Rush Limbaugh was chastised this week for suggesting the press is exaggerating the threat of Hurricane Irma, which raked the Caribbean as a Category 5 storm and now is barreling toward Florida. Defending himself on Thursday, the conservative talk radio titan griped that “your beloved and respected host is being slimed and smeared with a fake news campaign that has been ongoing for three days.” He complained about “two hit pieces in a row from The Washington Post”—his transcript only links to this one—and accused the left of using Irma “to advance a political agenda.” He said, “There’s corruption everywhere in our politics, and it is epitomized during national disasters and emergencies because the left is always working on moving their agenda forward—climate change, radical environmentalism—and so the occasion of this hurricane is an exciting thing for them!”
But Limbaugh is the one exploiting hurricanes for political purposes, with his adamance that climate change isn’t behind these hurricanes. (“You can’t miss all of the talk from Harvey about climate change and people trying to persuade people that it’s behind all this, when it isn’t,” he said.) And he’s not the only conservative doing so. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, right-wing media has seized on heartwarming stories out of Texas and Louisiana to ridicule feminists, deny systemic racism, and argue that injustice itself is a myth. This narrative trend is likely to continue as Irma hits the U.S. mainland.
Greg Gutfeld, co-host of Fox News’ The Five, attacked “traditional leftists” like Reverend Al Sharpton for criticizing President Donald Trump’s initially heartless reaction to Harvey. “They’re trying to find a narrative that matches their grim worldview,” Gutfeld said last Friday, “because Harvey has destroyed their worldview.” In the wake of the storm, he claimed, “There’s no more division, there’s no more bigotry, there’s no more racism, conflict—all you’re seeing 24/7 is unity, Americans all the time working together.”
It’s certainly true that Harvey brought people together, as all natural disasters do. But the notion that the storm thwarted racism, even temporarily, is as preposterous as it is pernicious. As Melanie Schmitz observed at ThinkProgress, conservative commentators themselves have vilified low-income minority communities—those hit hardest by the storm—with a racist narrative about people of color “looting” after Harvey. “[T]he lawlessness that some propose is happening throughout Texas may largely be overblown, if history is any indication,” she wrote, and “obscene price gouging naturally meant that impoverished citizens left behind in the floodwaters would have to find a way to survive.” She also noted a common racial double standard, best exemplified after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when an Associated Press photo of a black man with a case of soda was labeled “looting” but a similar Getty Images shot of a white couple was described as “finding.”
Commentator Larry Elder managed to exceed Gutfield with a syndicated column, “Harvey Shows America’s Colorblind Spirit—Bad News for Race Hustlers,” that argued Trump hasn’t hurt race relations because he managed to hug some survivors of the storm and please Texans, “including black ones.” As further evidence, Elder reminded readers that America managed to elect and re-elect a black president—only after 232 years of existence as a nation, but what’s a few centuries?—and pointed to the rise in interracial marriages and the success of certain black athletes and entertainers. Elder concluded with this fanciful line: “Trump can potentially tip the black vote in his party’s direction more than any Republican since Abraham Lincoln.”
Such drivel has been widespread, from the fringes of the right-wing internet to mainstream conservative organs. In a story titled “The Left Is Triggered by Hurricane Harvey Because It Proves America Isn’t Racist,” InfoWars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson cited “spontaneous outpouring of community spirit and color-blind resilience” in declaring that the rescue effort “demolishes their narrative that America is a racist country.” “All this is not to say that racism doesn’t still in exist in America,” he allowed, while nevertheless assuring his readers that liberals are engaged in “fake moral panic” on race. At The New York Post, the editorial board concluded that Harvey had successfully “obliterated” a progressive mythology: “The heroism shown by ‘ordinary Texans’ after Hurricane Harvey is a ‘great antidote to the prejudices expressed by well-off liberals towards ‘deplorable’ Americans,’ notes Sean Collins at the British site Spiked. While the ‘politically correct’ view depicts the nation divided by race, the scenes from Houston ‘told a different story.’” Townhall writer Lisa De Pasquale took this line of logic even further, insisting that the Harvey aftermath disproves the entire worldview of left-wing “social justice warriors.” Her reasoning is perplexing:
Soon the media will be back to talking about Colin Kaepernick, not J.J. Watt. They’ll talk about “toxic masculinity,” not the heroes who worked around the clock carrying people and pets to safety. They’ll talk about corporate greed, not the ways businesses help in crisis or keep communities thriving by employing millions. They’ll glorify those who cause violence and property damage to protest “hate speech,” rather than the people who drove hundreds of miles to help strangers. They’ll talk about the sins of the Confederate Army rather than the good deeds of the Cajun Navy.
Everyone understands that men are capable of heroism. Everyone knows that some businesses do good. But it’s rhetorically incompetent to argue that moments of heroism and community bonding erase the ills of American society, past and present. And yet, the claim that male heroism exposes the fallacy of “toxic masculinity”—the reality that many American men are socialized to be violent, homophobic, and misogynistic—also appeared at The American Spectator, Acculturated, and National Review.
Some of this can be chalked up to trolling. The idea that “triggered” liberals can’t handle masculine feats of heroism is reliable right-wing clickbait. And it’s easy to laugh off Limbaugh’s conspiracy-theorizing, given that he’s evacuated his own home in Palm Beach. But once Irma has hit Florida, and more heartwarming stories emerge from the wreckage, conservative pundits will be at it again—and many millions of Americans will be listening. What none of those listeners will hear is the truth: that global warming is causing more extreme weather events, and that the victims are disproportionately poor. That’s the real story about hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Any claims to the contrary are the true hustle.