The Mediatized President and the Pandemic

David L. Altheide
Arizona State University

During the terrifying 2020 pandemic that was killing thousands of Americans, President Trump tweeted: 

“President Trump is a ratings hit. Since reviving the daily White House briefing Mr. Trump and his coronavirus updates have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million on cable news, roughly the viewership of the season finale of ‘The Bachelor.’ Numbers are continuing to rise…(President Trump tweet, March 29, 2020)

Digital media are putting people Americans at risk. The United States’ slow response to the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) is partly due to President Trump’s self-promotive reliance on digital media—especially twitter—that are instantaneous, visual, and personal. Notwithstanding scientists and other experts’ views that lives have been lost because the U. S. response was woefully inadequate and slow, the President enjoys favorable support from his political base. On April 9 with more than 16,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States, 80% of Republicans polled said the federal government was doing a good job, while 85% of Democrats disagreed. Certainly, part of the discrepancy rests with liberals’ and conservatives’ reliance on different media. 

Increasingly, social life is reflexive of communication technologies and formats (Altheide, 2018). Propagandists consider the formats and audience preferences in constructing messages. The expanded use of social media enables politicians-as-actors to self-promote themselves with political drama and attention-based politics, “in which politicians use their communication to draw the attention of the biggest possible crowd of the audience (voters) to themselves or to the themes they propose in the multitude of information or news flows.” (Merkovity, 2017, p. 66).

The President’s use of social media to promote himself hinges on approval from an adoring political base connected through digital media and Fox News. President Trump primarily addressed the coronavirus crisis by engaging in attention-based politics via twitter. President Trump’s messages and some 11,000 tweets  since being in office promote himself rather than the country or even his  political party (Altheide, 2017). On March 6, 2020 he stated to reporters that he preferred that 21 passengers on a cruise ship remain on board, “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the number double because of one ship.” His messaging is reflexive of the rules and assumptions for digital media, including familiarity, brevity, and congruity with expectations. While only about one in five Americans use twitter, and only single digits of those claim to follow Donald Trump, his tweets are intended to be amplified by a hybrid media system. Trump told an interviewer in June 2019:

“I put it out, and then it goes onto your platform. It goes onto ABC. It goes onto the networks. It goes onto all over cable. It’s an incredible way of communicating.”

His messages draw attention to himself more than the specific content (Shifman, 2013).  Many of President Trump’s tweets have a common form, language, symbolic characteristics, and reflect awareness of other tweets.  Merkovity observed that 70% of his presidential campaign tweets included attention promoting exclamation points, with many texts in capital letters (Merkovity, 2017, p. 66). As Shifman (Shifman, 2013) notes: 

Internet memes are digital content units with common characteristics, created with awareness of each other, and circulated, imitated, and transformed via the Internet by many users.

Virtually anything tweeted will resonate meaningfully and emotionally with sympathetic supporters who are looking to confirm rather than challenge their champion. Accordingly, Donald Trump communicatively became an internet digital meme in his own right. He became what Republicans should embrace, even if his concern was with personal ratings.  

Presidential loyalty is not healthy. The mediatized presidential meme reinforced a personal definition of the virus situation. A world-wide pandemic would not be in his personal interest. Supporters on Fox News and elsewhere promoted the narrative that the virus was a Democratic Party hoax to hurt the President’s reelection bid.  So the leader of the free world, and many supporters, disregarded information from the World Health Organization and experts from the CDC, and continued to deny that the virus was a serious problem. In one of 43 tweets on January 30, 2020, the President tweeted, “Working closely with China and others on Coronavirus outbreak. Only 5 people in U.S., all in good recovery.”  In a speech that night on Jan. 30, He said, “We have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully.” President Trump’s repeated assurance throughout January to the middle of March that there was nothing to worry about and that “It will all work out well,” delayed a rapid public-health response that could have lessened the growing impact of this virus. On March 10, he promised: “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” When this position was taken by Trump, supporters viewing his hundreds of tweets could hardly disagree if they were to remain committed to what he represented to them. They saw his self-promotion as their struggle, too: They could not be be critical of federal actions with the virus, while they were connecting with a meme-like President—who was always being criticized by “fake news”. Therefore, many of Trump’s supporters watched Fox News and believed that the federal government was doing a good job with the virus, and that established media “fake news” exaggerated the virus risk for political reasons (79%). So it is not surprising that several polls showed that Republicans (42%) were less concerned about Covid-19 than Democrats (73%). 

As a reflexive propagandist, President Trump emerged as a meme that was experienced by an audience as a businessman-outsider-nationalist, who would promote himself as the surrogate of those who shared his views, to combat all critics, journalists, other politicians, etc., who disagreed with him. The President’s insistence that the problem would go away curtailed the government’s preparation to rush more testing and prevention materials such as masks and protective gowns for health workers, the all-important ventilators to aid the stricken, and to coordinate the public health response that might reduce contagion and save lives even as the virus began to spread. The consequences of his self-promoting decisions to define the threat of Covid-19 were powerful, immediate and lethal for thousands of Americans.  

References

Altheide, D. L. (2017). Terrorism and the Politics of Fear (2nd ed.). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Altheide, D. L. (2018). The Media Syndrome and Reflexive Mediation. In M. A. Caja Thimm, and Jessica Einspanner-Pflock (Ed.), Media Logic(s) Revisited: Modelling the Interplay Between Institutions, Media Technology and Societal Change (pp. 195-216). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Merkovity, N. (2017). Introduction to attention-based politics. Przegląd Politologiczny (Political Science Review)(4), 61-73. Retrieved from https://pressto.amu.edu.pl/index.php/pp/article/viewFile/11874/11717. doi:DOI : 10.14746/pp.2017.22.4.5

Shifman, L. (2013). Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.