He died last week after a battle with cancer. Limbaugh was a polarizing individual. That’s an understatement. You either loved him or hated him, no middle ground. In addition, he was rich and famous.
Let me be upfront, I did not care for the man, definitely not a fan. This is not a blog to castrate Limbaugh, I am really more focused on trying to understand him. Why? Because so many Americans guzzled his Kool Aid. He spoke their language. For that, he was paid more than $70 million a year and lived like a king in a mansion. Somehow, blue collar America identified with this multi-millionaire.
“I take the responsibility that comes with my show very seriously,” Limbaugh told the New York Times. “I want to persuade people with ideas. I don’t walk around thinking about my power. But in my heart and soul, I know I have become the intellectual engine of the conservative movement.”
Limbaugh’s website is not shy about blowing his horn. “Rush Limbaugh, the ‘Doctor of Democracy,’ is known as the pioneer of AM radio. Limbaugh revolutionized the media and political landscape with his unprecedented combination of serious discussion of political, cultural and social issues along with satirical and biting humor, which parodies previously ‘untouchable’ personalities and topics.”
Perhaps some of these “untouchable topics” are untouchable for a reason. Poor taste, bullying, absence of truth, fear-mongering, racist, misogynistic are a few of the possible reasons. Limbaugh and others frequently attacked political correctness and efforts to impinge on personal freedoms of speech or religion. He seemed to reject science, as he was critical of COVID-19 and efforts to control spread of the virus. How much of his bluster was real, I do not know. He was a carnival showman, selling his conservative ideas and attacking anything in his path. Yet, what he was really selling was himself.
An article for Salon.com in 2018 by Amanda Marcotte said Limbaugh used rock and roll and humor to attract an audience of Baby Boomers. Limbaugh even used a song by The Pretenders as his “bumper” music between show segments. “My City Was Gone” was written by Chrissie Hynde about the negative transformation of her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. This became a pseudo theme for what is wrong with America, and to Limbaugh, it was the fault of gays, liberals, welfare, immigrants, Democrats and feminazis. And, he despised those who were weak to him, like Michael J. Fox, who he accused of exaggerating the symptoms of his Parkinson’s Disease. Classy, Rush. He sort of apologized, but it came off as not genuine, and his fans didn’t seem to mind.
Marcotte says that Limbaugh would raid the rock and roll culture for the music, but trash the musicians as losers and drug addicts. Jerry Garcia and Kurt Cobain were targets. Never mind that Limbaugh had a drug habit. It is interesting how many Baby Boomers raised during the cultural revolution of the 1960s have turned into their parents. Instead of Perry Como, they listen to Led Zeppelin. Instead of altruistic causes, it is watching the Dow Jones and helping Wall Street grow your investments.
The 1970s gave way to Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Republican wave in Congress. New voices were heard, that found a loose commonality with various conservative groups. The Silent Majority were not so silent as they found an ally in talk radio and media stars were created. Limbaugh was like a libertarian DJ lamenting the erosion of the America many felt they were promised, but did not get.
“I know the liberals call you ‘the most dangerous man in America,’ but don’t worry about it, they used to say the same thing about me. Keep up the good work. America needs to hear the way things ought to be,” Ronald Reagan once said. Thanks to Reagan, the Fairness Doctrine was eliminated in 1987, which opened the door to opinion-oriented radio and television, without the requirement to provide both sides of controversial issues. Not only do you not have to be fair, you do not have to be truthful on the airwaves.
Limbaugh credited William F. Buckley with teaching him about broadcasting. “He single-handedly is responsible for my learning to form and frame my beliefs and express them verbally in a concise and understandable way.”
Even in death, Limbaugh stirs controversy. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis ordered flags to fly at half-staff to honor Limbaugh, who was a Florida resident. That has sparked a bit of controversy, as has the introduction of a bill in the Missouri Legislature to make January 12 of each year as ‘Rush Limbaugh Day’ in Missouri. Limbaugh was born in Cape Girardeau, MO. Limbaugh is getting treatment normally reserved for statesmen, which I guess to many Republicans, he was.
Sean Hannity of FoxNews said. “There is no talk radio as we know it without Rush Limbaugh. It just doesn’t exist. I would even make the argument in many ways there is no Fox News or even some of these other opinionated cable networks.” Opinionated is another word for dishonest. Again, his base do not question him, they just take another drink.
