What Rush Limbaugh Left Behind

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S1: We are about to be joined, I understand, by the president, the former president of the United States, who, you

S2: know, Wednesday afternoon, former President Donald Trump called in to Fox News to give his first interview since leaving office, not about his impeachment trial, not about the arrests of his supporters who stormed the Capitol on January 6th.

S3: President Trump, are you with me?

S2: I am and this interview was about Rush Limbaugh, the conservative media icon who died this week at age 70.

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S4: Great care. He was very brave. I mean, he, in theory, could have been gone four months ago, really. He just he was fighting until the very end. He was a fighter.

S3: It was this moment that showed you just how integral, not just Fox News, which has often been the center of the conversation about Trump and right wing media. But how central right wing radio has been to Donald Trump’s career?

S2: Nicole Hemmer chronicles the way pundits like Limbaugh have inserted themselves into American politics. In her book Messengers of the Right, she says, in a universe of conservative kingmakers, Limbaugh reigned supreme because, sure, currying favor with him would help you reach constituents.

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S3: But in another way, Rush Limbaugh looms even larger as the person who pioneered this blend of entertainment and politics and bigotry and insults as a conservative rhetoric that audiences have been consuming since 1988. And so by the time Donald Trump comes along, even though he might have seemed a very bizarre and over the line and incomprehensible to many people who don’t listen to conservative talk radio, for people who had been listening to Rush Limbaugh, he sounded pretty familiar.

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S2: He made sense.

S3: Yeah. It was something that they were attracted to because it was a language and a patois that made sense to them.

S2: Speaking Rush Limbaugh’s language meant having fun at other people’s expense. In Rush’s words, Hillary Clinton became a witch with a capital B. Barack Obama became a magical Negro and feminists became feminazi.

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S5: Is that word feminazi? They have never gotten over. They have because that word actually better explained what they were all about.

S2: What adjectives would you use to describe Rush Limbaugh, like racist, xenophobic, misogynist, all of them,

S3: I, I would use those adjectives. I think that his his show certainly engaged in racism, misogyny. I mean, this is the guy who coined the term feminazi who called women reporters, including yours truly an info babe and regularly insulted women and belittled women, belittled people of other races, belittled immigrants. And do you think there is a

S2: difference between the man and his show?

S3: I think that it’s not the most important question in the world, actually. I think we spend too much time trying to divine what’s in the hearts of the people who use racism and sexism and nativism in order to build power, whether it’s, you know, making tons of money like Rush Limbaugh did, whether it’s amassing political power. I don’t think it necessarily really matters what was in his heart so much as what his show was

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S6: or

S2: what his show was. Turns out to have been a road map for the Republican Party, which is why today on this show, we’re going to talk about what Rush brought and where it’s left us. A Mary Harris you’re listening to. What next? Stick with us. I found myself wondering as we got ready for this interview, like, should we be doing a show on Rush Limbaugh, like, is it better not to to give more oxygen to him and his points of view? And I wonder how you thought about that.

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S3: So 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. And 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 and 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. So he’s an important political actor and just says 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 would be doing if we weren’t talking about it today, that in the vacuum of analysis, there would be hagiography, right. A celebration of Rush Limbaugh on the right and nothing really to counter it in terms of analysis from a non conservative perspective. So I actually think it’s it’s pretty important.

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S2: I wonder if we can move a little bit chronologically through Rush Limbaugh’s life to get an idea of both who he was and how he influenced modern conservatism. Like I read that rush, he started out as a rock deejay. He only actually voted at 35. How much do you know about how he got started?

S3: Yeah, he did start off as a disc jockey. And this is actually a really important part of his story because he was an entertainer first. He grew up in a pretty conservative family. He had imbibed at his father’s knee all of these ideas about right wing politics. So he was conservative. It just wasn’t central to his career. Back when he was a disc jockey, he grew up in a family of lawyers. His dad was a lawyer. His brothers were lawyers. They wanted him to be a lawyer. And instead, he is a college dropout who becomes a disc jockey, become somebody who does sports radio. That becomes a really big part of his life for a while. And it is only in really the 1980s when he starts to experiment more with political talk. But what happened was he started to weave in political analysis into what he was saying, and he found audiences really responded to it, sometimes very negatively, but they really responded. And as he continued to push in that direction, it made him really popular. People seemed to both like it and engage with it. And soon that’s the direction that his show took, that he after he got fired from one of his many sports shows positions, he tried it out as being a kind of political commentator, but a political commentator from the right. And there was such an appetite for that first in Missouri where he was, and then out in Sacramento, where in 1984 he replaces Morton Downey Jr., who was a kind of shock jock out there. He starts to transform into this political talk show host. But I think that origin story is really important because he takes all of those skills that he learned as an entertainer and applies them to his show. And that’s something that really hadn’t been done in conservative media before, that it would be both conservative and entertaining.

