On February 24, as cases of COVID-19 were just emerging in the United States, radio host Rush Limbaugh declared, “The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” The dangerously inaccurate comparison prompted a wave of criticism, yet Limbaugh doubled down. The next day, he told his audience that he refused to “join a panic” over the virus, claiming, “I have no interest in lying to you about anything.” In fact, that is exactly what Limbaugh did for the next five months.
Few media figures have done as much as Limbaugh to downplay and distort the facts surrounding a virus that as of publication has killed more than 140,000 Americans. The host has claimed that the virus has been “weaponized” to damage President Donald Trump politically, spread conspiracy theories about inflated death counts, attacked members of the coronavirus task force, referred to masks as a “symbol of fear,” and argued that “No matter how many people die from coronavirus, it’s not going to equate to the damage done to the U.S. economy” by lockdowns.
This misinformation had an impact. One study showed that individuals who listened to Limbaugh or watched Fox News were more likely to believe the threat of the virus was exaggerated. And for an audience that skews older and is therefore more susceptible to potential health consequences, Limbaugh’s rhetoric has been especially irresponsible.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration — which awarded Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom in February — has responded to the host’s alarming commentary by sending Vice President Mike Pence on The Rush Limbaugh Show for a friendly interview, twice.
Limbaugh could have done his part to control the spread of the virus by encouraging his audience to take the pandemic seriously from the beginning. Instead, he has stuck to a familiar anti-science, conspiracy-oriented script.
Limbaugh has long maintained that efforts to control the spread of the virus are meant to damage Trump
On the same day that Limbaugh referred to the virus as the “common cold,” he also claimed, “The coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump.” This conspiracy theory — that Democrats and media outlets are acting in concert to exaggerate the threat of virus and damage Trump’s reelection chances — has been one of the most consistent themes on Limbaugh’s show since the pandemic began.
“The coronavirus is an effort to get Trump.” On February 24, Limbaugh referred to the virus as the “common cold” and claimed the virus was being “weaponized” by the media to hurt the stock market and Trump’s reelection chances. In the same show, Limbaugh suggested that the virus might be a Chinese “laboratory experiment” and falsely claimed that the mortality rate is lower than the flu.
“The coronavirus is the new Russians, the coronavirus is gonna take out Donald Trump.” The next day, Limbaugh compared the coronavirus to the Russia investigation suggesting that Democrats hoped it would damage Trump politically. In fact, Limbaugh suggested that because a warning about the virus came from the Centers for Disease Control’s Nancy Messonnier -- a sister of former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — it was potentially part of an anti-Trump plot.
“It’s almost as if the media and the left and the Democrats want to inflict damage on our economy.” On March 11, Limbaugh again claimed that “the coronavirus has been weaponized by the media and by opponents of Donald Trump,” saying, “It’s almost as if the media and the left and the Democrats want to inflict damage on our economy.” Limbaugh also mocked efforts to control the virus spread, saying, “Has anybody ever contained the spread of the common cold? Has anybody ever contained the spread of the flu? No. It’s a guaranteed failure, and when the failure is announced, guess what? It’s more panic.” The same day, Limbaugh repeated his “common cold” comparison and incorrectly asserted that COVID-19 was named as such because it is “the 19th coronavirus.”
Media reporting on Trump’s coronavirus response is a “political hit job.” On April 13, Limbaugh claimed, “Many of the people advocating this ongoing economic shutdown are doing it in hopes it’ll damage President Trump.” Limbaugh also complained about a New York Times investigation into the administration’s response titled “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus.” Limbaugh argued, “The New York Times wants you to think that their only concern here is public health and that Trump endangered it and risked it. They have no desire for you to understand that this is a political objective.” Limbaugh continued, “Why is it that President Trump’s the only guy said to be unprepared here? Because this a political hit job taking place right before our very eyes.”
Limbaugh suggests Democratic governors intentionally hurt the economy to “put it back together in their own dream.” Limbaugh claimed on April 20 that “evidence continues to mount” that lockdowns were not necessary. The host suggested that Democratic governors might be intentionally damaging the economy to the point that “there’s not going to be anything left to govern, which maybe is the objective -- put it back together in their own dream.”
