Rush Limbaugh died on Wednesday from complications of lung cancer. In October, Justin Peters reflected on the conservative radio host’s final mission: helping reelect President Donald Trump.
On Sept. 29, the day of the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Rush Limbaugh had a shocking story to share on his daily radio show. First he read the headline: “Biden’s Texas Political Director Implicated in Massive Mail-In Ballot Harvesting Scheme in Harris County.” To hear him tell it, the story was yet another blockbuster that the pro-Biden media was suppressing. “Now these are explosive charges in this story … and it’s the seriousness of the charge that matters,” Limbaugh told his listeners. “A Biden campaign operative in Texas is attempting to rig the 2020 election with the help of others and a massive ballot-harvesting scheme, according to two private investigators who testified under oath that they have video evidence, documentation, and witnesses to prove it. With the help of mass mail-in ballots, the illegal ballot harvesting operation could harvest 700,000 ballots.”
That’s a lot of ballots! In Limbaugh’s telling, the scheme was yet more trickery from the thoroughly dirty Democratic Party. “They just resent the hell out of fair elections. They resent having to sit for them,” Limbaugh said. “And then they’re doing what they can to frighten you if you show up. You can either get COVID-19 or you can get beat up. Who knows what? Anyway, let me take a brief break. We’ll be back before you know it. Hang in there. Be tough, folks. Don’t go anywhere.”
No one was going anywhere. Limbaugh has worked very hard to cultivate loyalty from his listeners, to the point that many would never consider turning to another source for their afternoon news. No matter that Limbaugh’s monologue was, as usual, mostly nonsense. It is true that Harris County, Texas, exists, and it is also true that Joe Biden is running for president. The rest lives only in the febrile, conspiratorial minds of the right-wing echo chamber in which Limbaugh has, for more than 30 years, been the loudest voice. For three hours per day every weekday since 1988, with an insouciant smirk and an assortment of sound effects, Limbaugh perfected the mass-media art of getting low-information voters hot and bothered about irrelevant bullshit.
And now Rush Limbaugh is running out of time.
In January, Limbaugh was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Two weeks later, he attended Trump’s State of the Union address as a guest of the president and surprise recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. In his balcony seat, the 69-year-old host looked frail and somewhat unsteady. Wires from his cochlear implants—Limbaugh cannot hear without them—ran from his ears to his temples. A dusting of white hair encircled his round face. Trump thanked Limbaugh for his “decades of tireless devotion to our country,” and half the chamber broke out into applause.
The award was more than an expression of sympathy for a sick man. It was a very public curtain call for the leading light of American cesspool conservatism. By late October, Limbaugh revealed to his listeners that his cancer is, in fact, terminal. Amid the exhaustion of treatment, Limbaugh has but one final mission in his theater of the culture wars: ensure Trump’s reelection.
So what was Limbaugh talking about on Sept. 29? The story seemed to exist only on right-wing websites, but I eventually traced it back to a conservative site called NationalFile.com, “America’s New Choice for Real News.” (You might know National File as the outfit that published some vaguely naughty text messages sent by the Democratic candidate in North Carolina’s Senate race.) The article in question cited as its proof two affidavits submitted by private investigators, one of whom appears to be a right-wing voter-fraud obsessive, among other things. (The other, an ex-cop, was fired from the Houston Police Department in 2003 after ordering the arrest of 278 people in a Kmart parking lot as part of a botched drag-racing raid. Then again, who hasn’t botched a drag-racing raid or two in their lives?)
In other words, if you spent 20 minutes looking into the story Limbaugh was touting, it sure didn’t seem credible by any objective standard. But you wouldn’t have known any of this just by listening to The Rush Limbaugh Show that day. It would have just sounded like a big, blockbuster story, and you would have walked away shaking your head over this new low from the craven Democrats.
Throughout his career, Limbaugh’s tactics have never really changed: He takes the power of the ad hominem to its limits and then beyond, making his ideological opponents seem unreasonable and fascistic by hammering on their purported hypocrisy, unscrupulousness, and intolerance for dissent. Limbaugh has never been a policy wonk, and his listeners are not particularly interested in nitty-gritty arguments. Instead of an affirmative case for small-government conservatism, Limbaugh offers his listeners something to stand against.
Those tactics might sound familiar now. But it’s easy to forget that there were no meaningful national conservative talkers before Limbaugh’s debut in 1988, and there certainly weren’t any who conducted their shows like he did. Limbaugh booked no guests. He barely took callers. Instead, he monologued for three hours, playing sound effects and turgid song parodies—instead of “Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” for instance, it’d be “The Little First Lady With Megalomania,” about Hillary Clinton—and projecting an extreme confidence in his own opinions. For listeners who were insecure in their own inarticulate reactionary beliefs, Limbaugh offered validation and a smirking sense of superiority.
