Experts say the president’s illness is unlikely to sway those who think COVID-19 is no big deal.
Donald Trump announced early this morning that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Details are still emerging about his condition—so far, he has reportedly exhibited only minor symptoms of COVID-19—but his diagnosis illustrates the dangers of disregarding the virus’s threat: The president has routinely downplayed it, which has inspired many of his supporters to do the same. One might hope that the fact of the president’s illness might persuade supporters of his to take the pandemic more seriously, but when I consulted experts on conspiracism and misinformation, they seemed doubtful that that will happen.
In early June, a Pew Research Center survey found that 63 percent of Republicans believed that the severity of the pandemic had been overstated, compared with 18 percent of Democrats. Joseph Uscinski, a political-science professor at the University of Miami, told me today that he thinks Americans’ perceptions of the pandemic are “largely set.”
Surveys he’s conducted indicate that the share of the population that believes the pandemic’s threats are “exaggerated by political groups who want to damage President Trump” barely budged from March to June. Uscinski and other experts whom I consulted don’t think Trump’s positive test will be the thing to change those calcified views—if indeed anything could. John Banas, a communication professor at the University of Oklahoma, said that many of Trump’s supporters “have already committed to the position that it is somewhere between a hoax and a mild virus,” and this new information is unlikely to sway them.
Any swings in opinion might hinge on the severity of Trump’s illness (which could become clear in the next week). “If Trump appears to have [only] mild symptoms, this may reinforce the [false] narrative that the virus is like a flu or a bad cold, and only serve to give more fuel to the fire that the response to the virus has been overblown,” said Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a fellow at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
“In an alternate scenario, if Trump gets very sick,” Piltch-Loeb said, “perhaps it could change the perception. But I still think this will be unlikely, because assuming he beats the disease, there will be a narrative of his strength that reinforces many of his prior messages about himself.” If Trump ends up dying from the disease, maybe that would change how his supporters regard it, but even then, maybe not.
Perhaps even more important than Trump’s condition will be how he communicates about it. “A key driver of COVID-19 denial among Trump voters has been verbal cues from Trump, such as questioning the severity of the disease and mocking mask wearing,” said John Cook, a researcher at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. “My guess is Trump will minimize his symptoms both to portray an impression of physical strength and downplay the severity of COVID … So I’m not optimistic [that his test result] will make much difference.”
Already, even without any sustained messaging from the president, inaccurate narratives spinning the test result have sprung up online. The conservative commentator Wayne Allyn Root predicted on Twitter that Trump’s eventual recovery from COVID-19 will become a “teachable moment” that exposes the folly of “ignorant weak cowardly” Democrats, who view the virus as a lethal threat. And according to Business Insider, some supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory doubt the truth of Trump’s announcement and are taking it as a coded signal that he has chosen to lie low in advance of a monumental reckoning that will take down a powerful network of shadowy wrongdoers.
The existence of these story lines illustrates how people will often take any development, no matter how clear-cut, and twist it to reinforce their own worldviews. “I think personal experience [with the virus] is the only thing that will change minds at this point,” Banas said. And even that might not work: Given that Trump has often “refuse[d] to change or admit fault” during his presidency, Banas wouldn’t be surprised if Trump didn’t revise his view of the coronavirus after contracting it.