Politics

Rush Limbaugh Wasn’t Funny

His legacy is not his humor or his showmanship or even his politics. It’s that he was a fabulist and a bully—and it worked.

Rush Limbaugh points and speaks into a microphone.
Limbaugh introduces then-President Donald Trump at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in 2019. Leah Millis/File Photo/Reuters

It is, in a way, all Rush Limbaugh’s fault. The talk radio host, who died Wednesday at 70, was the pioneer and possessing spirit of America’s intellectually bankrupt right-wing media ecosystem. For decades now, conservative outlets modeled in Limbaugh’s image have degraded the public sphere while enriching their most avid participants. Limbaugh showed moguls and entrepreneurs that the way to succeed in media was to abandon factual argument and ceaselessly repeat an ever-growing list of inane smears and theories about the left. These tactics made Limbaugh a wealthy man—and America all the poorer for his long-looming presence.

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Limbaugh did not invent modern conservatism, but he hatched the dominant way of selling it: by harnessing operatic illogic and cruelty into a tribal bonding mechanism. From 1988 to 2021, on radio stations everywhere, Limbaugh spewed paleoconservative cant and nonsense, unfalsifiable antediluvian theories rooted in a relentless mockery and vilification of the other. He was forever warning his listeners of the homegrown pinko threat posed by liberals, intellectuals, journalists, environmentalists, feminists, and the sorts of suspicious souls who got their news from credible sources rather than shows like his.

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His screeds were punctuated by an endless sense of self-pity over what he deemed the right’s unfair treatment by the left and the mainstream media. In Limbaugh’s telling, conservatives were the real victims of systemic oppression in America. At a time when Reagan-era deregulation had opened the door for new national media voices, Limbaugh’s bombast was a siren song for people looking for convenient scapegoats. He presented simplistic demi-arguments that could be easily ingested by even the dimmest denizens of radioland, and he did so with a malevolent glee that was often mistaken for good humor by those who were not his targets.

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Some of Limbaugh’s obituarists have argued that, if nothing else, the man was very funny and possessed of a generational showmanship. If so, his was the wit of the prep school bully making fun of the foreign exchange student’s lunch. Limbaugh made a career out of relentlessly antagonizing anyone he thought threatened the primacy of his belief system—which essentially held that no one had any right to tell Rush Limbaugh what he could or could not say, think, or do. Limbaugh’s defining characteristic—the one that would go on to infect our politics—wasn’t his conservatism. It was that he was an abrasive jerk.

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Consider: Limbaugh coined the term feminazi, resigned from ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown after suggesting Black quarterbacks such as Donovan McNabb owed their jobs to political correctness, mused that the NBA should change its name to the “Thug Basketball Association,” claimed the actor Michael J. Fox exaggerated his Parkinson’s disease, said in 2009 that President Barack Obama “has yet to prove that he’s a citizen,” called a Georgetown Law student a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she spoke out in favor of contraception, said George Zimmerman “just got a little overzealous” when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin and, moreover, that it was Martin who might have been guilty of a hate crime.* That’s just a limited selection of the man’s pre-Trump-era greatest hits. Limbaugh was the Sherman of the culture wars, forever scorching the earth around him, giving no quarter to those whom he deemed his enemies, ensuring that nothing would grow in his colonized terrain other than the tainted seeds that he planted.

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In recent years, Limbaugh’s cheerful snottiness had curdled into irredeemable bile, and the bounciness of his best shows slowed into a joyless trudge. I spent much of the past 12 months listening to Limbaugh’s show, and I can report that it was no longer very good. The host had become old and sick with lung cancer—and political circumstances had also made him redundant. As Donald Trump assumed Limbaugh’s previous role as the nation’s most prominent politics asshole, the radio host receded, becoming a courtier to the president. Still, it is by now conventional wisdom that there would have been no Trump without Limbaugh. The host didn’t just set the stage for Trumpism; he wrote the script for it. And now that the curtain has fallen, it’s worth taking one last trip to Rush’s radioland, to celebrate that we never have to go there again, to understand why we will never truly leave it behind.

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Rush Hudson Limbaugh III was a late bloomer. A college dropout from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, he worked at various small-market radio stations for a few years in the 1970s, spinning rock records and doing bits under the alias “Jeff Christie” before giving up on radio entirely and taking a job in sales with the Kansas City Royals. He resurfaced in Sacramento in the mid-1980s, where he replaced the caustic Morton Downey Jr. on KFBK-AM. (“Mort the Mouth” would soon become nationally notorious for his trash-TV talk show, where he yelled at his guests while blowing cigarette smoke in their faces.) In Sacramento, Limbaugh married the comedic timing he had developed on rock radio with the curdled dinner-table politics he had absorbed as a boy from his domineering father. There, in the back half of the Reagan era, Limbaugh honed his act. He sometimes called himself “El Rushbo,” a big-brained oracle who possessed “talent on loan from God” and was correct “97.9 percent of the time.”