I recently revisited a February 1994 episode of Limbaugh’s radio show that had been simulcast on C-SPAN. The show was a lively three hours’ worth of flippant tribalism, insult comedy, and wacky-pack Radio Guy antics. Limbaugh needled feminists, the NAACP, and tree-huggers—“one of the most beautiful sounds you can hear in the world today is a tree being chopped down,” he proclaimed, over the sound of a buzzing chainsaw. Most of all, he took it to Bill and Hillary Clinton, who in his telling had plunged America into a “hostage crisis,” much like when Iran had seized those embassy workers in 1979. Limbaugh didn’t exactly argue against the Clinton health plan itself so much as all those who backed it. “Anybody who disagrees with any aspect of their plan is being attacked,” Limbaugh asserted. “They’re out there as though dissenting is some crime. ‘How dare these people run commercials against us. How dare these people disagree with us?’ ”
If Ronald Reagan had concealed the greed and cruelty of his administration’s policies behind his own genial, reassuring personality, then Limbaugh sold conservatism by relentlessly smart-alecking liberalism. (Not in the hyperliterate Dennis Miller sense, to be clear; more like the kid who gets detention for mocking the substitute teacher’s last name.) But it has never been exactly clear just how much Rush means it and how much of his shtick is a put-on. He succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, but I still do not know whether Limbaugh is a true believer, or just an errant shock jock who stuck with the one gimmick that worked.
Limbaugh still broadcasts to an audience of millions every day, but he doesn’t quite sound like himself anymore. It’s not just because, like his peers in the far-right media, he can’t stop talking about deep-state corruption, and it’s not just because that elastic grin of a voice now sags a bit with age and illness. These days, Limbaugh’s show just isn’t very good, both by the standards of talk radio and by the heights he himself once set. Rather than a roaring iconoclast, he is a creaky, grumbling patriarch amid the din of his own un-shut-up-able progeny.
In 2020, The Rush Limbaugh Show is a stripped down version of the bells-and-whistles paleocon extravaganza of Limbaugh’s glory days. The sound effects are gone, as are the song parodies. He barely bothers to make jokes, even though wryness was central to his act for years. In late September, for example, Limbaugh turned his attentions to how he presumed liberals would respond to Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. “They hate Christianity and Catholicism and they hate the belief system itself. They hate what Christianity and Catholicism provide the believers: something other than the state to believe in,” Limbaugh said, assuring his listeners that “the genuine disgust and hatred they have for religious people will not be contained.” This argument wasn’t particularly convincing, and it didn’t even try to be funny. It simply felt bitter and stale.
“Here we are, ladies and gentlemen, right back at it. Told you we’d be here today, and we are,” Rush said at the top of his show on Thursday, as though it was all muscle memory. “The learning never stops,” he said, at the “Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies, and all other studies that matter.” But the syllabus isn’t very dynamic anymore. Every day, Limbaugh flips through stories from right-leaning news organizations like Breitbart, PJ Media, FoxNews.com, and a site called Just the News. After a few weeks of tuning into Limbaugh, you really will start to think these partisan outlets are indeed just the news.
After the intro, Limbaugh segued into mocking Kamala Harris for allegedly drawing a light crowd at a recent “car horn rally” in Arizona, comparing the “one, two, three, four, five, six cars” at Harris’ event with the robust attendance at Trump’s own Arizona rally. “These gigantic crowds for Trump, which are larger than they were four years ago, don’t matter. They just don’t matter. They’re not a factor,” Limbaugh said, affecting the persona of a Democrat trying to downplay Trump’s chances for reelection. He didn’t do a voice or anything, though, like he might have in the Clinton era: He just said it.
The show went on like that for three hours. Limbaugh bad-mouthed former Fox anchor Shepard Smith for drawing poor ratings on his new CNBC show. He shared an anecdote about how Trump supporter Jack Nicklaus once complimented his golf swing. (“He came up and made a point of telling me about my swing, that he thought he could learn from it. That’s just … that was just the most incredible thing.”) He predicted that, in the event of a Biden victory, Democrats will extend this year’s COVID-19 restrictions into all aspects of American life. “If you think they’re gonna give up the kind of control that they are exerting over people during the pandemic, you got another thing to think about, because they’re gonna create new reasons to not lose control over you, the way they’re exerting it here and now,” he said.
