When Rush Limbaugh died of lung cancer on 17th February 2021, political culture became slightly less noxious. The cigar-puffing millionaire demagogue has been the touchstone for conservative media personalities since 1988. His legacy is one of hate, intolerance, bullying, and jingoism; Limbaugh was throughout his career a conduit for bigotry. It is fitting, therefore, that the particular malignancy he had was of the lung, since that was the primary vehicle for his extremism; his corrupting, corrupted organ.
After being fired from his first job as a radio host at WIXZ, a gospel station in Pittsburgh, for – guess – racism, Limbaugh went through a sequence of different stations, always managing to get himself in trouble for controversial utterances. That was until his big break came when Reagan liberalised political discussion on the radio, meaning that Limbaugh was free to talk about whatever he wanted, however he wanted, for as long as he wanted. Upon amassing a substantial listenership, Limbaugh used the 1992 election of Bill Clinton to springboard himself into the mainstream of GOP opposition, becoming in the process an honorary member of the Republican caucus. This was no fringe fanatic: this was a popular fanatic.
To illustrate his influence, one need only take the presidential panegyrising that has taken place since Reagan, who called him ‘the Number One voice for conservatism in our Country’ in a 1992 letter. The First Lady of the US in 2020, Melania Trump, awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Outside of DC politics Limbaugh has crafted a popular image as a talented broadcaster and voice of conservatism: he made cameo appearances on the popular TV show Family Guy, and has served as the inspiration for a character from The Simpsons. He has, moreover, been proffered many awards including admission to the National Radio Hall of Fame, five Marconi Radio Awards, and the Defender of the Constitution Award, for which he was given a document signed by Ben Franklin.
Why should you be uncomfortable with his popularity and relieved that he is gone? Because the man was disgustingly blinkered, bigoted, and biased. His commentary was worthless then and worthless now. Review his catalogue of hate, and tell me if I’m wrong.
Disparaging NFL players on the basis of their skin colour, Limbaugh stated that football had become ‘a game between the Bloods and the Crips’. He has joked about New York’s black governor David Paterson choosing a replacement for then-Representative Eric Massa as a black man ‘being a massa for the first time’. He has bluntly rejected the idea of sexual consent. (The fact that this is a man praised by both Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan disgusts but does not surprise.) He has dismissed climate change, misnamed feminists as ‘feminazis’, and has claimed that police response during the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally was restrained by Democrats and globalists such as George Soros – a Jew, but I’m sure that’s coincidental – in order to incite the Second American Civil War.
Perhaps most despicable is his homophobic and serophobic comments, such as his view that Pete Buttigieg should not kiss his husband in public. But more than that, Limbaugh infamously ran a regular segment in the ‘80s called ‘AIDS Update’ in which he mocked and pilloried dead gay people for laughs. And while he later admitted regret for that, it doesn’t change the fact that it happened.
At the heart of such comments is the idea that the Left has fundamentally ruined America. What little of a welfare state the US has is a leftist plot to train black Americans to hate their country; sexual consent is the ‘magic key to the left’; climate action is an ideological movement that rehouses communists into a militant environmentalist agenda-driven group; and naturally the Christchurch mosque shooting as well as the Deepwater Horizon 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were both arranged by leftists for some nefarious purpose.
Ironically, Limbaugh grounds these arguments in a belief in American exceptionalism, when it is clear that he despises most of the American population save for white conservative men. In his book The Way Things Ought To Be, Limbaugh promulgates his core worldview, one that suggests all who discourage the idea that America is not special are existential threats to America.
So we see here the legerdemain that Limbaugh and his progenies play out. They parade ‘patriotism’; they hide behind the ‘love’ of their country, when what they really love is themselves. Hatred, not love, defines them. They despise America, or at least its people. America, to Limbaugh, must be more like him in order to flourish: conservative, capitalist, imperialist, white.
Rush Limbaugh was a deeply ambitious man. Careless schoolboy, college dropout, he plagued the airwaves since he was 16. Pursuing his father’s respect, biographer Zev Chafets argues, was his impetus, his drive to be successful, his objective. Apposite, then, that the defining tenets of the conservative ideology – respect for tradition, respect for authority – came to be associated with the Limbaugh brand, and it is funny too that Rush himself became the ‘Godfather of the Fox Approach’. I wonder if he ever felt that he had earned his father’s respect. I also wonder if his acolytes ever earned his.
Ultimately, Limbaugh did little except pave the way for and embolden other rightwing agitators, such as Tucker Carlson, Bill O’Reilly and Alex Jones. One can only imagine what political discourse would look like without his inclusion. But that kind of counterfactualism is mere wishful thinking. Now those who stand against everything Limbaugh stood for must get on with the task of cornering his imitators, routing out their lies, and disinfecting debate after his death. For while Limbaugh the man died, his spirit lives on.