The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservative pundits blame a grab bag of supposed villains amid the coronavirus outbreak

Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh are among the conservative media figures with some odd theories about the coronavirus crisis. (Washington Post illustration/iStock; photos by Getty and AP)

Choose your scapegoat: Democrats, the media, the Chinese government, the “deep state,” Bernie Sanders or even “identity politics.”

All received some share of the blame this week from conservative media figures for the growing public concern over the coronavirus, the communicable disease that has spread across the globe.

In fact, many conservative commentators have expressed less interest in the spread of the virus or efforts to combat it than in the story of the virus — a story they are convinced shows bias designed to harm President Trump.

Rush Limbaugh’s, Sean Hannity’s and Tucker Carlson’s commentaries mixed paranoia, erroneous information and sometimes dangerous conspiracy theories about the virus, which has killed about 2,800 people, mostly in China, where it was first detected.

Trump, who often engages in a feedback loop with allied media figures, has already picked up on one strand of the popular pundits’ thinking: that the news media and Democrats have hyped the threat posed by the outbreak.

Socialism and Democrats' attempts to remove President Trump from office were major talking points at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible,” he tweeted Wednesday, misspelling the name of the disease in the process. “Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape!”

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Hannity took Trump’s argument a step further Thursday with a focus on the Democrats, who he argued were “sadly politicizing and weaponizing an infectious disease as their next effort to bludgeon President Trump.”

Limbaugh — who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump this month — was early to tar the media as the villain. The conservative radio titan said on his program Monday that the media’s coverage of the virus was “an effort to get Trump” and spook investors. (The Dow Jones was down more than 1,100 points Thursday, adding to its drop over the past week.)

During the same broadcast, Limbaugh repeated a debunked theory that the virus was engineered by the Chinese as a bioweapon. But then he dismissed the coronavirus as just “the common cold, folks.”

Experts say that’s not the case. Early reports suggest that about 2 percent of those who contract the coronavirus die of it, making it about 20 times more lethal than the flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the flu killed about 34,000 people in the United States during the 2018-2019 flu season.

In view of the uncertainty and risk, the attacks on the news media could be particularly damaging and ill-timed, given that they may undermine sources of reliable information at a time when such information is vital.

China has also drawn suspicious glances from Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who suggested on her prime-time program this week that Chinese officials may be taking some consolation from the growing crisis because it might hurt Trump’s reelection chances.

Some of the same Republicans who called for a bipartisan response to the coronavirus in 2020 contributed to partisan rhetoric around the Ebola response in 2014. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I think they want to use this — I mean, in China, they don’t want to deal with Trump anymore, with the tariffs,” she said on air Tuesday. “I think for them, the best thing would be if this hurt Trump in his reelection, correct?”

Ingraham also bashed Democrats for “relishing in this moment,” adding, “How sick that these people seem almost happiest when Americans are hurting.”

Coronavirus pushes Trump to rely on experts he has long maligned

Among those who came into conservatives’ crosshairs this week was Nancy Messonnier, the head of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. During a media briefing Tuesday, Messonnier said an outbreak of coronavirus in the United States was inevitable. The warning quickly turned out to be accurate when reports of the first apparent case of “community transmission” of the virus in the United States came out Thursday.

Despite Messonnier’s expertise and experience with infectious diseases, conservatives spied a “deep state” conspiracy. They called her comments into question because of a family connection: She is the sister of Rod J. Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general who oversaw special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Trump.

Limbaugh suggested Wednesday that Messonnier couldn’t be trusted because she’s related to Rosenstein, a theme echoed by the far-right, conspiracy-minded Gateway Pundit blog.

Noting that Messonnier spoke while Trump was on a state visit to India, the Pundit’s Joe Hoft wrote Wednesday: “The brother of the CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier, is the corrupt disgraced former DAG Rod Rosenstein. Following in his footsteps, Dr. Messonnier dropped a bomb on President Trump while he was in India yesterday. . . . This was eerily similar to past presidential trips when former and corrupt DAG Rod Rosenstein and the corrupt and criminal Mueller gang would drop shocking news as the president was overseas.”

But the “real” threat might be Bernie Sanders, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential race, not coronavirus, according to Fox Business host Stuart Varney.

“The real driver [of the stock market’s 10 percent fall over the past four days] is obviously the spreading virus,” Varney said. “There’s no question about that. But politics is a factor. And if you see a Bernie Sanders presidency or a Democrat presidency looming at you, as the president says, anything can happen in an election. No matter how remote, you’re going to get worried if you’re an investor.”

Limbaugh also invoked Sanders, judging him more worrisome than the virus: “There’s no question that Bernie Sanders poses a far greater threat to this country and the Democrat Party than the coronavirus — and I mean to say that,” he said Wednesday. “The Democrat Party, as it’s currently constituted, poses a much greater threat to this country than the coronavirus does.”

The most abstract critique may have come from Tucker Carlson, who blamed “wokeness” for misinforming people about the dangers posed by the virus.

“For weeks the media told you it was wrong to worry about the coronavirus,” Carlson said. “If you think maybe we ought to take some steps to protect ourselves from it, then you’re a bigot.”

“Countless publications wagged their fingers in the face of readers, and told them it was irrational, probably immoral, in fact, to worry more about the coronavirus than the annual flu,” he continued. “Identity politics trumped public health and not for the first time. . . . They would let you die before they admitted that diversity is not our strength.”