Defying Trump, Talk Radio Keeps Downplaying COVID-19

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The government’s social-distancing requirements, these pro-Trump talkers insist, are likely more harmful than the virus itself. “Ten million people have lost their jobs,” Limbaugh announced on April 2. “That’s not enough for people like Bill Gates. That’s not enough for people who want to shoot down the entire country.” Over the weekend, both Ingraham and Levin circulated a Federalist article headlined “Why Severe Social Distancing Might Actually Result In More Coronavirus Deaths.” On April 1, Beck urged policy makers to “start putting hard dates on some of these [social-distancing] measures because we have got to get back to work … A forced economic recession isn’t a gamble that I signed up for.”

Limbaugh, Ingraham, Levin, and Beck haven’t criticized Trump personally for acknowledging the severity of the pandemic. But neither are they giving credence to his newly dire estimates of the COVID-19 threat. The reason may be that they have different incentives than he does. Conservative talkers answer to their conservative audience, which, according to polls, remains more skeptical than Democrats of government restrictions on movement. Trump must worry about public opinion as a whole, which strongly favors government-imposed social distancing. Trump’s decision to abandon his goal of reopening the country by Easter, according to Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman of the Times, came after “political advisers described for him polling that showed that voters overwhelmingly preferred to keep containment measures in place over sending people back to work prematurely.”

Trump must also balance his habitual suspicion of government experts against the fact that Americans trust those experts—in particular, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci—far more than they trust him in the battle against COVID-19. For Trump to reject their advice entirely might hurt his own standing, especially among the Democrats and independents who have helped boost his approval rating since the virus hit America’s shores.

Conservative talk radio, by contrast, is built on distrust of experts. Left-wing populists attack economic elites; right-wing populists attack cultural elites, especially those whom progressives venerate. In recent years, as progressives have championed the scientific consensus that climate change poses a grave danger, many conservatives have come to see scientists as yet another collection of snobs using the veneer of expertise to impose its liberal ideology on the country. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that while a large majority of Democrats believed that scientists were better than other people “at making good policy decisions about scientific issues,” a large majority of Republicans disagreed.

Over the past week, this populist distrust of scientific experts has suffused conservative talk radio’s downplaying of the COVID-19 threat. “The ‘experts’ are routinely wrong on issues big and small—on wearing masks, on reusable grocery bags … virus modeling and treatments,” Ingraham tweeted on April 3. “So when experts issue edicts, remember their often spectacular record of failure.” On April 1, Beck urged politicians “to stop relying on flawed modeling data to make these decisions” and instead “listen to the people in your local communities.” On April 5, Levin warned that “the media, ‘experts,’ and Democrats are trying to make it impossible for the president to even consider rational options for opening parts of the economy.” On April 3, Ingraham declared, “The ‘experts’ aren’t capable of thinking beyond the virus to an even worse death spiral affecting millions of lives here and abroad.”