On February 25, the pro-Trump internet provocateur Mike Cernovich wrote a blog post titled “Coronavirus is Trump’s Katrina,” highlighting some of Trump’s overly rosy tweets about his administration’s response to the epidemic. Top on his list was the February 24 tweet in which Trump said, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. … Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” Then there was the one on February 26 when Trump blamed “fake news” for trying to make the coronavirus look as bad as possible and panic the markets. “USA in great shape!” Trump crowed.
In his post, Cernovich described Trump and the others who were comparing the coronavirus to the flu as being “moronic and glib.” He wrote, “I wonder if they’ve ever had a 104 degree temperature. The flu is awful, and in the 2018-2019 flu season, 61,200 people died. Are we prepared for an additional 60,000+ to die from a new strain of flu?” He pointed to early estimates that the coronavirus could kill anywhere from 1.5 million to 5 million Americans. The coronavirus should have been a “slam dunk” for Trump, Cernovich wrote, a time for Trump to say, “This is why we need border security and domestic manufacturing!” Instead, Cernovich lamented, Democrats had seized the high ground, and it was Elizabeth Warren talking about the need to mitigate supply chain impacts from the outbreak in China while Trump was “tweeting some Bush / ‘heckuva job’ b.s.”
Coronavirus was a slam dunk for Trump,
“This is why we need border security and domestic manufacturing!”
Instead, Democrats are taking the high ground on trade, with Elizabeth Warren (!) talking about domestic manufacturing. pic.twitter.com/nFsmtUjNJk
— Cernovich (@Cernovich) February 26, 2020
The post represented a rare moment of criticism of Trump from one of his own most vocal supporters, at a time when the entire GOP establishment, including Fox News, was marching in lockstep with the president dismissing any concerns about the virus as mass panic fueled by the liberal media to keep him from being reelected. Two days before Cernovich was warning that the coronavirus was Trump’s Katrina, right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh told his 25 million listeners, “It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus…The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”
Cernovich is a lawyer, filmmaker, and blogger who first gained public notice as an agitator in the controversial men’s rights movement, where he was known for denying the reality of date rape. “Have you guys ever tried ‘raping’ a girl without using force?” he tweeted in August 2012. “Try it. It’s basically impossible. Date rape does not exist.” Along with his blog, he writes self-help books on such things as how to be an “alpha male,” including recently MAGA Mindset: Making YOU and America Great Again. He supported Trump “back when everyone said he had a 3 percent ceiling,” he told me in an interview.
In the midst of the 2016 election, his notoriety skyrocketed after he started referring to Hillary Clinton as “Sick Hillary” and implying in Periscope broadcasts, blog posts, and on social media that she suffered from a severe neurological disorder. His hashtag #HillarysHealth turned the candidate’s physical fitness into a campaign issue. Later during the campaign, he helped spread the conspiracy theory that claimed Clinton was involved with a pedophile sex cult housed in the basement of a DC pizza place. A North Carolina man took the conspiracy theory seriously and in December 2016 showed up at the pizza parlor, where he fired an assault weapon in the hopes of rescuing the trapped and victimized children. Following Trump’s victory, Cernovich helped organize the alt-right inaugural “DeploraBall,” in which some of Trump’s most extreme fans gathered to celebrate his election. And he started co-hosting “The Alex Jones Show” on InfoWars, the far-right conspiracy theory site.
Since then, Cernovich’s social media presence has exploded, with more than half a million followers on Twitter and more than 400,000 on Facebook, many of whom are diehard Trump-supporting MAGA people. He’s a regular on the conservative and university talk circuit, and last year he released a documentary called Hoaxed, billed as an “insider’s look” at “fake news.” But with the coronavirus, Cernovich broke with the official White House line. “This bootlicking blind loyalty is not helpful for anyone, including Trump,” Cernovich told me.
