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Sullivan: It took a Fox News host to get Trump’s attention

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We live in stupid, scary times.

And nothing illustrates this more vividly than one bizarre development among many others: That a Fox News host managed to get the president of the United States to take the coronavirus seriously when legions of public health experts around the world — and in his own administration — could not.

For weeks, President Donald Trump was in abject denial about the deadly pandemic. He assured Americans it would disappear while losing precious time to take precautions to prevent the disease from spreading. His administration even turned down the opportunity to use millions of diagnostic tests from private companies, the Washington Post reported. This could have made a huge difference as the U.S. fell behind in testing its citizens.

And at a South Carolina campaign rally in late February, Trump even brushed off his political adversaries’ alarm over the virus as “their new hoax.”

Enter Tucker Carlson, who — unlike many of his scoffing Fox colleagues — had admirably focused his prime-time show on the global health threat for weeks, even if it seemed his excuse to stoke anti-China sentiment. He was concerned enough to head down to Trump’s Florida resort in early March to talk to Trump.

It amounted to an intervention.

“I felt I had a moral obligation to be useful in whatever small way I could,” Carlson told Joe Hagen in a Vanity Fair interview this week.

There was no immediate turnaround. Trump continued to downplay the threat for days.

But by early this week, his tone and attitude had dramatically changed.

“It’s as if he finally realized how monumental this crisis is,” tweeted the Washington Post’s White House bureau chief Philip Rucker, commenting on the president’s more somber public remarks. Based on White House sources, Rucker reported that Carlson’s March 9 monologue was a turning point for Trump.

“People you know will get sick, some may die. This is real,” Carlson said on the segment, where he also made a pointed reference to the denier-in-chief as he told his audience: “People you trust, people you probably voted for, have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem.”

Was Trump’s turnaround all Carlson’s doing? Of course not.

With the world turned upside down and Americans dying, Trump would have been forced to reckon with the disaster eventually. But the talk show host did seem to get through to Trump in a way that no one else could, which is completely consistent with what we know about this president.

Trump has always placed far too much emphasis on what he sees on television, especially on Fox, which functions as his inspiration and megaphone. Sean Hannity is a close friend and adviser, who once got a slap on the wrist from Fox brass by appearing with Trump at a rally.

It’s no secret that the revolving door between the Trump White House and Fox News has never stopped spinning: Trump hired Fox News honcho Bill Shine to be his own communications chief, and Hope Hicks has skipped back and forth between the White House and Fox.

And, of course, Trumpian tweets often echo Fox broadcasts in a Mobius strip of dubious information. Last month, when Trump granted clemency to 11 people, many of them had connections to Fox News.

“I watched his wife on television,” Trump explained to reporters about his pardon of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was in prison for attempting to sell former President Barack Obama’s Senate seat.

All of which is well beyond unseemly. It would be shocking except that we’ve all grown inured to it in this norm-shattering era of reality-TV star as president.

I’m no fan of Carlson’s. I was appalled at his misleading rants about the supposed migrant “invasion” through Mexico as he demonized immigrants for the purpose of riling up voters. (That subject, a Fox News obsession, faded away quickly after the 2018 midterm elections.)

And last year, Carlson’s dismissal of white supremacy as a problem in America — “this is a hoax, just like the Russian hoax” — was especially offensive because it followed the August massacre at an El Paso, Texas Walmart store, described as the deadliest attack on Latinos in American history and investigated as a hate crime.

Now, though, Carlson has done something commendable. And he may well have saved lives because there is a sizable segment of the American population that believes Trump and Fox News, and not much else.

That a cable news host used his outsized influence for a positive purpose is something to be grateful for. But that he had such influence to begin with is nothing short of insane.

Margaret Sullivan is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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