Politics

Rush Limbaugh Was Trapped in the ’80s

It’s his fault that our politics were, too.

Rush Limbaugh wearing headphones, sitting in front of a mic at a desk covered in newspaper clippings
Rush Limbaugh at his desk at Talk Radio 700 KSEV during the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. Shepard Sherbell/Corbis Saba/Corbis via Getty Images

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.

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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).

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But Limbaugh, who died Wednesday at the age of 70, was undeniably a singular figure in the history of American media. Millions tuned in, for three hours daily, to listen to him perform. Although his gargantuan audience waned toward the end of his run, Limbaugh’s unique ability to rally Republicans proved remarkably lasting. For millions of Democrats and liberals, Limbaugh’s shtick never proved particularly persuasive. But it didn’t need to be, because for Republicans, it was pure gold.

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Limbaugh’s influence on U.S. politics from the Reagan era to the Trump presidency was enormous. To discuss him primarily as a media figure (many credit him with saving the AM radio band when FM radio listening became dominant) is to overlook his more general impact on American political culture. He did not innovate radio programming, nor did he leave an easily replicable formula for a successful show. Like Arthur Godfrey and Walter Winchell before him, there was only one Rush Limbaugh. And like those two earlier giants in U.S. radio, Limbaugh’s style and massive audiences will no doubt disappear along with him. For better or for worse, there won’t be another one like him.

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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.

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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.

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That same year, Limbaugh damaged any opportunity for Republicans to increase their vote share among women when he famously called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” on his program. He insulted Fluke following her testimony in Congress about health insurance and birth control, and the backlash was severe. It resulted in one of the few instances where he felt compelled to issue a public apology, as several politicians publicly distanced themselves from him and his commentary. “My choice of words was not the best,” he explained, “and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”

The Democrats successfully increased their gender-gap advantage by using the Fluke controversy against Rush and the Republicans for the rest of that year. In fact, there exists evidence that for all the brash energy Limbaugh provided Republicans, savvy Democrats could exploit him as a reliable foil to generate votes. The clearest case of this was the enormous success of Al Franken’s 1996 No. 1 New York Times bestseller Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. Millions of Americans happily purchased a book filled with the same kind of ad hominem attacks and childish insults that Rush traded in, except this time the radio star was the target rather than the perpetrator.

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Focusing too narrowly on his political controversies can obscure the impressive stagecraft that structured Limbaugh’s radio program. For example, he called his Friday phone interactions “Open Line Fridays.” To the unsuspecting, the program sounded as though it engaged random callers. Yet all calls were carefully screened, and primarily served only to advance Limbaugh’s preplanned agenda. This kind of subterfuge and calculation—offering the image of a freewheeling, courageous host ready to engage anybody (“with half my brain tied behind my back to make it fair,” he’d famously boast)—was essential to every facet of Limbaugh’s success. He needed to position himself and his listeners in very specific ways so as to make them feel superior and enlightened compared with their “low-information” neighbors. One way he did this involved regularly insulting his supposedly dense listeners in “Rio Linda.” If a point he was making seemed too sophisticated, he would rephrase it in basic, simple terms “for those listening in Rio Linda.” It was never precisely clear if Rio Linda listeners were Democrats, Republicans, or something else entirely. But what was clear—and the reason Limbaugh employed the device—was that every listener instantly felt more intelligent than the denizens of that California town.

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The imagined “Rio Linda” (as opposed to the actual village in Sacramento County) attested to Limbaugh’s radio talent. He was entirely a creation of radio, and his numerous failed television attempts—including being fired from ESPN for offering incendiary racial commentary about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb—proved just how difficult it can be to translate an intemperate and blustery persona into a cool medium. Rush’s employment of racial stereotypes for humorous effect always tiptoed up to, and regularly crossed, the line into blatant racism.

These rhetorical devices—and there were many others—demonstrated Limbaugh’s savvy self-awareness. Though the program eventually became more predictable and strident, and less fun, in its later years, Rush continued to metaphorically wink at his listeners through their radios. He’d honor himself with grandiose titles (“America’s Anchorman,” “the Doctor of Democracy,” “El Rushbo,” and “the Maha-Rushie” were just a few) in order to both feed and parody his titanic ego. Long before Stephen Colbert, Limbaugh perfected a performance designed to delight, amuse, entertain, inform, misinform, mock, and outrage people. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was trolling before that word became commonplace, and he even occasionally admitted it. “The only way to make millions is for half the nation to hate you,” he once told his cousin. She was a bit surprised at such an honest self-assessment, but Rush seemed in a pensive mood that day. The exchange occurred at his mother’s funeral.

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Unlike Colbert, Limbaugh’s on-air persona seemed to eventually envelop his existence. In the final years of his career, it was difficult for even longtime fans to identify the relative boundaries of his cartoonish outrage and buffoonish behavior. Though his fealty to Donald Trump arrived belatedly (at one point in late 2015, he criticized Trump’s attacks on Sen. Ted Cruz, while also questioning whether Trump acted like a “genuine conservative”), he later became one of the 45th president’s most fulsome supporters. After Trump awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2020, the radio star’s sycophancy became complete and unwavering. Limbaugh’s devotion even overrode his constantly professed patriotism and love of nation. On one of his final broadcasts, he ominously hinted at the possibility of secession (and the destruction of the union) to keep his beloved Donald Trump in office. Though he backpedaled quickly, it was neither funny nor in alignment with the earlier version of the Limbaugh persona that had built a radio empire on his supposed love of country. It was, however, who he had become.

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In Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh saw the perpetuation of the Reagan revolution. To maintain high ratings from the 1980s to the present was a remarkable feat, but the world had transformed and evolved in ways Rush could neither understand nor abide. He recalled the invective directed at Ronald Reagan and compared it to Trump’s experience, but he never fully engaged with the reality that Reagan had served as a governor, had run unsuccessfully for the presidential nomination prior to his election, and generally understood U.S. politics in ways that Trump proved unable to grasp. Though both were celebrity presidents who regularly misinformed the public, Reagan was genial and humorous, while Trump remained ignorant, distant, and surly. But to Limbaugh, Trump represented the best hope for restoring a world where a blowhard out of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, might become a wealthy radio star basking in the adulation of millions while playing kingmaker in national politics.

For almost four decades, Limbaugh preserved, propagated, and promoted the legacy of the man he revered and referred to as “Ronaldus Magnus.” It’s a credit to Limbaugh’s ceaseless efforts that every president since the 1980s has had to, in some ways, grapple with Reagan’s legacy. Ultimately, that’s Limbaugh’s greatest achievement: He kept the politics of the 1980s relevant and ever-present far beyond their expiration date.

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