To say that Donald Trump has broken quite a bit of new ground as president isn’t, well, exactly breaking new ground. Still, his now-infamous two-hour live call-in to the Rush Limbaugh Show on Oct. 9 was unprecedented. The relationship between them—and the debt this president owes conservative media’s top radio host—runs much deeper, as Trump’s awarding Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom earlier this year suggests. In the midst of verbal meandering that covered countless grievances, one of Trump’s top priorities—echoed by the host—was to tout his economic record; pre-COVID-19, of course. Much of that touting, however, was little more than lying.
Even though the pandemic has cratered growth and cost millions of jobs, polling shows that, of any topic, it is Trump’s performance on the economy that continues to garner the most support. As the election campaign has become ever more dominated by his administration’s disastrous handling of COVID-19, the economy is essentially the only issue on which the president still performs well. He and his supporters trumpet it as the number one reason voters should re-elect him. For example, as Trump told the crowd at a New Hampshire rally in August 2019, “You have no choice but to vote for me because your 401(k), everything is going to be down the tubes. Whether you love me or hate me, you’ve got to vote for me.” Coherence aside, the point was clear: Trump is making you money, so give him another four years—never mind that only a relatively small percentage of Americans have much invested in stocks.
The great power Limbaugh wields makes him the most important threat, outside the president himself, to the truth. The host uses sophisticated language on issues like the economy to prop up Trump’s lies in a way that sounds smart and convinces listeners that he—and they—know what’s going on, irrespective of what the mainstream media publishes.
For anyone out there wondering about the necessity of debunking these lies—in particular those coming from a crank like Limbaugh or presented on his show by Trump—let’s talk about why doing so matters. First, the modern form of conservative AM radio has long had a tremendous influence. For a history of its rise, and of how hosts, including Limbaugh, have grown more ideologically extreme over time, Brian Rosenwald has laid it out in his superb book Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States, as well as in an abridged version that appeared in The Atlantic.
The New Republic declared, amid a discussion of the Rosenwald book as well as Brian Matzko’s book, The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement, that hosts such as Limbaugh were equally as important in creating today’s version of Republicanism as “deified political figures like George Wallace, William Buckley, or Pat Buchanan. Indeed, far from being a mere tool of the Republican Party, talk radio is revealed … as the dominant explanation for that party’s continued existence, an essential precondition of the far right’s cultural dominance today.”
Rosenwald, in an interview with Boston NPR, explained the link between the more extreme conservative radio of the Obama era and the rise of Trump. “These hosts and their listeners get frustrated. They said, ‘Bush won’t fight hard enough for us, Boehner won’t fight hard enough. We want someone who’s going to sound like Limbaugh, who’s going to sound like Sean Hannity.’” As Rosenwald put it, when Trump became president, the audience felt like “‘we finally got a guy who sounds a lot like the hosts who have been fighting for us, and he really is preaching from the talk radio hymnal.’”
Matzko likewise wrote, in a New York Times op-ed, that over the past two decades, right-wing radio indoctrinated listeners with a conservatism “less focused on free markets and small government and more focused on ethnonationalism and populism.” This ideology serves as “the core of Trumpism—now and in the future, with or without a President Trump.” Matzko pointed out that right-wing radio hosts’ influence derives not only from how many listeners they have, but by how long each one listens. The 15 most popular hosts alone produce approximately 45 hours of material each day, five days a week. No TV opinion show is on for more than an hour daily, by comparison. As Matzko noted: “(T)he dedicated fan can listen to nothing but conservative talk radio all day, every day of the week, and never catch up.” If that alone doesn’t scare you, then read the rest of his article.
Let’s examine just some of the (mis)information on the economy Limbaugh and Trump presented to millions of listeners during their recent gabfest. The two of them slammed the Obama-Biden era economy, with Limbaugh claiming that “they were telling everybody that we need to adapt our expectations to a new era of decline….America’s best days are behind us….You know, GDP [Gross Domestic Product], 1.5% max every year?” Trump’s economy, they claimed, was far superior until the pandemic.
This lie works on two levels. First, it’s a straightforward (pretend) fact: Trump presided over a stronger economy than Obama-Biden. Second, on a more emotional level, it includes the slander that Obama, Biden, and their party are somehow down on America and believe our greatness is a thing of the past. On plenty of other occasions, Limbaugh added in the smear that Democrats think America deserves to be in decline because of our imperialism, racism, or other moral crimes. These are lies designed not only to persuade listeners to be conservative. They also inflame their rage as white Americans (the audience is overwhelmingly white and largely male) against Americans of color and the liberal politicians of any race who, according to Limbaugh, hate America and who supposedly put the interests of those groups above whites.
What’s the truth? The figure Limbaugh cited for GDP under Obama was false, as the graph below indicates. So much for the 45th president having changed the “expectations.” As for the lies Limbaugh spewed in order to induce white rage, anyone who has actually listened to President Obama or Vice President Biden knows the depth with which they love our country, as well as their commitment to Americans of every background.