You may have noticed that everything Limbaugh said could have been lifted directly from a Trump speech. In the back half of the show, Limbaugh even dropped in on a Trump rally that was in progress in Tampa, Florida, cutting in periodically to interject his own commentary. “We’re never gonna lock down again,” the president told his audience, to great applause. “Yes we will!” Rush said. “If Joe Biden wins, we’re gonna lock down! Fauci’s gonna see to it!” Though he was raising his voice, it sounded like a faint echo.
When Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy in 2015, he insulted his opponents, he bashed members of minority groups, he lied and dissembled and mocked and belittled, and he couched it all in an appeal to preserving and restoring traditional American values. It was an unusual rhetorical strategy for a presidential candidate but one that was familiar to millions of media consumers.
It’s not strictly accurate to say that Limbaugh is the man who got Trump elected, but it is probably correct to say that Limbaugh, as much as anyone, helped create the conditions not just for a candidate like Trump to succeed but also for Trump to conduct his aggrieved, pugnacious, and dishonest presidency in the way he has done. Even the term “make America great again” had already been used by Limbaugh in his 1992 book The Way Things Ought to Be.
Limbaugh had initially supported Ted Cruz in the 2016 presidential primaries, calling him “the closest in our lifetimes we have ever been to Ronald Reagan.” Once Cruz’s hopes fell apart, Limbaugh shifted his support to Trump, albeit somewhat begrudgingly. (It helped that Trump was running against Limbaugh’s longtime nemesis Hillary Clinton.) “Can somebody point me to the conservative on the ballot?” Limbaugh asked his listeners in September 2016. “‘What do you mean, Rush? Are you admitting Trump’s not a conservative?’ [Snorts.] Damn right I am! Folks, when did I ever say that he was?” But he eventually took to Trump like Narcissus to his own reflection.
Trump’s entire public persona is cobbled together from warmed-over talk show leavings, so when he actually won the presidency, it was in some ways the apotheosis of Limbaugh’s career. But it also signaled the end. Whereas once Limbaugh’s show was the right’s most important vector for conservative vitriol—even after Fox News became liberals’ main boogeyman—now his show started to sound sort of superfluous.
Limbaugh had long helped free up conservative candidates to maintain veneers of pleasant reasonability so they could pick off centrists and Main Street Republicans. In doing so he and his ilk so primed the populace that Trump had no need for the veneer. Trump played to the talk-radio base because the base was now the party, more than anyone had realized. Limbaugh had all but invented the culture wars that Trump was now the commanding general of—founded on the idea that the Democratic Party is the party of libertinism and immorality. “It’s not enough to live and let live,” wrote Limbaugh in 1993, channeling some imaginary liberal commissar eager to pack you off to a forced reeducation camp for failing to salute Jane Fonda. “You must chant their mantra as well; you must repent, renounce your own values, and pronounce those of the radical left as superior and adopt them.” They’re the same points he still hits 27 years later. The enemy never changed, just the size of the army.
Now we’re approaching the end of his particular battle. Limbaugh has been a spectral presence on his own program all year, missing days on end for cancer treatments. It is all he can do to just make it through a three-hour episode these days, and while he holds it together while he is on the air, it is not hard to tell that the man is tired. I can admire, unreservedly, the courage and fortitude he has shown in continuing to show up and make his way through his program. But the old malevolent joie de vivre is gone, replaced by a sort of curdled obstinacy. Limbaugh isn’t changing anyone’s life anymore. After three decades hogging the conservative spotlight, he knows he is now playing a supporting role to the new standard-bearers of his noxious legacy.
In his biography Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, Zev Chafets notes how Limbaugh bounced around various small-market radio stations as a garden-variety “funny” rock DJ in the 1970s, not finding any sustained success until he developed his “El Rushbo” persona in Sacramento, California, in the mid-1980s. Chafets writes that Limbaugh had been “so detached and apolitical that he didn’t register to vote until he was 35 years old.” At this point, though, it might not matter whether Rush Limbaugh ever really meant the things he said. The conservative media ecosystem Limbaugh birthed has created its own news and information infrastructure—a mutant ouroboros with infinite heads and tails, so that it can forever feed on itself, with no need to draw sustenance from any other source or ever acknowledge the real world.
If you have watched the waning days of Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign and at any point realized that you have absolutely no idea what he means or to whom he is referring when he casually suggests that Joe Biden is “the big man,” or treats as a smoking gun the statements of someone named Tony Bobulinski, or digresses at his rallies about unspecified horrors occurring in liberal-run states and cities, then you have witnessed the victory of the ongoing conservative media project that Limbaugh initiated in 1988.
