on coronavirus. Even in 2019, with wildfires and floods linked to a warming planet ravishing the globe, Fox News continued to host so-called “experts” like Patrick Moore who told Fox and Friends “the climate crisis isn’t only fake news, it’s fake science” or gobbledygook like Diamond and Silk insisting any climate change was just the speed of the Earth’s rotation.
Late last year, a Pew Research study on climate change found that while Democrats strongly believe that U.S. government isn’t doing enough to address the problem, among Republicans there was a generational divide, Many younger GOPers actually agreed that Washington should do more, but only 31 percent of baby boomer or older Republicans felt that way. Call this the Fox News effect. The base’s denial of science accepted by 98 percent or more of the world’s climatologists has given the Trump administration political cover to roll back all sorts of needed environmental rules and please his Big Oil and Gas donors.
That’s bad, but now here’s what worries me — a lot — about the response to coronavirus in this smog of misinformation. The average median age of a Fox News viewer last year was 65, which means that half of a typical audience are senior citizens. Overlap that with the statistics on the coronavirus, which so far have shown that the virus is more deadly the older that patients get. The early evidence that the death rate among those over 80 years old and older is roughly 15 percent, with the numbers beginning to accelerate at age 50. That’s some Venn diagram.
Simply put, the folks who are watching Fox News and believing Republican pols like Trump or Stitt are the same folks telling pollsters they don’t plan to stop going to busy restaurants or flying on airplanes, and — unfortunately — are often the same people who’ll require hospitalization or will perish if they contract the virus from those crowds. It is exactly the worst fear for those of us who’ve been screaming that denial of science —which has become central to what it means to be a Republican in the 21st century — will ultimately have dire consequences.
With coronavirus cases in the United States still rising exponentially, there are some signs even the conservative media can no longer ignore this, with a few Fox News host like Tucker Carlson urging a more aggressive response. That’s good, but I worry that it’s too little, too late. If you have an older relative who gets most of their news from conservative media — and almost everyone I know has at least one — talk to them and try to give them the best real-time information. It’s so important. Your TV remote should never be an implement of death.