Love him or hate him — and Americans did plenty of both — right-wing radio provocateur Rush Limbaugh arguably affected the nation’s politics more than any non-politician in modern times. Limbaugh, a Cape Girardeau native who died Wednesday at age 70 after a battle with lung cancer, was revered and reviled in ways that were the very personification of America’s ideological divide.
We won’t deny Limbaugh’s towering talent as an edgy entertainer, nor the inspiration that millions of politically minded Americans found in his voice. But we also won’t sugarcoat the damage Limbaugh did to the country’s political discourse — not least in the template of intolerance, cruelty and spite that he provided for former President Donald Trump.
Beginning in the late 1980s, via his exploding syndicated radio audience, Limbaugh was a leading figure in the transformation of conservatism, pulling it out of the board rooms and country clubs where it had quietly resided and infusing it with populist showmanship, grievance and snark. If that sounds familiar in light of the past four years, it should.
Trump’s political rise was undoubtedly boosted by Limbaugh’s enthusiastic support. Once in office, Trump’s penchant for political vilification, personal name-calling and denial of facts seemed to follow the trail that Limbaugh had blazed in decades of glowering at liberals, “femi-nazis” and others he targeted from behind his microphone.
It was controversial when Trump last year bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Limbaugh, but it should hardly have been surprising. It wasn’t just in populist-conservative policy where the two men aligned. Their views have converged over the years on a range of corrosive anti-factual positions, from climate change to Barack Obama’s citizenship to the seriousness of the coronavirus.
Years before Trump race-baited the issue of Black NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem, Limbaugh declared that the league “all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips.” Limbaugh’s derision of feminist law student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” — and of then-13-year-old First Daughter Chelsea Clinton as the “White House dog” — presaged Trump’s public derision of “nasty women” everywhere. Long before Trump grotesquely mimicked a disabled journalist during the 2016 campaign, Limbaugh grotesquely mimicked the effects of actor Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease.
In fairness, there were areas where Limbaugh showed glimmers of decency that yet elude Trump — a generosity in Limbaugh’s charitable work, for one, and the occasional ability to apologize, as he ultimately did for his on-air mockery of dead AIDS victims in the 1990s.