In a universe of conservative kingmakers, Rush Limbaugh reigned supreme. The radio host, who died Wednesday at age 70, spent more than three decades on air peddling the incendiary rhetoric that would come to define the Republican Party. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Nicole Hemmer, a historian of right-wing media, about Limbaugh’s influence in the GOP and how he changed the way all of us, conservative and liberal, talk about politics. A portion of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, is transcribed below.
Mary Harris: I found myself wondering, should we be doing a show on Rush Limbaugh? Is it better not to give more oxygen to him and his points of view?
Nicole Hemmer: I think about this a lot because of my work on the far-right and questions about whether to platform or to interview people who are extremists. I think it’s incredibly important to talk to experts on extremism and on conservative media, because I think we do have to understand the role that this plays in shaping our politics, in shaping our culture. Otherwise people might not even know where these ideas that they’re hearing or these phrases that they’re hearing come from. He’s an important political actor, and just as if Donald Trump dies tomorrow, you’re going to do a show that talks about his impact. Rush Limbaugh looms nearly as large in American political history, and so we need to talk about him. What we don’t need is to leave his rhetoric unanalyzed. And I think that’s actually what we’d be doing if we weren’t talking about it today—that in the vacuum of analysis, there would be hagiography, a celebration of Rush Limbaugh on the right, and nothing really to counter it in terms of analysis from a nonconservative perspective. So I actually think it’s pretty important.
Justin Peters wrote in Slate that Rush Limbaugh creates his own news universe. If you’ve watched a Trump rally, it seems to have references to information you don’t know about, but everyone in the crowd does seem to know. That’s Rush, that’s what he started.
Absolutely. He is the progenitor of this kind of totalizing conservative media ecosystem. There had been conservative media outlets who were doing the same kind of work, who were criticizing liberal media bias, as they put it, who were asking you only to trust conservative sources. That had been going on since the 1940s and ’50s. But because Limbaugh was so big, because he had so many listeners, he was able to turn that into something much bigger and much more disconnected from reality, to create a whole universe of references, of authorities, of arguments and language that his audience instantly recognizes, that Donald Trump would instantly recognize and would co-opt, and that really have been the base of what we’ve seen happen in the conservative movement and in the Republican Party over the past several years.
When did the Republican Party realize how powerful Limbaugh was and begin changing what they did to accommodate his listenership?
It really happens in the early 1990s. At that moment, talk radio had not been a political force. It had been a curiosity at best. But he has become such a phenomenon that he not only has this radio show that millions of people are listening to, he has two bestselling books that immediately rocketed to the tops of the charts. And in the early part of the 1992 primaries, he was voicing support for Pat Buchanan, who was challenging George H.W. Bush. And so the Bush team is looking around and they’re like, “We don’t know how much power he actually has over voters, but we are going to need to treat him like he has a lot of power over voters, and we need to get him on our side.” And so there’s a way in which they turned their suspicion into a reality by believing that he could have a really powerful influence. They elevated him as a figure, inviting him to the White House. In 1994, when Republicans take the House of Representatives, they hail Rush Limbaugh. They call him a “majority maker.” They invite him to come to the introduction of the new Republican freshman class, and they make him an honorary member of their caucus because they believe that he’s the one that’s made the difference because he’s the most popular conservative in the entire country at that point.
Did any Republicans of that era express regret about courting Limbaugh?
Not really. There were certainly politicians who kept Rush Limbaugh at arm’s length. There were certainly ones who criticized him, like Michael Steele, who ran the RNC, who later apologized for it. Now, I think, because he’s no longer in the incentive structure of the Republican Party and conservative media, he can speak more frankly about it. But, you know, if you’re still in that incentive structure, if you’re still reliant on Republican votes or you’re reliant on conservative approval in order to make a living—so if you’re working at a think tank or you’re working in the media yourself—you’re hesitant to attack him because he has been held up as such a powerful figure that nobody really wants to cross him. And I think that really has dampened criticism of him from the right over the past 30 years.
Is there one skit or moment from the show that really stands out to you because it explains how this show changed how we all talk?
The phrase feminazi—you don’t hear it as much anymore, but there was a time in the 1990s and 2000s when even people who weren’t conservative sort of casually threw that word around. They might have done so ironically, but that they were adopting the language that he used seems pretty important.