How much of this bluster was simply a character devised by an AM radio journeyman desperate to find his footing before hitting middle age? Though Limbaugh’s conservatism was never a put-on, biographers Zev Chafets and Paul Colford have suggested that the host’s on-air persona was in some ways an affectation—at least at one point. “To stand out in radio, I have to be outrageous, I have to be ‘on,’ but I have to do it my way,” Colford’s The Rush Limbaugh Story quotes Limbaugh as saying. If his “El Rushbo” shtick was an act, it was a successful one. Limbaugh became a star in Sacramento, and in 1988, at age 37, he decided to go national.

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In his first book, The Way Things Ought to Be, Limbaugh recounted just how far-fetched coast-to-coast syndication seemed at the time. In the late 1980s, American daytime radio was dominated by local personalities, well-known within their markets but irrelevant elsewhere. “We were planning to do what virtually everyone at any meaningful radio station in the country said was impossible: syndicate a controversial, issues-oriented program during the middle of the day,” he wrote. “When I say that no one gave us a chance, I am not exaggerating.” On this point, at least, Limbaugh was telling the truth. Colford, then the radio columnist for Newsday, noted that he had seen “so many conservative talk-show hosts come and go from the local dial that [Limbaugh’s] arrival at WABC-AM seemed about as permanent as a manager’s job with George Steinbrenner’s Yankees.” (Zing!)

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But America was ready for Rush. The irreverent Limbaugh was a fresh, entertaining listen—and, more important, his entry into the national sphere was perfectly timed. In 1987, Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission had abandoned the Fairness Doctrine, the long-standing policy that attempted to promote objective news coverage by requiring broadcast media stations to give equal time to the other side whenever they aired a partisan political opinion. This prompted the talk radio boom—and created a new market for unfiltered conservative punditry.

Limbaugh benefited from this first mover’s advantage, colonizing this new terrain in the name of “Reaganism with a rock ’n’ roll beat,” as Broadcasting magazine described Limbaugh’s show. His show took off like a rocket from hell. Within a couple of years, Limbaugh was on hundreds of stations, had a television program (it didn’t last), was being profiled by Vanity Fair, and had been praised by conservative icons ranging from William F. Buckley to Ronald Reagan. He developed a sort of Elmer Gantry–meets–Newt Gingrich stage show in which he monologued, told stories, and warbled the 1950s novelty tune “Ain’t Got No Home” in a duet with Clarence “Frogman” Henry. (I am not making this up.) By 1994, his radio show was so popular that he was credited with helping Gingrich and the Republican Party retake the House of Representatives in that year’s “Republican Revolution.” “I would go to political meetings all over the country and hear conservatives speaking the way he speaks, saying the things he says,” political consultant Mary Matalin told Chafets for his book Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One. “Newt had come up with the plan, but Rush had sold it in every district in the country.”

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What Limbaugh sold, more or less, were the culture wars. If Limbaugh didn’t singlehandedly instigate the culture wars—those politically fruitful and wholly manufactured ideological conflicts between God-fearing, F-150-driving Real Americans and the sorts of people who recycle and wear Birkenstocks—he certainly spent decades goading his troops into battle. “It’s a war of competing ideas and worldviews,” Limbaugh explained in his second book, See, I Told You So. “We’re reluctant as a society now to teach that certain things are wrong. We think the highest ideal is simply to teach people how to love one another and get along. That may have a nice ring to it, but what that means in practice is teaching kids about anal sex and using a textbook called Heather Has Two Mommies.” To the battlements, Moral Majoritarians!

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This sort of illogical nonsense was not meant to convince you—or anyone, really—of Limbaugh’s point. What is there even to be convinced of? That there’s a direct line between the Barney theme song and, like, sodomy parties behind the high school bleachers? Such lines of argument aren’t supposed to persuade or even to function within the standard parameters of political debate. This was crusader stuff. Religious and condemnatory by their very nature, the culture wars were designed to other an entire half of the country, to make voting for anyone with a D next to their name a sin.