Back to the longest phone call ever. Trump next spewed some lies about his tax cut plan—which overwhelmingly benefits the wealthiest among us, something he didn’t mention—as well as job growth. Trump claimed that he made “the biggest tax cuts in history, bigger than Reagan’s tax cuts.” The audience then heard a bit of typical Trump word salad: “But nobody has done more in the last 3-1/2 years as president in the first 3-1/2 years that I have,” before he added that his administration had “the best employment numbers we’ve ever had.”
On the tax cut, Politifact found that, when adjusted for inflation, Trump’s tax cut was only the fourth biggest going back to 1940. The top two tax cuts were signed by—wait for it—Barack Obama, and his largest was more than twice as big as Trump’s in terms of dollars per year. When, at his solo town hall on October 15, The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote repeated this lie, The New York Times fact-checked him, and reported that his Rich Man’s Tax Cut “ranks below at least half a dozen others by several metrics.”
As for those “best employment numbers,” the number of jobs created in each of Obama’s final three years in office outpaced Trump’s best year. Overall, Trump to this point has the worst jobs record of any president for whom that data has been calculated, and even before COVID-19, his record was mediocre at best. Like he did with the tax cut lie, the impeached president repeated his lie about jobs at his last-minute, debate-replacing town hall, claiming “we’ve created more jobs than this country has ever created.” The Times’ fact-checker debunked this one as well.
Numerous other recent examples of lies and misstatements abound. Just a few months ago, on March 30, shortly after we started our COVID-19-related lockdown, Limbaugh told his audience this: “It took quarantining. It took many small businesses closing. It took canceling practically everything, to bring the USA economy back to the Obama high mark. In three weeks … we have wiped out three years of an economic expansion unseen in the lives of most Americans today.” The “high mark” of economic growth under Obama was not only much higher than the depths we reached this spring, post-lockdown, but it was, according to an analysis in Forbes, higher than the highest mark reached at any point under Trump.
These are the kinds of lies Limbaugh listeners and Trump supporters can easily absorb and, while on line at the grocery store, for example, spit out at someone they perceive to be a Democrat. That’s why I’m going through them in some depth here, so that if you’re the one they target, or if you’re behind them in line for the cash register when they target some other poor soul, you’ll have the information you need to debunk them. Even if you can’t convince that Trumper to switch sides, there will be other people standing around, watching. They are your target audience.
For another example of lies on jobs, look at what Limbaugh said on March 9, 2018: “If you dig deeper into these employment numbers, just the raw numbers are staggering, folks: 313,000 new jobs!” That is an impressive number, except, apparently, if a Democrat is president. On August 3, 2012, Limbaugh pooh-poohed a solid monthly jobs report, proclaiming: “We need to be growing by 400,000 or 500, even 600,000 jobs a month, coming out of a recession. That’s what’s standard. That’s what’s normal.” At that point under Obama, the recession had long been over. Please note that, by comparison, private sector job growth under George W. Bush never even hit the number Limbaugh called normal. Yet on April 11, 2012, Limbaugh had declared that under Bush, “job growth was through the roof.” The same numbers that signify strong growth when we have a Republican president were below par if the president was named Obama. On the Rush Limbaugh Show, this kind of double-standard was “what’s normal.”
In fact, throughout the Obama presidency, the lies and misleading statements spewed to millions by Limbaugh numbered into the thousands. Beyond telling the lies themselves, what the host did laid the groundwork for Trump to amplify them. For just one example, on multiple occasions Limbaugh accused the Obama administration of toying with or flat-out falsifying the labor force participation rate—the percentage of the U.S. population that is either currently working, or unemployed and actively seeking work—which is a complex but important data point used to assess the health of the job market. The host leveled this baseless smear on at least 10 different shows between March 2011 and November 2013.
Nevertheless, simply by making these false claims Limbaugh gave Trump ammunition, which he used both before and during his run for the White House. These lies continued into the Trump presidency. On March 12, 2017, Mick Mulvaney, then-director of the Office of Management and Budget, charged that: “the Obama administration was manipulating … the number of people in the work force to make the unemployment rate … look smaller than it actually was.” FactCheck.org assessed this accusation from the Trump administration, and found it baseless, stating that there was “no evidence jobs data was manipulated.”
Overall, Rush Limbaugh is perhaps Trump’s most important supporter in the media. With 15.5 million unique listeners each week, he has the largest audience of any radio host in the country—a title he has held ever since these ratings were first measured in 1991. This wildly popular host beats the drum of the 45th president’s supposedly unique economic success on virtually a daily basis. He cites job creation numbers and stock market numbers and GDP numbers, all in service of the narrative that Trump has done a great job on the economy, or at least he did until the pandemic.
The question under examination here is whether we—or more importantly Limbaugh’s listeners—should believe him. The evidence presented, buttressed by the research I did for my recent book—for which I reviewed Limbaugh’s show transcripts covering the eight years of the Obama presidency—makes clear that much of what the well-known conservative host has to say is, in fact, misleading, incomplete, or just plain untrue.
These lies reach far and wide into segments of the American voting population that may rarely hear a dissenting voice. Getting those voters the truth—and, hopefully, getting them to question the right-wing media sources that would lie to them in the first place—is thus a huge challenge, but also a necessary one … one that we, not to mention the media, absolutely cannot ignore.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)