Limbaugh: The Democratic “hierarchy” is ordering governors to shut down their states in order to hurt Trump. As some states began to reopen in May, Limbaugh claimed on May 4 that Democratic governors who were keeping their states locked down were doing so under orders from the “Democrat hierarchy.” According to Limbaugh, “orders are coming from on high” for the governors to keep their states shut down to ensure that “Trump does not benefit from any kind of economic recovery.”
Limbaugh floats conspiracy theory: Record number of new coronavirus cases “are being reported in states that Trump needs to win” On July 13, Limbaugh implied that the reported surge in cases in states like Florida was somehow part of a conspiracy to damage Trump’s reelection bid. Limbaugh suggested that Democrats only pushed for increased coronavirus testing because “the intended purpose is to use the increase in positive results from increased testing to push the country toward locking down again.”
Limbaugh suggests that a clerical error in Florida is proof hospitals in the state are inflating case counts. The next day, Limbaugh seized on reporting out of Florida where some labs mistakenly did not report negative test results, leading to an artificially high positive test rate. Limbaugh claimed the story was evidence that there is “bias in elevating the number of cases” and that there is “a recipe for corruption” in Florida because Democrats hope to win the state in the November elections.
Limbaugh has repeatedly suggested hospitals are inflating COVID-19 counts
Public health experts agree that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases is likely an undercount. But that hasn’t stopped Limbaugh from repeatedly promoting the conspiracy theory, echoed throughout conservative media, that the case and death counts are actually inflated.
Limbaugh suggests that deaths from COVID-19 are being inflated because “governments are eager, almost, to chalk up as many deaths to coronavirus as they can because then it furthers the policies they have put in place.” On April 2, Limbaugh asked, “What if we are recording a bunch of deaths to coronavirus which really should not be chalked up to coronavirus?” He continued, “But because the coronavirus is out there, got everybody paranoid, governments are eager, almost, to chalk up as many deaths to coronavirus as they can because then it furthers the policies they have put in place by virtue of their models.”
Limbaugh claims journalists, hospitals are inflating COVID-19 case counts: “You can't believe the virus numbers.” As cases started to surge in some states in June, Limbaugh denied that the United States was experiencing a resurgence of COVID-19. Instead, he claimed that journalists, hospitals, and the public health officials tallying these cases were all exaggerating the case counts. According to Limbaugh, “The hospitals have every incentive to call every patient a virus patient because they get money for it. The press, the media, has every incentive to hurt Trump. And the people counting and adding up all these numbers, they have issues with counting and they are hiding their math.”
“If this was a real, real health care threat, why would there be so much false testing and reporting?” On July 15, Limbaugh pointed to the clerical reporting error in Florida as evidence that case and death counts are being inflated. Limbaugh also hinted at other vague conspiracy theories to suggest that media outlets were exaggerating the threat posed by the virus: “Why would there be so much false testing and reporting? Why all of the false causes on death certificates? Why the staged overrunning of hospitals?”
Limbaugh has called masks a “symbol of fear” and mocked public figures for wearing them
Masks are proven to help reduce the spread of coronavirus. But instead of encouraging widespread use, Limbaugh and other figures in right-wing media have chosen to frame mask-wearing as a political decision, not a public health one.
Limbaugh mocks Dr. Anthony Fauci for wearing a mask at White House event and refers to masks as “a symbol of fear.” Commenting on coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci’s appearance at a Rose Garden ceremony on May 15, Limbaugh said, “They’re using the mask as a symbol of fear, and now Dr. Fauci, the world’s foremost authority -- obviously he’s got to be scared. It’s got to be worse than Dr. Fauci thought; he’s wearing a mask.” Limbaugh continued to mock Fauci’s appearance, saying, “He's wearing a gigantic mask. It looks like Dr. Fauci has been muzzled. He’s not going to like the image this conveys.”