But there are also moments that I think are worth calling attention to, even though they might not be as well known. One of them is this parody song he used to play back in 2008 called “Barack the Magic Negro.” You know, we talk about those moments where he made fun of people with AIDS, when he made fun of women, when he made fun of Black people in the 1980s and ’90s. But this was something that was still a core component of his show at its height. I mean, in 2008, he had just signed a new contract for eight years and $400 million. And the fact that he was doing these racist satires didn’t seem to have much of an impact on his bottom line or the audience hunger for him.
And then the other moment I want to point to is just in the last few months. He hasn’t been on air very much, but he played a central role in saying that the election was fraudulent, saying that the attack on the Capitol was filled with antifa and not actually Trump supporters. In bolstering and spreading the big lies of the Trump administration, he was very much part of our politics until the very last moment, because we’ve seen over the past few months the consequences of the misinformation and conspiracies that flow through conservative media.
Is there any argument that Rush Limbaugh’s brutal rhetoric sharpened the people who were arguing against him or somehow brought out the root of some of conservatism’s beliefs and that that helps us address them more directly?
I think probably not. Because I think that even though you could listen to Rush Limbaugh and say, OK, I definitely hear the nativism here, I definitely hear the emotional appeals to anger and to oppression and exclusion here, I definitely hear the anti-woman rhetoric, that’s not actually how listeners to Rush Limbaugh hear his show. In fact, I would bet that you will get angry emails or I will get angry emails for even suggesting that Rush Limbaugh engaged in racism or misogyny.
Yes, absolutely. I tweeted about this earlier, so I’ve already gotten a whole swarm of them. But there really is a rejection that he was anything less than a lovable person. They point to Limbaugh and say, “You just don’t understand him. You don’t get that ‘Barack the Magic Negro’ was satire. It was a joke that was making fun of the libs, not making fun of Black people.” And that is the exact same kind of rhetoric that you heard with the alt-right, that you hear with the far-right today.
It sounds like what you hear on 8chan.
Yes. And I think that’s actually really important, because Rush Limbaugh was a troll before there were internet message boards. Triggering the libs was his ethos back in the 1980s and 1990s, and that’s been part of what his show is and what his listeners respond to for three decades now.
Did the show ever evolve, or did it stay pretty much the same?
It evolved some. He certainly would change with the politics of the Republican Party. For instance, he in the last few months was talking about why deficits don’t matter and we should stop worrying about them, that’s no longer part of our politics. He’s definitely leaned into “we’re going to be the party of the working class and doing more tax on big business and big corporations.” So there has been that kind of evolution. But in terms of the core of the way that he tries to entertain and connect with his audience and the power that he has within the Republican Party, I think that was pretty stable over the course of 30 years.
He was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2020, and last year, at the State of the Union, Donald Trump gave him a surprise Medal of Freedom. What stood out to me was that he looked so different than he had in my memory. It was clear he was at the end of his life. And then he gets this standing ovation. As a viewer, it was kind of jaw-dropping to see politicians putting on such an act of loyalty to someone like him.
He has been so important to so many politicians’ careers. He had the ability to elevate them in front of his audience. He had the ability to shine a spotlight on the things that they cared about, and had a real effect when he did those things. It highlights in part just how separate our media ecosystems have become, because I think that most Americans who are not conservative don’t think of Rush Limbaugh much at all, and so you see him in these rare moments and he seems like a flashback from the past. But for so many conservatives, he is still a beloved figure at the center of their daily life. Somebody to tune into in some part of those three hours every day, like a friend who you’ve spent the last 32 years with. And over the course of the past year, it has become kind of a ritual on the show for listeners to call in and just share their memories in order to talk about how much he’s meant to them. The show has given more time to that, knowing that Limbaugh was near the end of his life.
Like a memorial service.
Yeah, like a yearlong radio memorial service. And it’s important to realize that for millions of Americans, that’s who Rush Limbaugh was.
We live in the world that Rush Limbaugh made, in a lot of ways. Whether it’s conservative talk radio shows, of which there are just dozens, whether it is podcasts, which are kind of the next generation for conservative audio consumers, people have the ability to just saturate themselves in this audio environment. There’s a real intimacy to audio. There’s an intimacy that you have with a host that you listen to over and over again. And that is something Rush Limbaugh had, but it is also something that all of these other hosts have as well. They might not be as big as Limbaugh, they might not make nearly as much money as Limbaugh made, but that conservative media ecosystem is not going to be knocked off its axis by Rush Limbaugh’s death. It’s very much going to keep going because it’s become so central to the movement and to the Republican Party.