I didn’t know much about Rush Limbaugh before February 17. That day, like most days, I popped onto Twitter to see what was trending and discovered his name at the top of the list, alongside the hashtags #rotinhell and #goodriddance. A bit of scrolling revealed that Limbaugh had died earlier that day from stage 4 lung cancer.
It didn’t surprise me to see the visceral outpouring of loathing for Limbaugh. I’m liberal. My collective pod of family and friends despised the guy, as did I. My exposure to Limbaugh over the years has been blessedly limited, typically in the context of late-night mockery by the likes of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.
Before this week, I’d never listened to a single minute of Limbaugh’s radio show. My impression of him, based on the little I’d heard or known about his career, was that he was a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, anti-LGBTQ blowhard who was mesmerized by the sound of his own voice.
Still, it was unnerving to witness what amounted to the digital version of dancing in the streets for the death of a conservative radio personality. Why waste time celebrating his death? It was talk radio, for crying out loud. What was I missing here?
A lot, apparently.
The rise of a mogul
In the February 18, 2021 edition of her extraordinary newsletter, Letters from an American, Heather Cox Richardson writes, “Limbaugh’s passing felt like the end of an era.”
Richardson is an American historian and professor at Boston College. Her daily newsletters became my lifeline last year, as the Trump Administration increasingly unraveled into chaos and left Americans to fend for ourselves in the wake of the burgeoning coronavirus.
Richardson has an uncanny gift of putting current events into historical context. She effectively communicates the import of political events, people, and movements in a way that is easy to understand.
She explained how Limbaugh was able to gain traction in radio thanks to the removal of the Fairness Doctrine, a law that existed from 1949 through 1987. The Fairness Doctrine, formulated by the FCC, required media outlets with a federal broadcast license to present political issues fairly and honestly. This included providing equal airtime for opposing viewpoints. The Fairness Doctrine was abolished in the 1987 during the Reagan administration. (Because, of course it was).
On the day of Limbaugh’s death, Richardson wrote, “With the Fairness Doctrine gone, Rush Limbaugh stepped into the role of promoting the Movement Conservative narrative. He gave it the concrete examples, color, and passion it needed to jump from think tanks and businessmen to ordinary voters who could help make it the driving force behind national policy.”
Movement Conservatism is basically the racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-democratic ideology that espouses (and elevates) a false narrative of American exceptionalism. It promises a fictional American dream to those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, follow the law, and don’t let the immigrants in! It’s the good-old-days, good-old-boys, God, capitalism, and white guy way of doing things.
At least, that’s my interpretation.
Donald Trump is the wriggling, squirming, orange-faced poster child of Movement Conservatism. But what I didn’t know before February 17, was that Trump is only a shadow king. The real puppet master of Movement Conservatism was Rush Limbaugh.
The platforming of hate
Rush Limbaugh’s radio show officially debuted in 1988 and ran for thirty-three years until his death. The show was carried by over 650 radio stations and had an audience of 20 million people each week. It aired five days a week from noon until 3 pm EST.
That’s 15 hours a week of Limbaugh espousing his doctrines about life and politics week after week, for thirty-three years!
“Mr. Limbaugh alone is a powerful force,” wrote Ed Bark in a Baltimore Sun piece back in 1993.
A staggering 4000-word piece about Limbaugh in Cigar Aficionado, describes him as, “a kind of conservative media Superman, fighting for truth, justice and what he sees as the American way.”
That’s a really nice way of describing a man who made it his mission to turn hate-speech into a form of entertainment. From where I’m sitting among a pile of old articles and TV clips, he had no higher goal than to systematically dismantle any group, person, or political agenda that didn’t support the Limbaugh worldview and it didn’t matter who he hurt in the process.
It was Limbaugh who gave us birtherism, Limbaugh who was so anti-abortion, that he suggested that women who wanted an abortion should be shot, Limbaugh who mocked the deaths of men dying from aids, and Limbaugh who lied and lied and lied again about climate science.
I mean, it’s all right there — all the crap your conservative relative’s been drunkenly spewing across the table each and every Thanksgiving for the past decade.
Limbaugh’s platform was incredibly powerful and he knew it. It was Limbaugh’s voice that inspired the 1994 GOP takeover of the House. He’s also credited with the start of the Tea Party movement in 2010.