Limbaugh says Joe Biden looks like “an abject idiot” wearing a mask and that the image does not “convey any type of leadership.” Limbaugh mocked presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for wearing a mask during a Memorial Day event. Limbaugh claimed Biden looked like “an abject idiot wearing his solid black mask. This is what they want to be able to show everybody Trump doing, and Trump will not give them this. Does that look inspiring? Does that picture -- does that convey any type of leadership? It does not.” Limbaugh once again argued that “the mask has become a required symbol on the left to promote fear, to promote indecision, to promote the notion that we are nowhere near out of this.”
Limbaugh dismisses mask mandates. In response to some local officials implementing mandatory-mask orders, Limbaugh suggested that young, healthy people should “go ahead and live their lives and spread herd immunity.” Limbaugh argued: “Don't mandate closures, don't mandate social -- don't even mandate mask-wearing. Encourage people who are old or who have a compromised immune system to stay quarantined, stay hidden away, do not go out. But let the young and the healthy go out and live their lives.” Eliminating all coronavirus restrictions in this way would lead to a dramatic increase in deaths.
Limbaugh has attempted to undermine public health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci
As experts like Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned the public about the dangers of the virus, Limbaugh suggested that they were part of the “deep state” working to undermine Trump and are “Hillary Clinton sympathizers.”
Limbaugh: Health experts are part of the “deep state” and shouldn't be trusted. On March 27, Limbaugh claimed that public health experts at the CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are part of the “deep state,” a reference to a wide-ranging right-wing conspiracy theory that suggests there’s a group of government bureaucrats working to undermine Trump. Limbaugh complained about these experts guiding the U.S. response to the coronavirus, claiming, “We didn't elect a president to defer to a bunch of health experts that we don't know.” Three days later, Limbaugh dismissively referred to coronavirus task force members Dr. Deborah Birx and Fauci as “data slaves” and implied that they were part of the supposed “deep state” working to undermine Trump.
Limbaugh alleges that medical experts like Fauci are “Hillary Clinton sympathizers” who are conspiring to hurt Trump. On April 7, Limbaugh explicitly alleged that Fauci, along with other members of the coronavirus task force, was working to undermine Trump. Limbaugh claimed that Fauci and others are “Hillary Clinton sympathizers” and that “these people’s desire, above everything else, [is] to get rid of Donald Trump.” Limbaugh continued, “I'm just telling you that there is an all-out subtle effort for the status quo because it's going to hurt Donald Trump. That is the objective. That is the only thing at the forefront of some of these people's minds while they portray themselves as being primarily concerned with public health.”
Limbaugh dismisses coronavirus case increases: “Whatever Dr. Fauci says, it gets amplified." As cases skyrocketed in certain parts of the country in July, Limbaugh complained about Fauci’s comments on the recent surge and argued that the concern about growing case numbers was unfounded. Limbaugh griped that “whatever Dr. Fauci says, it gets amplified” and that, “we are told how so many more people are getting it. The number of cases is skyrocketing. But then deaths are down, and we demonstrated this yesterday. … The game here is to scare you into siding up with a new lockdown.”
Limbaugh’s climate denialism has informed his response to coronavirus projections
A notorious climate denier, Limbaugh has long displayed hostility towards scientific evidence that contradicts his worldview. In fact, Limbaugh’s failure to grasp the reality of the virus can be traced back to his climate denial — something the host himself has admitted.
Limbaugh: Democrats and mainstream media want coronavirus to be deadly — just like “they hope for hurricanes … so they can say ‘climate change.’” When the coronavirus first appeared in the United States, Limbaugh claimed on February 25 that media outlets hoped the virus was deadly for the same reason they hoped for stronger hurricanes -- “so they can say ‘climate change,’ anything to advance the leftist agenda.” On March 10, Limbaugh repeated his claims, arguing that the coronavirus is “an opportunity for the Democrats, just like … a gigantic hurricane is an opportunity for [them] and the climate change crowd.”
