Rush Limbaugh? Boomers from Pittsburgh knew him by another name long ago:
In February 1971, after dropping out of college, the 20-year-old Limbaugh accepted an offer to DJ at WIXZ, a Top 40 station in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He adopted the air name “Bachelor Jeff” Christie and worked afternoons before moving to morning drive. The station’s general manager compared Limbaugh’s style at this time to “early Imus”. In 1973, after eighteen months at WIXZ, Limbaugh was fired from the station due to “personality conflict” with the program director. He then started a nighttime position at KQV in Pittsburgh, succeeding Jim Quinn. In late 1974, Limbaugh was dismissed after new management put pressure on the program director to fire him. Limbaugh recalled the general manager telling him that he would never land success as an air personality and suggested a career in radio sales. After rejecting his only offer at the time, a position in Neenah, Wisconsin, Limbaugh returned to living with his parents in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. During this time, he became a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But he never looked back. He never went back. He didn’t belong there, spinning Top 40 hits and doing the Dick Clark thing. He couldn’t be pleasant. He didn’t want to be pleasant. He wanted to be outrageous, in a fun sort of way, and he wanted to be shocking. He’d say, on air, what no one else would ever dare to say. People would love him for that. But he came off as an asshole. And he became a liability. Sponsors complained. The FCC has rules. He was gone soon enough.
Top 40 radio wasn’t for him. He had to find a format where being mean and nasty and quite unpleasant, mocking and insulting what others believe, or just mocking and insulting their appearance, or maybe their disability, if they had one, would make him rich and famous. He’d sneer. He’d become a professional sneerer. He’d sneer at others, and for others, saying out loud what they dare not say. They couldn’t say that Blacks and Gays and Mexicans and feminists and the French and all registered Democrats ought to be taken out back and shot. He’d say that for them. He’d be their proxy. They had their seething resentments. He’d give them voice. He’d give those resentments wings.
All he needed was the right format for such things. Top 40 formats wouldn’t do. Nothing out there would do. He’d have to invent a new format, so he did. The call-in political insult and anger show was his invention, and that changed American politics. And now he’s gone, and the New York Times’ Robert McFadden and Michael Grynbaum offer this assessment:
Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio megastar whose slashing, divisive style of mockery and grievance reshaped American conservatism, denigrating Democrats, environmentalists, “feminazis” (his term) and other liberals while presaging the rise of Donald J. Trump, died on Wednesday at his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 70.
His wife, Kathryn, announced the death at the start of Mr. Limbaugh’s radio show, a decades-long destination for his flock of more than 15 million listeners. “I know that I am most certainly not the Limbaugh that you tuned in to listen to today,” she said, before adding that he had died that morning from complications of lung cancer.
Mr. Limbaugh revealed a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer last February. A day later, Mr. Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, during the State of the Union address.
Bachelor Jeff had come a long way:
Since his emergence in the 1980s as one of the first broadcasters to take charge of a national political call-in show, Mr. Limbaugh transformed the once-sleepy sphere of talk radio into a relentless right-wing attack machine, his voice a regular feature of daily life – from homes to workplaces and the commute in between – for millions of devoted listeners.
He became a singular figure in the American media, fomenting mistrust, grievances and even hatred on the right for Americans who did not share their views, and he pushed baseless claims and toxic rumors long before Twitter and Reddit became havens for such disinformation. In politics, he was not only an ally of Mr. Trump but also a precursor, combining media fame, right-wing scare tactics and over-the-top showmanship to build an enormous fan base and mount attacks on truth and facts.
He showed Trump the way:
His conspiracy theories ranged from baldfaced lies about Barack Obama’s birthplace – the president “has yet to have to prove that he’s a citizen,” he said falsely in 2009 — to claims that Mr. Obama’s 2009 health care bill would empower “death panels” and “euthanize” elderly Americans. In the wake of last year’s election, he amplified Mr. Trump’s groundless claims of voter fraud; on President Biden’s Inauguration Day, during one of his final broadcasts, he insisted to listeners that the new administration had “not legitimately won it.”