Columnist Sam Thielman wrote about Limbaugh’s legacy. “He poured poison into the ears of millions of white men and women in the privacy of their cars and trucks for a full generation, and we have barely begun to feel his legacy.”
Limbaugh blurred the line between the media and politics. The connection between Limbaugh and Donald Trump enriched each of them. Limbaugh endorsed Trump’s 2016 campaign early and continued to support Trump and reinforce Trump’s assertions and disproven claims. If you say it, repeat it, and question the legitimacy of your accuser, the base will believe it. “You are the one that true American patriots have invested their hopes for the future and their kids’ future in,” Limbaugh said of Trump during the 2020 election.
As an example, Limbaugh backed Trump’s claim the election was stolen from him: “They have not legitimately won it,” referring to the presidential election.
Trump returned the favor, giving Limbaugh sainthood, or close to it with the Medal of Freedom.
“And those people who listen to him (Limbaugh) every day, it was like a religious experience for a lot of people.” Trump said.
A nod from Limbaugh would help legitimize an up and comer to Limbaugh’s huge base. One such comer is Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who Limbaugh called “the real deal” for his questioning of tech CEOs, potentially increasing Hawley’s appeal as a 2024 presidential contender.
Limbaugh, like Trump, made many insulting comments, and targeted a variety of people. Yet, even when he was called out, he was quickly forgiven. Usually, he hid behind his defense that it was only comedy and people can not take a joke.
Here are a few:
Limbaugh relentlessly attacked President Barack Obama, going as far as to fan the flames of birtherism. He called Obama “Barrack the Magic Negro.”
He got into hot water with his comments about black quarterback Donovan McNabb, saying the media wanted a black quarterback to do well, so McNabb got more credit than he deserved. He lost his gig on ESPN because of this.
He joined the naysayers about the pandemic, dismissing the coronavirus as the “common cold”.
On the Oklahoma City bombings, when President Bill Clinton blamed right-wing radio for fanning the flames of anti-governmental anger, Limbaugh pushed back. “Talk is not a crime. And talk is not a culprit here.”
“Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society.” He developed a term he would continue to use: feminazi.
His comments toward actor Michael J. Fox, accusing him of exaggerating his Parkinson’s disease.
Limbaugh accused Democrats of advancing an “abject lie” about Trump’s involvement in the January, 6, 2021 insurrection
He insulted law school student Sandra Fluke, calling her a slut when she testified before Congress in 2012 for mandated access to contraception. “What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.” He used the word “feminazi” and said if the government paid for her birth control, he wanted videos of her having sex.
“The rich, as you know, are under assault, they are maligned, criticized, ridiculed, impugned, and instead they ought to be held out and up as the role models.” While Limbaugh was known for his support of charities and generosity, that did not extend to the poor. “Our cities have not been neglected, but poisoned with welfare dependency funds.”
In 1990, on his radio show he read the names of people who had died of AIDS with comedy sound effects and had choice words about gay sexual practices. He repeated the routine, broadening his focus to the LGBTQ community.
So, why was Limbaugh so famous and financially successful? Why was Trump elected president after all of the negative things that came out about him in the 2016 election? Why was there an attempted coup staged at the United States Capitol Building on January 6?
People like Limbaugh, Trump, Hannity and others tap into a grand reservoir of dissatisfaction and frustration. Propelled by relaxed federal law, media and deep financial pockets have exploited the ability to blanket America with repeated waves of opinion packaged as “information” but really an effort to sway like-minded people into joining a loose network of far-right thinkers. There is no simple explanation for the growth and impact of those who support the leaders of this movement. Limbaugh was certainly skilled at his craft, he was revered for his ability to talk for hours without the use of supporting players; he was prepared and effective during his broadcasts. Love him or hate him, he was good at what he did. He was on hundreds of radio stations, followed by millions of regular listeners, and drew huge crowds when he appeared at rallies and benefits. Which was bigger: his personality or his philosophy? Unlike Trump, Limbaugh could form sentences and had a command of the language, weaving in his messages and entertaining as he went. He knew how to use American cultural references to resonate with his audience. Limbaugh kicked open the door to what talk radio could become, and what America would become. That is giving one man a lot of credit. While he may be silenced in death, what he created will live on. God help us.