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S2: And he comes up with this format, too, which is just like him talking, but then also songs like Silly Songs. But there were often like really jarring to and it was like ours and they didn’t even have to be guests.

S3: Yeah, it really does have this morning zoo vibe. If you listen to, like drive time radio, you get a lot of these same features, like the satirical songs

S6: made class tax break in high school in Texas.

S3: And he had callers. That was something that he was able to do more, especially when he was at the national level and he became a national figure at a time when you had satellite and you had toll free calling and so people could call from across the country while he was talking. But guests weren’t. They were part of his show, but he was much more interested in his voice being the dominant voice. He didn’t do a ton of interviews. He didn’t have a ton of guests. He’d have a few each day. But he really was the core and the center of the show. And it was a new model for what national conservative talk radio could look like, one that within a decade would have just dozens of imitators.

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S2: Limbaugh was less interested in the particulars of conservative policy than the perceived hypocrisy and shamelessness of his ideological opponents and his passionate attacks on everything and everyone from deep state corruption to the NAACP. They gave his listeners something to stand against this.

S5: This election is really boils down to two propositions. One is it’s between a man, you know, who believes America is good and decent and great against great people, against people who are behind Joe Biden, who think America isn’t good. They think America is unjust and immoral from the days of our founding, and they are trying to undermine and transform this country.

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S2: Justin Peters, who’s a writer here at Slate, he wrote a profile of Limbaugh in October. And the way he put it was that Rush Limbaugh creates his own news universe. And if you’ve watched a Trump rally and you haven’t really understood what’s going on, 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.

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S3: Absolutely, I mean, he is the progenitor of this kind of. Totalizing conservative media ecosystem said there had been conservative media outlets who were doing the same kind of work, who are 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 1950s. 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 the Republican Party over the past several years.

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S2: When did the Republican Party realize how powerful Limbaugh was and begin sort of changing what they did to accommodate his listenership?

S3: It really happens in the early 1990s. So it’s at that moment where Rush Limbaugh and again, like talk radio, had not been a political force. It had been a curiosity at best. But where he has become such a phenomenon that he not only has this radio show that millions of people are listening to, he has two best selling books that immediately rocketed to the top 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 Hayle, 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.

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S2: I love that point you make that they kind of created this reality. Did any Republicans of that era, like the George H.W. Bush’s, express any regret about courting Limbaugh?

S3: I mean, 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. But now I think because he is 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 are 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.

S2: When we come back, what happened when Rush took aim at real people and why Rush’s fans think critics just don’t get him. You look back at the kind of content he created and some of it is so ugly, like one of my colleagues was recalling how he played I’ll Never Love This Way Again while talking about AIDS deaths. Is there one skit or moment from the show that really stands out to you when you look back and you think this was a moment that I think we need to focus on because it explains how this show changed, how we all talk?

S3: That’s a good question. You know, I mentioned earlier the phrase feminazi. And 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 as this parody song he used to play back in 2008 called Barack the Magic Negro. And the reason I point to that is because, 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 dollars. 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. And so. In bolstering and spreading the big lies of the Trump administration, which is something he did, he was he was a big and early supporter of Donald Trump, you know, he was very much part of our politics until the very last moment because we have seen over the past few months the consequences of the misinformation and conspiracies that flow through conservative media.

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S2: The moment that stood out to me when I looked back was this moment when Rush Limbaugh called out a woman named Sandra Fluke, who was a Georgetown student who had spoken up about wanting coverage for her birth control. And he called her a slut. He said things like. You should send pictures of whatever you’re doing with men, because we as the government, you know, people who pay taxes, we want to know we’re getting what we pay for

S5: having so much sex. She can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.

S2: And it was such virulent misogyny. But it wasn’t it wasn’t just the virulent misogyny, although really that should be enough. It was the fact that. Sandra Fluke was a regular person, this is a normal young woman, quite young, and she was facing this onslaught from someone with a tremendous megaphone.

