Rush Limbaughs’ death this week at age 70 from lung cancer closes the book on more than a quarter of a century of conservative media, as defined by Limbaugh and his friend Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox News , who died in 2017. Prior to Donald Trumps entering Republican politics, and even before Fox began to dominate cable airwaves, in the late 1990s, Limbaugh had an unmatched ability to shake the Republican base and bring together the Party of its vision of pure Reaganism. That vision consisted of lower taxes and less regulation, opposition to abortion, and an aggressive stance abroad, the so-called three-legged stool of the Ronald Reagan coalition. For decades, that was Limbaughs’ mantra, with an emphasis on tax cuts. But his embrace of Trump in his later years, and his willingness to subsume his conservatism in one-man worship, offered a different take on Limbaugh. He ended his career less as a leader of the Republican Party than as a mere follower of Trump.
Limbaugh, who was born to a prominent Republican family in Missouri, began his broadcasting career as a teenager and landed a spot on Sacramento radio in 1984. Four years later, The Rush Limbaugh Show went national , beaming from the New York WABC. (It remained his flagship station for most of his career, although Limbaugh eventually moved to Florida.) Aversion to taking calls that was often reserved for FridaysLimbaugh had a remarkable ability to maintain a monologue, with only commercials like breaks, for practically the full three hours that his show was broadcast each day. (The only comparable example I can think of, but Limbaugh, unlike the former president, could stay remarkably focused.) He often started a show by letting his listeners know about his stack. newspaper clippings, usually news articles and alerts, and finding ways to tie them to a central point he wanted to make, which often had to do with the magical effects of tax cuts on the economy and federal government waste. If Thomas Jefferson thought taxation without representation was bad, he should see what it is with representation, he once said.
As he grew older and richer, he liked to talk half-jokingly about his wealth and success. He boasted of the talent lent by God, and once declared, I cannot even destroy myself. I have tried it myself a few times and it doesn’t work. I am literally indestructible. Like Trump, who likes to educate the public about his upbringing in the Ivy League and tell them he has better things to do than come to their rallies, Limbaugh appreciated the fact that these much-vaunted tax cuts he was always talking to people like him.
An endless stream of articles and books over the past five years has come up against the question of how Trump was able to pull off his particular act, attracting an audience that never attended college, let alone one from the Ivy. League. Limbaughs’ success offers a clue. Its radio program featured bromides from the Club for Growth on the beauty of the private sector, but there was also another aspect, which was largely bigotry. It was a man who presented a segment called AIDS Updates, in which he mockingly read the names of the victims of the disease to the sound of Dionne Warwick. He said feminism was invented to make it easier for unattractive women to enter society. He made too many racist comments to count, but showed particular hostility towards Barack Obama. At Obama in America, white kids are now beaten along with black kids clapping, he once said.
Limbaugh, like Trump, never seemed particularly passionate about conservative Christian causes. He took the right positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, but understood early on that cultural grievances mattered more to much of his audience. It can be argued that making fun of AIDS victims and speaking out strongly against gay marriage are two forms of bigotry. But many people with unsavory political views do not make an inhabitant a career of personal cruelty. In a 2013 Limbaugh monologue on gay marriage, he said: A lot of people have no personal animosity against gay people. It’s, on the contrary, a, uh, genuine, I don’t know, love, respect, for the things that they think define this country as great. He didn’t describe himself and you could tell his heart wasn’t there. Compare that to comments like, There are a bunch of really nifty guys out there who in the normal course of events probably can’t get women to watch them. And they decided, you know what? I’m going to be a transsexual. The condemnation was in the vitriol.
And yet, even though Limbaugh was willing to lie to his audience about the details of Obamacare, he even claimed it would increase the divorce rate, he seemed to have a principled core in his loyalty to low taxes, less regulation. and free markets. So Limbaugh could have seen Trump’s rise in two ways. One could have said that there was someone here who did not care at all about the conservatism of the movement; who probably did not know very well who William F. Buckley Jr .; who broke with right-wing orthodoxy on trade and tariffs; and who had no vision of capitalism beyond its usefulness to make it richer and more famous. The other way was to view Trump as someone who had the same catalog of resentments as Limbaugh, and perhaps more importantly, was hated by the same people.
Limbaugh didn’t wait long to make his decision: he was into it. In early 2016, he defended Trump on a daily basis and, perhaps more importantly, struck the same rhetorical tones. The Republican Party does not like the Republican base, he said in January of the same year, explaining that litism was the reason for establishments to oppose Trump. If Trump’s takeover of the GOP revealed how cultural resentment matters more to Conservative voters than any single issue, Limbaughs’ trip served as an example of that fact. When Trump took the position that Limbaugh would already have opposed the imposition of new tariffs, Limbaugh simply changed his mind and backed Trump.
The appeasement of Limbaughs, or worse, Trump raises the question of the control he has ever exercised in the Party. Limbaughs’ influence was sometimes overestimated. His favorite candidates did not necessarily win the primaries as evidenced by his failure to derail John McCain in 2008, and his ability to lead voters was probably still lower than assumed. But while he hasn’t always had direct power, his role in creating Trump’s cultural foundations cannot be underestimated. Republicans never became the vehicle for the pure economic libertarianism and loyalty to conservative ideas that Limbaugh once might have hoped for, but they did become a party Limbaugh might love.
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