Almost three weeks after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, a man called in to The Rush Limbaugh Show and declared that he was willing to die for President Donald Trump.
Through tears, the caller expressed his frustration with elected Republicans who failed to show similar loyalty to Trump and his efforts to overturn the election on the basis of nonexistent voter fraud. “No one stands for us, Rush,” he exclaimed. “Only you and Donald Trump.”
Limbaugh was speaking with a listener who was consumed by a fantasy that the host and other members of right-wing media helped to create. Just a few days earlier, Limbaugh had declared, “There's simply no way Joe Biden was legitimately elected president. I just can't believe it. I do not believe it.”
This refusal to accept reality — constantly reassuring an aging, conservative audience that their vision of America is never wrong — is part of what has enabled Limbaugh to build such a devoted following over more than three decades in radio.
But in a year in which the country faced a global pandemic, racial unrest, and a presidential election, this resistance to the truth proved not just delusional, but dangerous.
Limbaugh remains an influential force within the conservative movement
The year 2020 with all its chaos was a personally tumultuous one for Limbaugh as well. The host revealed in February that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and in October Limbaugh announced that the cancer was terminal.
On February 4, one day after he announced his diagnosis, Limbaugh was awarded the Medal of Freedom at Trump’s State of the Union address. Trump was rewarding a personal friend who in many ways helped pave the way for his presidency and who has been an unwavering defender throughout Trump’s term in office.
Although it may be one of Limbaugh’s last years behind a microphone, he continues to draw one of the largest audiences in right-wing media. Talkers Magazine estimates that Limbaugh has more than 15 million unique weekly listeners, and he is considered the third-most trusted source of information among conservative Republicans, behind only Fox News and Sean Hannity’s radio program, according to the Pew Research Center.
In 2020, Limbaugh continued to abuse that trust, doubling down on old tropes and painting a false and misleading picture of the year’s biggest stories, even when it could potentially endanger the lives of his listeners.
Limbaugh consistently downplayed the dangers of COVID-19, echoing his long-standing climate denialism
In now-infamous remarks on February 24, Limbaugh compared coronavirus to “the common cold.” Ten months later and with more than 300,000 Americans dead, Limbaugh, like Fox News, is largely avoiding discussion of record daily death tolls.
In the intervening months, Limbaugh’s discussion of the virus featured insidious misinformation and outright conspiracy theories, and one study found that individuals who listened to Limbaugh or watched Fox News were more likely to believe the danger of the pandemic was exaggerated.
- In March, Limbaugh argued that “the coronavirus has been weaponized by the media and by opponents of Donald Trump” and mocked efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
- In April, Limbaugh claimed Dr. Anthony Fauci is a “Hillary Clinton sympathizer” who is working to “get rid of Donald Trump.” Later, the host floated the conspiracy theory that Fauci would personally profit from a coronavirus vaccine.
- In May, Limbaugh mocked Biden for wearing a mask at a public event, claiming he looked like an “abject idiot,” and argued that masks have become a symbol to “promote fear.”
- In June, Limbaugh accused journalists and hospitals of inflating COVID-19 case counts. The next month, Limbaugh suggested that there was “staged overrunning of hospitals.”
- In July, Limbaugh dismissed mask mandates and instead encouraged “the young and the healthy” to “live their lives and spread herd immunity.”
Limbaugh’s refusal to accept the severity of the virus mirrors his response to climate change. Early on in the pandemic, Limbaugh himself explained that his thinking on the virus was at least partially informed by his climate denialism, and the divided response to coronavirus has revealed just how damaging years of anti-science rhetoric from right-wing media figures like Limbaugh can be.
Limbaugh dismissed the systemic injustices highlighted by Black Lives Matter protesters
Limbaugh’s response to this year’s racial justice protests remained consistent with the bigotry that has been a staple of his program since its inception.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd on May 25, Limbaugh, like the rest of the world, seemed momentarily shocked by the brutality of the incident. But it wasn’t long before he reverted to form.
Limbaugh appeared on the radio program The Breakfast Club on June 1, in what was ostensibly an effort to reach out to a Black audience. Yet during the interview, Limbaugh refused to acknowledge the existence of white privilege, arguing instead that it was a “liberal, political construct.”
A day later, Limbaugh downplayed the threat of white supremacists, claiming, “The number of white people in America today who actually think they’re better than anybody else, on the basis of skin color, is so infinitesimally small you couldn’t count them.”
The next month, Limbaugh attacked Black Lives Matter as a “full-fledged anti-American organization” and claimed that certain protesters in Portland were paid “actors.” When confronted with a poll showing a majority of Americans approved of the movement, Limbaugh claimed, “I refuse to believe that 65% of the American people support this insanity.”
During a year in which many white Americans began to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism, Limbaugh repeatedly assured his audience that the problem did not exist.
Limbaugh worked to undermine listeners’ trust in the 2020 electoral process
Months before the election, Limbaugh began sowing doubts about the integrity of the process. In addition to his bigoted attacks on Democratic candidates — pushing racist, sexist smears against Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and mocking Pete Buttigieg’s sexuality — Limbaugh worked to prime his audience to reject the results should Trump fail to win reelection.
In July, Limbaugh claimed that expanded mail-in voting would allow Democrats to “flood the system with fake ballots, fake votes.” In September, Limbaugh suggested that an Axios piece explaining the concept of a “red mirage” on election night — in which Trump led in states that had yet to count mail-in ballots — was actually “coded language” intending to encourage Democrats to expand their supposed voter fraud operation.
Immediately following Election Day, Limbaugh began promoting wild conspiracy theories. On November 4, Limbaugh promoted an obviously false viral claim that Wisconsin reported more votes than eligible voters. On November 6, Limbaugh — to account for the fact that Trump underperformed relative to down-ballot Republican candidates — claimed that Democratic operatives had time to “alter” only the presidential vote on each ballot.
Now, more than a month after the election, Limbaugh still refuses to accept Biden’s victory, and 75% of Republicans feel the same way.
Limbaugh created a space where Trump and his supporters could avoid confronting 2020’s challenges
Limbaugh’s show this year served to shield not just Trump’s base, but also Trump himself from reality.
In October, after Trump refused to attend a virtual presidential debate while recovering from coronavirus, Limbaugh hosted Trump for what he described as a “mega MAGA rally.” Limbaugh began the two-hour interview — during which a number of false claims went unchallenged — by playing the sound of an imaginary crowd and asking Trump to visualize millions of adoring fans.
Before Trump and Fox News, Limbaugh was creating his own alternate world, and long after Limbaugh is gone, the divisions he helped fuel will persist. Just last week, Limbaugh suggested that a “peaceful coexistence” between today’s conservatives and liberals is not possible and that the United States is “trending towards secession.”
Americans were forced to confront some hard realities this year, including the need for drastic public health measures in the face of a global pandemic and the country’s failure to address racial injustice. And the efforts of people like Limbaugh to deny these realities made solving the challenges of 2020 that much harder.