Who was the winner of Rush’s crusade? “This is a never-ending battle,” Limbaugh announced at the end of The Way Things Ought to Be, “and if you want to follow the chronicling of their demise and learn about the people who are helping make America great again”—emphasis mine—“I can think of no better way than for you to tune into my radio and TV shows.” With that final clause, Limbaugh gave away the game.

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In 1992, four years after launching his nationally syndicated show, Limbaugh signed a new contract that tied his compensation to his show’s profits, predicting that he could earn as much as $5 million in 1993, according to Colford—who also reported that Limbaugh snagged a $2.5 million advance for See, I Told You So. These sums were a pittance compared with the eight-figure yearly salaries he would soon come to command. At the time, though, Limbaugh was setting new standards for what a political talker could earn. And plenty of other people decided that they wanted a piece of the action.

“I’m not sure where the business is going,” Bill O’Reilly, then co-host of the television program Inside Edition, said in 1993. “But my gut says it’s going in the direction of Rush, and, man, I’m going to be there.” That same year, at the beginning of See, I Told You So, Limbaugh extended “deep gratitude to my friend Roger Ailes,” who within three years would create his own cable television network of conservative talkers based on Limbaugh’s rhetorical model. Fox News offered talk radio–grade punditry dressed up with the residual veneer of objectivity that viewers still associated with TV news. The network assembled a stable of commentators who also were eager to grow famous and get rich by ceaselessly calling attention to the purported outrages committed by the left and the liberal media.

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Limbaugh and his peers did not invent the demand for these programs. As the ensuing ratings showed, plenty of Americans already had a real appetite for this sort of febrile whining. But Limbaugh and the rest did all they could to nurture and cultivate those audiences, in part by attempting to poison them against all other sources of media—which, after all, were exclusively populated and controlled by a bunch of dirty liberal liars. Soon, the goal became not just to resist the mainstream media, but to provide an entirely separate epistemic system from the mainstream media.

“The left has been very successful because it understands the importance of the culture—of framing the debate and influencing the way people think about problems. But the Culture War is a bilateral conflict, my friends,” Limbaugh wrote. “There’s no reason on earth we should be content to sit back and watch our values and our cultural heritage slip away. Why don’t we simply get in the game and start competing for control of those key cultural institutions? In other words, why not fight back?”

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Limbaugh didn’t just fight back; he devised the battle plan. Even after he won—conservative punditry, across all platforms, generally reaches a far wider and more avid audience than its liberal opposite—he kept fighting back, because oppositional thinking was central to his appeal. He remained the carnival barker of the conservative movement. But it’s hard to portray yourself as an aggrieved and marginalized voice when you’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars, when you’ve already gotten everything you’ve ever wanted. As Rush got older and wealthier, his show got dumber and worse. Toward the end, he was barely attempting to be funny or entertaining or thought-provoking or informative. But people still listened.

And here we are today, all of us, struggling under the immensely dumb and aggravating cognitive burdens of the world Limbaugh inspired. I have covered right-wing media for Slate for a few years now, and I am still occasionally struck by its fundamental weirdness. It’s a parallel world, and to drop in on it from our own can be a truly disorienting experience, like attending a midnight screening of a cult classic that everyone in the theater but you has memorized. You’ll encounter storylines with which you are unfamiliar, key figures you’ve never heard of, nicknames and references that you will not understand. This world is fueled by dubious news stories that are published by websites you do not read, validated by experts with no relevant credentials, amplified by Limbaugh and his peers. It is a world that excludes all divergent opinion, one that is predicated on an entirely separate set of facts and sources than the one relied upon by the rest of the press.

Limbaugh was at the vanguard of this experiment, and it worked so well that the country is now frequently at the mercy of a bunch of malevolent loons. It’s not that everything bad about American politics today can be traced back to Limbaugh. It’s that the sneering, self-pitying, bad-faith style of argument that he perfected is practiced not just by right-wing media, but by many right-wing politicians, too. Every senator who jumps on television at a moment’s notice to whine about cancel culture even as hundreds of thousands of Americans have died of a virus that many on the right had been loath to admit even existed; every representative who exalts baseless conspiracies while railing against stimulus payments for the unemployed; every governor who cares more about owning the libs than about administering his or her state; every local official who seems not just to misunderstand the role of government but to actively resent it: They are all Limbaugh’s children. The mean, self-pitying illogic he mainstreamed is endemic now. The chief ghoul is gone, but the ghoulishness is here to stay.

Correction, Feb. 18, 2021: This article originally stated Limbaugh was fired by Monday Night Football for his racist comments about Donovan McNabb; in fact, he resigned from ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown after making those comments.

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