In 1995, in the days after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Bill Clinton denounced the “promoters of paranoia” on talk radio – remarks that were widely seen as aimed at Mr. Limbaugh.
“We hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other,” Mr. Clinton said.
Well, Clinton was right about that, and that became an industry:
Mr. Limbaugh’s immense popularity had a profound effect on the country’s media landscape. Dozens of right-wing talkers cropped up on local radio stations emulating his divisive commentary. “There is no talk radio as we know it without Rush Limbaugh; it just doesn’t exist,” Sean Hannity, the conservative Fox News and talk-radio star, said in a tribute to Mr. Limbaugh on Wednesday. “I’d even make the argument, in many ways there’s no Fox News or even some of these other opinionated cable networks.”
Maybe so, but Limbaugh was special:
In the Limbaugh lexicon, advocates for the homeless were “compassion fascists,” women who defended abortion rights were “feminazis,” environmentalists were “tree-hugging wackos.” He called global warming a hoax and cruelly ridiculed Michael J. Fox, imitating the tremors that were a symptom of the actor’s Parkinson’s disease.
When hundreds of thousands of Americans were dying of AIDS, Mr. Limbaugh ran a regular segment called “AIDS updates,” in which he mocked the deaths of gay men by playing Dionne Warwick’s recording of the song “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” He later expressed regret for the segment, but he continued to make homophobic remarks over the years; in 2020, he dismissed the presidential bid of Pete Buttigieg by claiming that Americans would be repelled by a “gay guy kissing his husband onstage.”
He held nothing back, but once he might have gone too far:
In 2012, Mr. Limbaugh lambasted Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, as a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she had testified at a congressional hearing in support of the Obama administration’s requirement that health insurance plans cover contraceptives for women.
“If we’re going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it; we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch,” Mr. Limbaugh said.
After he was denounced by President Obama and congressional leaders and companies pulled advertising from his show, Mr. Limbaugh issued a rare mea culpa, relying on one of his more common excuses: that his comments had been meant in good fun.
“My choice of words was not the best,” he said, “and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”
But by then no one cared. He was Rush. He was like that. But he was Yoda to Trump’s Luke Skywalker:
Despite his enormous following in grass-roots Republican politics, he was often viewed as a sideshow of sorts by establishment conservatives. That ended in 2015 with the meteoric rise of Mr. Trump, a Limbaugh devotee who aped the radio host’s bombastic and demagoguing style on the campaign trail and quickly took command of the crowded Republican field for president.
After Mr. Trump’s shock victory, Mr. Limbaugh sounded giddy on the air about his new ally in the White House. He hailed the president’s efforts to curtail Muslim immigration, cut taxes, promote American jobs, repeal Obamacare, raise military spending and dismantle environmental protections. As for opposition to the Trump agenda and allegations of Russian interference in the American elections in 2016, Mr. Limbaugh had a ready explanation.
“This attack is coming from the shadows of the deep state, where former Obama employees remain in the intelligence community,” he said. “They are lying about things, hoping to make it easier for them and the Obama shadow government to eventually get rid of Trump.”
He was on a roll, and he may not fade from memory. Jonathan Chait sees this:
Donald Trump’s connection to the conservative movement to this day remains a subject of acrimonious dispute among the right-wing intelligentsia – some have embraced the 45th president as the movement’s authentic leader, while others regard him warily as an interloper, a New York Democrat who captured the party from the outside.
Nobody on the right ever disowned Rush Limbaugh. Throughout his career, they agreed he was a pure representative of conservative thought. George Bush courted him with an overnight visit to the Lincoln Bedroom and the presidential box at the 1992 Republican National Convention. National Review declared him “Leader of the Opposition” in a 1993 cover story. “Limbaugh is not fringe,” gushed Washington Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti. “His views fit in the conservative mainstream. He idolizes Buckley.”
