When news broke last October that Donald Trump had been diagnosed with Covid-19, legendary conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh immediately stepped in to help the campaign. He offered to hold a “radio rally” for the bench president, and Trump welcomed him. While the resulting two-hour rant was not particularly effective on the radio, it underscored how important the radio host was to Trump’s political career, even as Limbaugh’s show and Trump’s presidency were coming to an end.
Limbaugh, who announced last February that he was battling advanced cancer, died Wednesday at age 70.
At the center of most discussions about the role of the right-wing media in supporting the Trump presidency, Fox News ranks first. But talk radio played an equally important role. And Limbaugh’s show was the most important of all, not only because he was a staunch supporter of Trump, but because over three decades his show also laid the groundwork for Trump’s presidency.
Swearing loyalty to Limbaugh’s popularity with Tory voters among their base, Republican leaders essentially turned Limbaugh into their party’s de facto leader – and turned the Tory media into a powerful political institution that carried as much weight as the party. himself.
From the time his national radio show debuted in 1988, Limbaugh was a media phenomenon. Having started out as a disc jockey and sports commentator, he blended his knowledge of audio entertainment with his conservative politics, creating a new format that enveloped right-wing political discourse in humor and satire.
His high marks quickly translated across all media platforms: in the early 1990s he published two bestselling books, and from 1992 to 1996 he had a syndicated TV show produced by Roger Ailes. In just a few short years, he not only became a multimillionaire, but he began to radically change the Republican Party.
At the end of the Reagan presidency, the GOP did not have a popular leader. George HW Bush, although elected by wide margins and extremely popular during the First Gulf War, quickly collapsed in the polls. In 1992, he was rejected by the Conservatives and faced a right-wing challenge from Pat Buchanan in the presidential primaries. Turning to the political landscape, Bush landed on Rush Limbaugh as a possible savior: The popular broadcaster had promoted Buchanan on his show; if he threw his weight behind Bush, maybe his millions of listeners would come too.
It was not to be. Limbaugh, after being invited to stay in the White House, praised Bush, but Bush ultimately lost the presidency to Bill Clinton. Yet, by designating Limbaugh as a powerful figure controlling millions of votes, Bush gave him more power. Republican politicians were soon knocking on his door, trying to buy a few minutes of airtime or an endorsement that would solidify their conservative good faith. When Republicans took the House of Representatives in the crushing 1994 election, they gave Limbaugh credit.
But in raising Limbaugh, Republicans also raised a special kind of politics that would become the core of their party, politics that looks terribly familiar after four years of Donald Trump. Limbaugh came to speak on the radio during the shock era, when hosts clashed to see who could be more outrageous. So he would launch vicious attacks on people with AIDS, or on the poor and the homeless, and then, when greeted with outrage, he would say his detractors just didn’t agree.
This was the case with his oft-used epithet “feminazi,” which he used against feminists, a term that filtered through culture in the 1990s and was used by people who probably never heard of his. program. When critics called the term misogyny, he said they just didn’t get it: he meant only “the most heinous feminists.” He used the same technique when critics pointed out the racist satirical song “Barack the Magic Negro,” which Limbaugh aired repeatedly throughout the 2008 campaign. Limbaugh defended it by saying it was based on a Los Angeles Times editorial by a black writer who used the phrase to describe Barack Obama. The problem, he assured his audience, was that he was taken literally, not seriously.
This kind of joking racism and misogyny, aimed at providing plausible denial, has become a staple of conservatism today.
Limbaugh also built a personality cult which elevated loyalty above all else. In the 2000s, Republican politicians were reluctant to meet him. When Michael Steele, then head of the Republican National Committee, dismissed Limbaugh as an “artist” engaged in “inflammatory” rhetoric in 2009, he was finally forced to apologize. And in 2012, when Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “bitch” for advocating for contraceptive coverage, Republicans could only tiptoe from critics. While fending off attacks that he was engaged in a “war on women,” Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate that year, offered a lukewarm criticism of Limbaugh’s vocabulary, saying it was ” not the language I would have used ”.
This fear of crossing Limbaugh has revealed a politics of loyalty that has replaced both ideological commitments and the party’s political fortunes – something that has come to the fore in recent weeks as state Republican parties censor conservative politicians who voted to impeach Donald Trump.
Limbaugh’s use of slurs, nicknames, racism and misogyny not only foreshadowed Donald Trump’s rise. He created the policy that brought Trump to power. While much of the rest of the country viewed Trump’s 2015 campaign announcement speech as a bizarre mix of conspiracy theories, racism, and lies, to Limbaugh listeners it wasn’t so strange. : it was, in fact, a manifestation of the hours of radio they listened to every day. And while Limbaugh’s spectacle will now turn bleak, his pernicious influence – on the media, on politics, and on the precarious state of American democracy – will long outlive it.
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