Obituaries for radio host Rush Limbaugh, who died on Wednesday at the age of 70, have often referred to him as a "conservative provocateur". This is technically correct, but euphemistic, similar to calling Bashar al-Assad a "controversial leader". Limbaugh's trading stock was bigotry and insult; His career-long trait was a willingness to channel the conservative identity unusually bluntly and roughly.
He repeatedly mocked the deaths of gay men from AIDS in the 1980s, suggested the Clintons murdered their aide Vince Foster in the 1990s, called the NBA "The Thug Basketball Association" in 2004, and claimed student Sandra Fluke owed him sex Ribbon in exchange for taxpayer-subsidized birth control in 2012. He once made an impression of former Chinese President Hu Jintao, who mainly consisted of saying "Ching Chong" over and over again. He had a guest who sang a song called "Barack the Magic Negro".
These examples are not cherry-picked. Bigotry disguised as "jokes" or "entertainment" was the inventory of Limbaugh's show; He built and entertained a massive audience for decades, not despite that comment, but because of it.
"Rush built on an already robust right-wing media and organizational infrastructure and combined it with a simple entertainment culture that appealed to a deeply politicized audience of angry white men who did not consider themselves political," writes David Astin Walsh, historian of conservatism at the University of Virginia. "Limbaugh was the source of a generation of right-wing GOP politicians who owed their careers to politics of resentment and white racial anger."
Former President Donald Trump, of course, comes first among these leaders.
Although Limbaugh initially supported Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the 2016 presidential primary, he got onto Trump and Trumpism – and became one of the former president's most influential boosters in conservative media. In return, Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom – America's highest civilian honor – during the State of the Union Address in 2020.
It was dark appropriate. Limbaugh had more influence on the development of the American right than the vast majority of political leaders; It's not difficult to say that Trump's presidency would not have been possible without him.
“Rush Limbaugh has radically changed the Republican Party. He raised the conservative media to an equal branch of party politics and developed a style of rhetoric, argumentation and entertainment that would shape conservative politics, ”writes Nicole Hemmer, historian of talk radio at Columbia University.
This is not a good thing, according to Hemmer.
"The things we now consider to be particularly Trumpian traits of conservatism – the insults, the conspiracies, the mix of entertainment and politics and anger – Limbaugh had been doing this for a quarter of a century before Trump appeared on the party."
Rush Limbaugh is dead. The rest of us have to live with his evil legacy.
Limbaugh's surprising influence on the Republican Party
Before Limbaugh's appearance on the national scene in 1988, the conservative mass media as we know it today didn't exist. He was the first of the great talk radio hosts. Fox News arrived eight years after Rush; Online conservative outlets like Breitbart were literally inconceivable at the time. Limbaugh proved that the particular combination of strict right-wing politics, outrageous comments disguised as "humor" or "just asking questions", and relentless attacks on the "liberal media" could be commercially viable with an extremely large audience.
Limbaugh had a unique talent as a performer: the ability to capture the hearts and minds of his followers with few parallels. His fans called themselves "Dittoheads" because callers often "praised" each other for what Limbaugh had just said. The ditto head population grew rapidly in the late 1980s and early 90s, and the institutional Republican Party welcomed this. In 1994, the first-time Republicans in the House to just win a majority made him an honorary member of their class.
After his death on Wednesday, leading Republicans from both the party's insurgency and establishment wings rallied to praise him. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) praised him as someone who "lived the First Amendment and told harsh truths that made the elite uncomfortable". Former President George W. Bush described Limbaugh as "a friend during my presidency," a "controversial" figure who nonetheless "spoke his mind as the voice of millions of Americans".
But perhaps the most interesting conservative testimony to Limbaugh's death came from Noah Rothman, an editor of the venerable Conservative magazine Commentary. Rothman, an anti-Trump Republican who has denied the party's radical trend in recent years, nonetheless had kind words for Limbaugh as an invaluable counterbalance to perceived media bias:
If you know a Conservative under 35, Limbaugh influenced him. Whatever you think of his career, and I got my frustrations with the Trump era, he has been a deeply important review of Democratic narratives in the press. A true legend. Rest in peace.
– Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) February 17, 2021
This has long been the conservative establishment's approach to "provocateurs" like Limbaugh and his imitators in Fox News: Sure, they may be crazy, but they are our crazy ones.
"People were ready to apologize for his views, not only because of a longstanding ethic that requires people to troll / free speech, but also because they agreed, to some extent, with right-wing criticism of liberal media hegemony," said Paul E. Johnson , a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies conservative political rhetoric, tells me. "If you really think you're on the edge, you have to yell to be heard, and who cares if you pucker up some feathers in the process."
But now the party's leadership is literally under attack by the monster they created: the mob that attacked Congress on January 6 and whose members openly expressed their intention to kill lawmaker and Vice President Mike Pence was a product of the Freedom of fact. radical media ecosystem that Limbaugh helped build. Networks like One America News, inconceivable without Limbaugh's groundbreaking one, have helped convince Republicans of Trump's big lie that the election was stolen – the belief that directly caused the Capitol Hill uprising.
Of course, Rush himself supported these theories. And the day after the attack, he seemed to be implicitly justifying some of the violence in Washington.
"There are many people who are calling for an end to the violence," Limbaugh said. “There's a lot of conservative, social media out there saying that violence or aggression is not acceptable at all. Regardless of the circumstances. I'm glad to see Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party people, the men in Lexington and Concord didn't think so. "
Now the whole country is suffering from the aftermath of a republican base that has been radicalized not least by decades of Limbaugh broadcasts being blown in their ears. You have learned that Democrats are mortal enemies and the media cannot be trusted by opportunists and bigots like Limbaugh, who benefit from taking the most explosive and toughest stance imaginable.
Limbaugh is dead. His kind of venomous politics will not rest with him.