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Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Rush Limbaugh In Retrospect

Political discourse lost one of its loudest and most controversial voices last week when Rush Limbaugh died of lung cancer.

Immediately after the news broke, intellectuals scrambled to get their takes out before they got lost in the media haze. Right-wing commentators paid homage to the outlandish radio host, while those on the left created hostile hashtags that trended on Twitter.

An age-old debate about respect for controversial American political figures resurfaced as celebrations of “Rushbo’s” passing spread online. American conservatives and reactionaries defended one of their figureheads from post-mortem mockery and criticism. While his death and remembrance have fallen out of public discussion, the unfortunate reality is that Limbaugh's legacy shaped the American Right’s strategy.

Limbaugh’s appeal came from his reactionary and politically incorrect takes, which he gave unfiltered on his national radio show for decades. After starting in local talk radio, Limbaugh hit big with his crass brand of conservatism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was then that Rush’s vile political commentary, which included mocking those who died of AIDS and calling a young Chelsea Clinton the “White House dog,” struck a nerve.

This era in politics marked the beginning of a shift to the center by Democrats, as well as growing conservative power following the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. While Bill Clinton ended the prospect of a Reagan-Bush dynasty in 1992, pseudo-populist figures like Newt Gingrich entered the Republican movement shortly thereafter with similar tactics to Limbaugh.

Limbaugh rose to prominence at a pivotal point in American history, as political and cultural shifts took root at the end of the 20th century. The realities of a political landscape facing the vacuum of post-Cold War America began hitting hardest in the early 1990s. Issues like NAFTA and corporate consolidation hit America hard, leaving large swaths of people without a stable job or with a job that’s dissatisfying and insulting to their skillset. Many of these Americans were also confronted by a changing cultural landscape as diverse voices and stories hit airwaves and television screens coast to coast. 

Limbaugh's daily tirades against these cultural forces and the figures that promoted them gave a voice to this unspoken resentment, taking advantage of a malleable media landscape. It’s no coincidence that the rise of Limbaugh coincided with federal media deregulation, particularly the Reagan Administration’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. This environment allowed for hosts like Limbaugh to unleash their firebrand takes to a national audience, at a time when Fox News, which Limbaugh helped Roger Ailes create, had yet to enter the cable scene.

Limbaugh’s tendency to combine his jabs and critiques with musical cues quickly made him into a national political force. People tuned in to hear his latest opinions on political news as well as to laugh at his outlandish cracks and quips at the expense of those he disagreed with. This unrepentant right-wing voice directly coincided with challenges to the new Clinton Administration, as Newt Gingrich took center stage for House Republicans with his “Contract with America.” It’s no surprise, then, that Gingrich chose to honor Limbaugh after his death, even crediting him with fueling the GOP’s success in the 1994 midterms

Limbaugh's political influence over the American Right reached its peaked with the presidency of Donald Trump. While Limbaugh was controversial and newsworthy throughout the 2000s and 2010s, he was particularly entwined with Trump’s political career. Limbaugh was one of the leading voices of the “Birther” movement that tried to allege President Obama wasn’t an American citizen before Trump latched on to it. He also supported Trump during the 2016 Republican primary, giving him airtime and serious consideration far earlier than most other right-wing media figures. Limbaugh hitched himself to Trump and his movement early on and reaped the benefits from it later.

The political trajectory from Limbaugh to Trump surprised scholars and citizens alike, but in reality Limbaugh is to right-wing media what Trump is to Republican politics. While few expected Trump to win the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency, his rapid rise did follow general trends of GOP politics. Beginning with Gingrich in ‘94 and reaching new heights with the Tea Party in the early 2010s, Republicans have shifted further toward the reactionary right. 

In the same way, Limbaugh’s outspoken media presence has been repeated in harmony with Trump’s political ascendancy. Figures like Ben Shapiro, Charlie Kirk and Dennis Prager owe a lot of their media success to the example Limbaugh set. His politically incorrect statements garnered as much scorn as they did glee, keeping Limbaugh eternally relevant. This same “owning the libs” style exploded in right-wing media, creating a vast network of commentators trying to one-up each other for hot take supremacy. They all want what Limbaugh had: a singular viewpoint that attracts an audience of millions and enrages their political enemies.

Due to his influential style, many of those same figures quickly defended Limbaugh after his death, since he pioneered the persona of the blowhard denialist. Limbaugh was eternally controversial and never failed to deny basic facts in the name of advancing his agenda. He continually denied the climate crisis and downplayed the link between smoking and cancer in defense of his own penchant for cigars. 

While dying of lung cancer may have been poetic irony for Rush’s blatant denial of the truth, it marks a troubling trend still evident in modern right-wing punditry. Try as they might, “intellectuals” like Shapiro that follow in Limbaugh’s footsteps are just as guilty as Limbaugh of climate denialism and unfounded racial views. Inherent in modern conservatism is some denial of basic facts, particularly when access to information has been so widely-democratized. Limbaugh helped pioneer the practice of cherry-picking stories to bolster arguments while denouncing facts and findings contrary to his views. This was the true throughline linking Limbaugh to the current political moment and is something that threatens to destroy American politics.

That legacy is hard to match, let alone contend with. Few can hope to have as singular a persona and impact as Limbaugh. He was a pioneer of a burgeoning right-wing media landscape that perfectly coincided with regressive political and cultural trends. His wide scope and continued success were a testament to this effect.

Yet Limbaugh was a blowhard of the highest order and represents the most abhorrent turn of media and political discourse. Fighting his media successors means understanding the socioeconomic forces that enabled Limbaugh’s rise in the late 80s and early 90s. It also means addressing the fact that the anger and vitriol Limbaugh tapped into has only increased since he got his start. Finally, lessons must be learned on how to counter Limbaugh-like figures, either with an equally-sharp wit or simply with positive policies and branding that address the needs of those who might otherwise tune in to conservative talk radio.

All in all, Limbaugh is a man to know about and learn from. He’s also a man that deserves about as much respect as he gave to the countless public figures he mercilessly derided over the years. Limbaugh did not acknowledge the humanity of large swaths of people. To argue otherwise is to completely ignore the contentious and reductive views he advocated daily, many of which are recorded on his Wikipedia page. His entire media existence was predicated on the idea of saying things so ridiculous and offensive that his targets had to respond. Coincidentally, the most prominent figures seeking respect and honor in death for Limbaugh are those he helped inspire.

Ultimately, it is without much hesitation that everyone can say the following: good riddance, Rush Limbaugh, and may your conservative successors see their relevance dry up soon.

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A Clevelander trying to bring some Midwestern optimism to Boston College.