I asked him how he went from Pizzagate conspiracy theorist to truth-teller about the coronavirus. He explained that in January, he had been hearing about disruptions in the supply chain from China, where the virus had hit hard. Friends who worked in e-commerce weren’t able to get anything done, and deals were getting delayed. He said he realized then that “China is not going to shut down its economy just because some people had some sniffles.” That’s when he began sounding the alarm, launching his first tweets on the subject on January 24 when only 41 people in the world had died from the disease and the US had just two confirmed cases.
That day, Cernovich tweeted at Trump urging him to add China to his travel ban, as a way of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. (On January 31, Trump did just that.) The next day, Cernovich tweeted links to stories on the virus from around the globe, urging followers to read them. “I’m not someone who freaks out as we’ve seen so many mass hysterias,” he wrote. But “this flu is the real deal.” He even wrote an advice column on how to prepare for a pandemic without going crazy long before stores were running out of toilet paper. “It won’t be a ‘Mad Max’ scenario,” he assured his fans. “But you may be forced to go days without a food resupply…Forget the Rambo fantasies. Most people don’t need an AR-15. You need a tactical flashlight.” And don’t fall for the gold scams, he warned.
His followers, though, didn’t want to hear it. “QUIT THE HYSTERIA. HOW MANY AMERICANS ARE KILLED BY DRUNK DRIVERS IN A YEAR? SCREAM ABOUT THAT,” wrote one Trump supporter. Another said, “All this panic for nothing. First, its [sic] fake news folks, second, Spring is coming soon and this virus will be gone.” As Cernovich continued to criticize Trump’s response to the epidemic, the MAGA crowd pummeled him on social media. Hundreds of people responded to his posts about the virus with angry tweets, using similar language accusing him of fomenting panic. Cernovich is no stranger to online abuse, but the virus tweets prompted such a surge of so many similar replies that he started to suspect that maybe a pro-Trump super-PAC or dark-money group had launched a bot attack to troll him.
QUIT THE HYSTERIA. HOW MANY AMERICANS ARE KILLED BY DRUNK DRIVERS IN A YEAR? SCREAM ABOUT THAT.
— lemel KEEP AMERICA GREAT TEXT TRUMP TO 88022 (@gslemel) March 9, 2020
After I scrolled through the responses, I had to conclude that most of the tweeps hating on Cernovich may just be Fox News viewers parroting people like Sean Hannity, who said on his February 27 show that “the Democratic extreme radical socialist party” was “now sadly politicizing and actually weaponizing an infectious disease, in what is basically just the latest effort to bludgeon President Trump.” Recent polls show just how far outside of Trumpworld Cernovich has been when it comes to covering the epidemic. An NPR poll taken on March 13 and 14 showed that 54 percent of Republicans believed the coronavirus had been blown out of proportion, a number that had doubled since February.
Cernovich is not the only voice in the wilderness on the right who’s been bashed by Trump supporters for having told the truth about the coronavirus early on. Raheem Kassam is a co-host of the pro-Trump War Room radio show and podcast, with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. Last month, Kassam attended CPAC, the largest conservative political conference in the country, where an attendee later tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized. When Kassam realized that the sick man had come in contact with a number of high-level public officials at the conference, he started tweeting their names, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who only days before had scoffed at the seriousness of the virus by wearing a gas mask on the House floor. They both self-quarantined.
Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and almost half of the administration’s coronavirus task force was at the conference as well, where they spent much of their time downplaying the seriousness of the contagion. Former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said the media was whipping up hysteria over the virus—“They think this will bring down the president, that’s what this is all about”—while Pence bragged about all the things Trump was doing to protect American’s health. “We’re ready for anything,” he told the gathered faithful.
Kassam’s tweets describing the CPAC outbreak spoiled their messaging, as he publicized just how close the virus was coming to the White House, and how serious it was. Instead of acknowledging that Kassam’s warnings encouraged people to self-quarantine to help slow the spread of the virus, Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, ascribed a different motivation. He accused Kassam of having an ax to grind with CPAC. “I’m sorry that Raheem was not included on our speaker schedule,” Schlapp said on the podcast Skullduggery on March 10. “And I’m sorry he has a bone to pick with us but using a healthcare moment—where people are worried—to use that to try to stick a stake in my heart was a mistake.”