Naturally, Limbaugh has spent this fall effectively touting the inevitability of a Trump victory, while simultaneously whining that no one in the mainstream media thinks the president has a chance. “Trump is out there working harder than anybody ever has in politics for four years. I can’t believe there’s no reward for that,” Limbaugh said on Tuesday. The president has spent this fall doing the exact same thing. The two men, as usual, speak with precisely the same voice.
This dark consonance was never more clear than on Oct. 9, when Trump sat down with Limbaugh for a two-hour “radio rally.” The interview came at the end of a week in which the host had been out for cancer treatment. Trump, too, had been recently ill with COVID-19, and the whole thing sort of seemed like the ghoulish MAGA version of your mom taking you out for ice cream after a doctor’s visit. The interview was long, digressive, and fawning. “I want you to imagine you have just landed in a gleaming majestic Air Force One to the largest radio rally in history,” Limbaugh began. “Instead of thousands cheering as you walk up to the stage, there are millions and millions of patriots out there right now anxiously awaiting to hear from you.”
“Well, I want to thank you, Rush,” Trump replied. “You’re a fantastic man, a friend of mine, but before I really even knew you as a friend, you were like a supporter and I said, ‘I know that guy, he’s got a big audience,’ but I never even knew the importance of what you do and what you say, and now I do very well. And it keeps us all in the game.”
Over the subsequent two hours, the two men played all of their greatest hits. They bashed the “lamestream” media. They referred to “the Russia hoax” and “the Ukraine hoax.” They portrayed Joe Biden as a sundowning puppet of the radical left, which will likely use the 25th Amendment to remove him from office as soon as he is sworn in. Trump bragged that he had been nominated for two Nobel Peace Prizes, and Limbaugh informed him that he had actually been nominated for three. (“Some guy from Italy has nominated you,” Limbaugh said. “Oh, that’s good. It won’t be written about,” Trump responded.) They touted Trump’s purported accomplishments in office while simultaneously pissing and moaning about how nobody wanted to tout Trump’s purported accomplishments in office.
Limbaugh came across as obsequious and deferential to the president. If it was an act, it was a good one: Limbaugh sounded for all the world like the proud conductor of the Trump train. This growling, barking defender of the reactionary right had been wholly reduced to a lapdog. At times, Trump didn’t even have to speak.
RUSH: Then you’re also implementing policies, sir, that they detest. Your agenda is a small government—well, it was before the pandemic hit. Your agenda is basically pro-freedom, pro-liberty, pro–the American citizen first. You want to make America … Can you believe “make America great again” is controversial?
THE PRESIDENT: Mmm-hmm. Yes.
RUSH: Who in the world could find a problem with that?
THE PRESIDENT: [Chuckling.]
RUSH: These sick people have found a way, make America great again is reason to destroy you? It doesn’t make any sense.
It was a case of two mouths devoted to one idea, and that idea is Donald Trump. But, then again, the idea of Donald Trump was, in all meaningful respects, the brainchild of Rush Limbaugh. “We love you, and I meant everything I said today,” Limbaugh said at the end of the episode, and with his concluding sentiments he might as well have been talking about himself. “You are the person standing in the way. You are the one that true American patriots have invested their hopes for their future and their kids’ future in. You are the person they are depending on to stave off this attack on our country that is coming from inside. … It’s coming from inside our country as opposed to outside. Although that’s happening, too.”
“It is, largely, and you know what I say oftentimes when people say that?” Trump replied. ‘“I have no choice. I have to do it. I have no choice.’”
Limbaugh might have had a choice at one point, a choice to stop being a crabbed, reactionary loudmouth and do something different. That choice is gone now. The conservative movement—the wackos and the reply guys, the pundits and the dissemblers, the Q disciples and the truthers—has barricaded itself within the echo chamber Rush built. They swap memes and theories in a big windowless room that admits no outside light, and they have grown so accustomed to the smell that they’re convinced it’s the outside world that stinks.
This is the right wing we’re stuck with, even if Trump loses, even after Limbaugh dies. And a Biden victory can only make it worse, for there is nothing conservative media like more than playing the victim. Spinning spurious grievances into bullshit extending beyond the horizon is the quintessential talk-radio trick. Limbaugh pioneered it. Trump perfected it. It’s a potent, brilliant idea that will outlive them both.
Support Slate’s politics coverage
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Join Slate Plus to support our work. You’ll get unlimited articles and a suite of great benefits.