The Republican Party considered Limbaugh’s influence on their 1994 midterm sweep so profound they made him an honorary member of the incoming congressional class. “I am in Congress today because of Rush Limbaugh,” testified Mike Pence, in 2001. Upon news of his death, George W. Bush called him “an indomitable spirit with a big heart.”
Chait is not impressed:
Bush himself may have a big heart. Limbaugh oozed bile. He did not merely characterize his targets as misguided, or stupid, or even selfish. He rendered them for his audience as dehumanized targets of rage. He had special rage for feminist women, who were castrating harpies, and Black people, who were lazy, intellectually unqualified, and inherently criminal. The message he pounded home day after day was that minorities and women were seizing status and resources from white people and men, and that politics was a zero-sum struggle – and the victory would go to whichever side fought more viciously.
This was nasty stuff:
Limbaugh’s racism was obsessive, not incidental. Any measures to uplift Black America, in his mind, could only come at white expense and were inherently illegitimate. Any economic reform – even a goal like universal health care, which Democrats had sought for decades and which prevailed throughout the industrialized world – was “reparations.” No episode was too marginal to be conscripted into this message. When in 2011, some schoolkids got into a fight – as they have since schooling existed – he warned, “In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the Black kids cheering.”
This, then, is not deep thinking:
His only tools for processing opposing points of view were assertion, mockery, and resentment. Limbaugh liked to call himself smart, but he was a lifelong stranger to reason. He hid this weakness with a remarkable ability to gab smoothly and seamlessly.
One of the more telling episodes in his career came nearly 20 years ago when ESPN gave him a stint as an NFL commentator, on the calculation that he could put aside his reactionary goals and use his skills as a communicator on a different subject entirely. The experiment quickly blew up when he proclaimed, absurdly, that star quarterback Donovan McNabb was somehow overrated due to his race.
“The media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well,” he claimed. “There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve.”
If his willingness to blow up what he had called a “dream job” demonstrated anything, it was that Limbaugh’s racism was not merely a strategy to capture market share but a product of conviction.
And it was stupid stuff. But he was Trump, before Trump:
Limbaugh, like Trump, understood the party’s id years before its putative leaders grasped it. They had the same feel for the conservative audience and nearly the same message to capture it. They were almost the same person. Perhaps the only salient difference between the two men’s careers is that Limbaugh found his place sooner than Trump, at a time when a bellicose misogynist could find a valued position in the party but not as its presidential candidate. That had become a possibility by the time Trump found his way to conservatism as a viable exclusive brand.
And then they were one, although Michael Socolow adds historical perspective:
Rush Limbaugh wasn’t the first right-wing talk radio star. Before Limbaugh first offered political commentary on Kansas City’s KMBZ in 1983, Bob Grant entertained New York City’s listeners with his own cranky conservative talk on WABC in the 1970s. Nor was Grant unique; in California, in the 1960s, Joe Pyne offered a popular conservative talk radio show where he insulted hippies, union members, and feminists.
Limbaugh wasn’t the first bombastic conservative talk radio celebrity to build his own network. When Father Charles Coughlin was thrown off CBS in 1931, the management at Detroit’s WJR telephoned local stations around the United States to stitch together an independent national network for America’s “Radio Priest.” Coughlin’s network quickly grew larger than NBC and CBS.
And Limbaugh wasn’t the first radio commentator to attract massive audiences by mixing politics and entertainment. Walter Winchell also used a stylistic and memorable delivery to regularly attack or defend Hollywood celebrities and U. S. politicians in sensational broadcasts. Limbaugh even had a predecessor on the national airwaves who enjoyed attacking Democrats every day. Although forgotten today, in the 1930s, CBS employed a popular radio news analyst named Boake Carter. Carter used a stilted delivery and rhetorical affectations to criticize Franklin Roosevelt and praise Hitler…until he was fired just before World War II.
But now, Limbaugh is the issue:
Limbaugh was, in many ways, more myth than man. A hero to Republicans searching for a national conservative voice from Middle America that could rally partisans in the post-Nixon era, he was simultaneously a boogeyman to Democrats disdainful of his politics and persona. Long before polarization became commonplace in our political vernacular, he perfected it on the airwaves.