The mainstream GOP response to the virus in its early days was yet another example of just how much Trump has taken over the party. The blind, cult-like loyalty among Republican members of Congress left a leadership void that meant that the only meaningful action they took before Trump decided to embrace the role of “wartime president” was apparently to sell off some stock. As long as Trump was insisting that the worst thing about the virus was his media coverage, the only people in Trump’s orbit sending up emergency flares about the need to combat the virus were people on the fringes like Cernovich. The conspiracy theorists turned out to be right about the coronavirus.
These outliers share something in common beyond a penchant for conspiracy theories and an appreciation for the public health implications of ignoring what would become a pandemic: They all traffic in a visceral disdain for China. Consider Steve Bannon, who has been broadcasting a pandemic podcast and radio show since January 25 and who likes to refer to the Chinese Communist Party as “gangsters.”
“The biggest story in the world is not President Trump’s impeachment, but a pandemic coming out of China,” he said on the first episode. “You may not have an interest in the pandemic, but the pandemic has an interest in you.” (And then he brought on Jack Posobiec, another Pizzagate conspiracy theorist, to talk about it.) On Sunday, Bannon went on Fox News and called for a “full shutdown” of the country to go “full hammer on the virus,” even as Trump was tweeting about sending people back to work.
Or there was Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), a hardcore opponent of immigration who once falsely claimed that George Soros had turned his own family over to the Nazis. Gosar called for a ban on travel from China on January 27. “If #Coronavirus is as contagious as recent reports suggest,” he tweeted. “We need @CDCgov & @DHSgov advising Congress and @POTUS on how a quarantine would be implemented.” Gosar ended up having to self-quarantine after being exposed at CPAC.
It’s not a coincidence that the only Republican senator to publicly criticize Trump’s response to the pandemic is also the only Republican who voted to impeach him. On February 25, three days before Trump claimed that the virus was going to disappear “like a miracle,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters that the administration wasn’t prepared to deal with the coronavirus. He warned that the country had failed to stockpile critical medical equipment and protective devices that would be needed as the virus spreads in the United States. He called for Trump to appoint a virus czar to coordinate the work needed to halt a pandemic. “I think we should be pulling out all the stops,” he said.
Trump fans weren’t happy with his assessment. The Gateway Pundit blogger Jim Hoft simply posted Rommey’s comments, called him a “NeverTrumper” and wrote, “Ugh.” On March 16, when Romney became the first member of Congress to propose sending $1,000 payments to help Americans ride out the crisis, the only Republican senator to initially endorse the idea was Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who since January has been parroting conspiracy theories claiming the coronavirus was made in a Chinese bioweapons lab.
The failure of the GOP to acknowledge early the threat of a coronavirus epidemic marks a notable shift in Republican politics. After all, most “preppers”—the survivalists preparing for the end of the world or coming civil war who’ve got the bugout kits, MREs, and AR-15s in the basement and all their money invested in gold coins—are conservatives. They have a tendency to freak out about germs, especially those that might be transmitted by foreigners. (See Trump and Ebola.) But Trump has upended these dynamics, with his ability to strike fear in any Republican who might go off message by threatening to back primary challengers or simply focus his Twitter rage on them.
Cernovich, who has close ties to the White House—he’s broken news about White House personnel changes—doesn’t much worry about such calculations. On March 11, he did a Periscope broadcast, lamenting to his 87,000 subscribers that the country had completely botched the virus response. “The lesson here of the coronavirus is we failed the stress test. We learned our infrastructure cannot handle what we face,” Cernovich continued. “We, the United States of America, we still can’t get testing. We still can’t get mass testing.” And he addressed his critics, calling the “MAGA conservatives” “losers” who watch bad conservative news and don’t understand math. “Go away,” he said. “If your whole life is Daddy Trump, you’re so not needed.”
He told me he’d rather be accused of overreacting than ignoring the obvious crisis in the works and turning out to be wrong. “I’m widely perceived as a Trump supporter,” he said, “and it’s up to people widely perceived as Trump supporters to scream at him to do a better job.”