S3: Yeah, it’s a remarkable moment and one that I think ultimately showed the real power that Rush Limbaugh has, because it was just, as you describe it, a vicious attack on her calling for her sex tapes, calling her a slut on air. And she became the center of this storm for many months during the 2012 campaign. Now, the Republican Party at that time was trying to run away from this label that they were conducting a war on women for doing things like blocking women’s access to contraception. And so this this didn’t serve them well in their ambitions for the presidency in 2012, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to do much more than shake their head at Rush Limbaugh. I mean, when Mitt Romney was asked about this during the 2012 campaign, he was kind of like, you know, those aren’t the words that I would have chosen. And it’s like, really? You wouldn’t have called her a slut. Do you have nothing more to say about this attack on this, as you said, like young woman who just happened to be a person who had testified before Congress. So it really showed the stranglehold that Limbaugh had because of the unwillingness of people, even when it was in their political interest to criticize Rush Limbaugh. They just wouldn’t do it because they were afraid that it would alienate the conservative base.

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S2: 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.

S3: You know, it’s a it’s a good question. 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. So while really. Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I tweeted about this earlier, so I’ve already gotten a whole swarm of them. But but there really is a a rejection that he was anything less than a lovable. Person and what they do, and I think that this is actually really important is they point to Limbaugh and say, you just don’t understand him, you don’t get that. Barack, the magic Negro with satire is a joke. It 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 the far right today. Right. That we don’t actually mean the.

S2: It sounds like what you hear in each hand.

S3: Yes. And I think that’s actually really important because Rush Limbaugh was a troll before there were Internet message boards and 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.

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S2: I did the show ever evolve or did it stay pretty much the same?

S3: It evolved some. I mean, he certainly would change with the politics of the Republican Party. So, for instance, he in the last few months was talking about why deficits don’t matter, like they just don’t and we should stop worrying about them. That’s no longer part of our politics. He he’s definitely leaned in to the we’re going to be the party of the working class and doing more attacks on big business and big corporations. So there has been that kind of evolution. But in terms of kind 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 was pretty stable over the course of 30 years.

S2: Hmm. So he was diagnosed with what was terminal cancer in 2020. And there was this moment last year at the State of the Union where Donald Trump gave him a surprise Medal of Freedom.

S5: I am proud to announce tonight that you will be receiving our country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

S2: And I just remember it was it was so shocking as a viewer, do you remember that moment?

S3: Yeah, it was it was a big moment for him and it is the kind of moment that would not have happened, I don’t think, under any president other than Donald Trump, even though he was close with Republican presidents from Reagan on forward.

S2: What stood out to me watching 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. And. I mean, as a viewer, it was kind of jaw dropping to see politicians sort of putting on such an act of loyalty to someone like him.

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S3: Yeah, I mean, 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. And it highlights in part just how separate our media ecosystems have become. Because, you know, 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 conservatives, for so many conservatives, he is still a beloved figure at the center of their daily life. Right. Somebody to tune in to 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. And the show has given more time to that, knowing that Limbaugh was nearing the end of his life

S2: like a memorial service.

S3: Yeah, like a year long 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 and a lot of ways, and whether it’s conservative talk radio shows, of which there are just dozens, whether it is podcast, which are kind of the next generation for conservative audio consumers, people have the ability to just saturate themselves in this audio environment. And audio in particular, I wanted to call attention to because there’s a real intimacy to audio as listeners to the show know. Right. 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. I mean, it’s very much going to keep going because it’s become so central to the movement and to the Republican Party.

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S2: Nicole Hemmer, I’m so grateful to have had you on the show,

S3: thank you so much for having me.

S2: Nicole Hemmer is one of the hosts of This Day, An Esoteric Political History, a podcast that you can find wherever you listen. She’s also the author of Messengers of the Right Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. And that’s the show before we go, I want to tell you about a little survey we’re doing. You can help us make a better slate by answering it. So we’re going to take a few minutes. You can find it at Slate dot com survey. And if you’re a slate plus member, would especially love for you to chime in, tell us how to make sleep. Plus indispensable go to sleep dotcom survey. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Davis, Landolina Schwartz and Daniel Hewitt. Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery are the folks who oversee us all. And I’m Mary Harris. Stay tuned to this feed tomorrow for what next TBD with Lizzie O’Leary. I will be back here on Monday.