Yet Limbaugh’s measurable political power never quite matched the mystique surrounding it. His obituaries will undoubtedly emphasize his political triumphs, such as his campaign against the Clinton administration’s health care proposal or his support for Tea Party activism that helped Republican candidates in 2010. But accuracy compels an equal accounting of his failures. And there were many. In 2008, he preferred more conservative alternatives to John McCain, yet the Arizona senator captured the GOP nomination. Shortly after Barack Obama’s victory that year, Republican strategist Mike Murphy told NBC’s Meet the Press that “the noisiest parts of the conservative media machine have far less influence than the mainstream media … thinks they do.” He added, “These radio guys can’t deliver a pizza let alone a nomination, and you can case study that out in the last election.” Murphy’s claim was validated in the next cycle. In 2012, Limbaugh once again pushed for more conservative candidates than the eventual Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.
Wait. What? This guy is a loser, and Charlie Sykes adds this:
Limbaugh pioneered the rise of the outrage/entertainment wing to dominance in the GOP, a project that culminated in Trump’s presidency and a political culture that is driven less by facts and substance than by snark, sophistry and alternative realities.
To a degree that is not always understood on the left, Limbaugh invented a new genre in which conservatism could be entertaining, even fun. He was a master at using parodies as weapons. He was outrageous and daring; occasionally funny and charming, but also often dishonest and offensive.
While his friends describe him as gracious and generous, Limbaugh also cultivated an insensitivity that normalized cruelty, racism and misogyny.
As a radio talk-show host myself, I admired his skill as a broadcaster, even as I was alarmed by the role he was choosing to play.
Limbaugh was always the undisciplined wild card:
If Limbaugh was once a thought leader among conservatives, he ended his career very much as a follower, scrambling to keep up with his people. As his ratings and ad revenue faded, he found himself in competition with younger, crazier outlets and he spent less and less time on actual substance, leaning instead into outrage and grievance.
The fact is that Limbaugh was fundamentally uninterested in ideas, and by the time he had helped Trump’s improbable rise to the presidency, the host was essentially done with conservatism as a set of principles. “I never once talked about conservatism” during the presidential campaign, Limbaugh told his listeners after Trump’s election, “because that isn’t what this is about.”
For years, he had touted what he called his “Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies.” But in the era of Trump, he announced that he had changed it to the “Institute for Advanced Anti-Leftist Studies.”
Neither, of course, actually existed.
There was nonsense at the core of all this:
Limbaugh had succeeded in shaping Trump’s understanding of a conservative media where ridicule ruled and ad hominem attacks took the place of political substance.
For Trump, Limbaugh was always the role model par excellence.
Last year, when Trump baselessly suggested that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might have murdered a young staffer, Limbaugh explained to his listeners that “people don’t get the subtlety of Trump because they don’t think he has the ability to be subtle. Trump never says that he believes these conspiracy theories that he touts. He’s simply passing them on.”
Here we got Limbaugh’s late-stage sophistry in full: his tortured and disingenuous rationalizations, the hint that he is letting his audience in on some “secret knowledge,” and, of course, the “fun” of “watching these holier-than-thou leftist journalists react like their moral sensibilities have been forever rocked and can never recover.”
This is toxic talk, and Rush is dead:
Even as he faced his own mortality, Limbaugh in the past year floated conspiracy theories, toyed with the idea of secession, mocked environmental concerns, insisted the presidential election was stolen and confidently declared that the coronavirus was just “the common cold.” He seemed to raise the possibility of civil war, declaring, “There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs.” To the end, he played down the attack on the Capitol, and refused to recognize the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s electoral win, insisting that the inauguration was “something that’s been arranged, rather than legitimately sought and won.”
On Wednesday, Trump called in to Fox News to express his gratitude to the man who had done so much to prepare the way for him.
But it doesn’t matter now. This is over. It’s time to move on. Rush is gone for good. So is Donald Trump. This age of the earth is over. Now what?