I mean, I had no idea. Limbaugh operated way under my liberal radar, ushering in an era of political division and hatred that took me completely by surprise.
Preaching to the converted
I forced myself to listen to 45 minutes of Limbaugh’s show in an attempt to better understand his appeal. The show I selected aired in February 1994. For some reason beyond my comprehension, this particular show was also broadcast live on C-Span.
I forced myself to watch a robust Limbaugh, clearly the king of his castle, bask in the glory of the spotlight. The first ten or fifteen minutes is basically Limbaugh talking about Limbaugh. He pushes Florida Orange Juice (his sponsor) for a while, then holds up a piece of paper titled “The 35 Undeniable Truths.”
Limbaugh’s Undeniable Truths provide an excellent summary of his worldview. The first “truth” is, “There is a distinct singular American culture — rugged individualism and self-reliance — which made America great.”
Gee, that sounds horrifyingly familiar, doesn’t it? If you’re curious, you can read all of Limbaugh’s “truths” here (two versions!)
The format of the show is simple. Limbaugh talks about current news and politics, pushes his political agenda, and takes calls from like-minded people who “make him look good.” His words, not mine.
Limbaugh had a resonant, authoritative (often booming) voice that was obviously made for radio. It’s the kind of voice evocative of white male power, but in a relatable way.
He sounded like Santa Claus might sound — engaging, compassionate, all-knowing, and endlessly reasonable. He gave literal voice to the politics of struggling working class people who remained staunchly conservative — pro life, pro gun, anti-climate change (anti-change, really). He made liberalism the butt of his jokes. He made it okay to be cruel in the name of peace and freedom and prosperity. But he delivered his cruelty in a good-natured Santa Claus voice, so I guess it was okay?
What does Limbaugh want to be remembered for?
The Cigar Aficionado piece, written in 1994, provided a glimpse into the real Limbaugh. The author was carefully unbiased, focusing on Limbaugh’s new passion for cigars which, at the time, he’d only been smoking for about a year. By then, Limbaugh was a rich guy with a staggering platform who was poisoning American discourse every single weekday and thoroughly enjoying it.
Twenty-seven years after that piece was written, Limbaugh would die from lung cancer, but in 1994 he was hale and hearty, waxing poetic about pre-Castro Montecristos and Punch Double Coronas (these are types of cigars…)
Mervyn Rothstein writes, “Limbaugh’s face is wide and open, with penetrating and superbly intelligent eyes that contain more than a glint of humor. Yes, he is serious, but he is also having fun.”
Rothstein may or may not be enamoured with Limbaugh — the piece is mostly filled with quotes from Limbaugh himself, but the picture he paints is of a man at the top of his game, a man who knows exactly what he’s doing. At the time, Limbaugh was in the middle of an anti-Clinton campaign he called “the Raw Deal” which would turn the tides of the 1994 midterm election in favor of the GOP.
It strikes me that the Cigar Aficionado article, which is mostly in Limbaugh’s own words and topped by a photo of Limbaugh sitting in what appears to be a private plane, smiling contentedly, and holding what I assume is an extremely expensive cigar, is how he might want to be remembered. Unfortunately for Limbaugh, the internet has a long, ruthless memory.
We don’t get to write our own epitaph
Limbaugh was clearly the hero of his own story, and the stories of his millions of loving followers. A wan, diminished Limbaugh was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on February 2020 at Trump’s State of the Union. I suppose he can be remembered for this, among other achievements.
And yet, when I logged into Twitter on the day of Limbaugh’s death, I wasn’t confronted with a bunch of tweets about his achievements. What rippled across my screen was a sort of palpable relief that a voice that was the cause of so much pain and suffering was finally silenced.
“Rot in Hell” and “Good Riddance” was the prevailing sentiment on Twitter on February 17, 2021. After a five decade career that netted him an audience of millions and placed him in the center of conservative politics — the tallest, sturdiest tree in the GOP forest — this is the message that echoed across social media. This is what drove me to learn more about Rush Limbaugh, not his lifelong accomplishments.
What can I say? We don’t get to write our own epitaph. Now that he’s gone, we can hopefully repair some of the damage he did. We are an incredibly divided nation, but maybe we’ll eventually find common ground. Limbaugh’s voice is silent now. He’s left a hole that, perhaps, a more positive voice will fill.
In the words of Rush Limbaugh, “The most beautiful thing about a tree is what you do with it after you cut it down.”