“The bias I have against modeling is justified, because it comes from climate change.” On March 30, Limbaugh explained that he does not trust models predicting coronavirus deaths because scientific models are also used to predict the impact of climate change. According to Limbaugh, “The bias I have against modeling is justified, because it comes from climate change. … There is not a single scintilla of data yet to back up these outrageous claims of rising sea levels by 2050, by 2030 — it's only in the models.” Limbaugh claimed that Democrats have “politicized everything, in order to advance their political agenda” and that coronavirus models from organizations such as the NIH are “garbage in, garbage out.” During the same show, Limbaugh claimed that experts have “gotten control of all kinds” of policy areas through the use of models and that “we're going to be prisoners to these models.”
Limbaugh has claimed lockdowns were unnecessary and that the economic damage outweighs the loss of life
Throughout the pandemic, Limbaugh’s primary concern appears to have been limiting economic damage, as opposed to loss of life. The host began advocating for reopening almost as soon as lockdowns were imposed and later cheered protests against social distancing. He failed to recognize that with or without a lockdown, the health of the economy depends upon whether or not the public believes the virus has been controlled — as evidenced by the experience of Sweden. Lockdowns in the United States prevented millions of infections, yet Limbaugh continues to argue that these measures are “cowering and fearful.”
“Are we just going to sit by and watch $22 trillion” economy be destroyed “under the guise of not losing any unnecessary life?” On March 31, Limbaugh complained that lockdowns to prevent the spread of the virus are “not sustainable” and asked, “Are we just going to sit by and watch $22 trillion — that’s the value, that’s the sum total of the GDP, that’s the U.S. economy — are we just going to sit by here and watch it evaporate? Because that’s what we’re doing, under the guise of not losing any unnecessary life.”
Limbaugh: I hope that there’s “some governor that grows so fed up with it, that he just reopens.” On April 14, Limbaugh claimed that shutdowns were “in violation of basic human nature,” saying, “We don’t shut down for illness, ever. ... We’ve never shut down for mass death.” Limbaugh once again argued that the Democratic Party “wants to keep this shutdown for as long as they can, as a political objective,” and declared, “I’m hoping that … some governor that grows so fed up with it, that he just reopens.”
“No matter how many people die from coronavirus, it’s not going to equate to the damage done to the U.S. economy.” On April 16, Limbaugh declared, “We’re at a point now where no matter how many people die from coronavirus, it’s not going to equate to the damage done to the U.S. economy.” Limbaugh said that “it’s scary that there are still people who want to maintain” lockdowns and that recent unemployment statistics prove “that the number of deaths from the severe economic downturn will dwarf the deaths from the virus.”
Limbaugh cheers protests against social distancing. The same day, Limbaugh celebrated protests that had cropped up around the country against social distancing measures. Limbaugh argued, “People aren't going to put up with this. People instinctively know we got to get back to work. We have to reopen the economy. People instinctively know now that however bad this is, it isn't as bad as they all told us.” A day later, Limbaugh claimed that those advocating for lockdowns did not have “empathy” for people suffering financially.
Citing asymptomatic cases, Limbaugh says, “The country should never have been shut down.” On May 4, Limbaugh played a clip from an interview in which Dr. Deborah Birx stated that experts initially underestimated the number of asymptomatic coronavirus cases. Limbaugh argued that because the presence of a large number of asymptomatic cases would decrease the overall mortality rate, “This may be one of the primary bits of evidence why the country should never have been shut down.”
Limbaugh: Public response to coronavirus has been “cowering and fearful,” and Americans need to learn to “adapt” to the virus. On July 14, Limbaugh complained that the country’s response to the coronavirus has been “cowering and fearful” and it is “turning people into victims.” Instead of resorting to lockdowns, Limbaugh argued that Americans should simply “adapt” to the reality of the virus. As examples of the type of toughness the country should aspire to, Limbaugh pointed to President Woodrow Wilson failing to mention the 1918 flu pandemic in public and the Donner Party “turn[ing] to cannibalism to survive.”
Video by John Kerr.