Rush Limbaugh, who died aged 70 from cancer on Wednesday 17 February, became one of the first in US broadcasting to helm a national call-in show in the 1980s. It was, for Limbaugh, perfect timing: in 1987, the United States got rid of the “fairness doctrine” under which broadcasters had to present both sides of controversial issues. Without it, Limbaugh could speak to one side. And he did.
That same decade, hundreds of thousands of Americans were dying of AIDS. On his show, Limbaugh ran a segment called the “AIDS update”, in which he mocked gay men who were dying. He accompanied the segment by playing Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again”. In 1990, Limbaugh called the segment “regretful” and “irresponsible”.
In the 1990s, Limbaugh truly became a national figure: his nationally syndicated show aired on hundreds of stations. When, in 1994, Republicans took back the House of Representatives, members of the party called Limbaugh a “majority maker”, so influential were his right-wing broadcasts. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sold “Rush Limbaugh for President” T-shirts at his victory party that year. Also in the 1990s, Limbaugh called Chelsea Clinton, the president’s daughter, the White House dog.
He became fabulously wealthy, and part of that wealth was power; in 2009, Michael Steele, apologised after calling Limbaugh, ostensibly only a talk radio host, an entertainer. Limbaugh, in a way, was right to take offence. He was not only entertaining. He was shaping a new kind of Republican politics, in which Ronald Reagan’s optimism for America was wedded to an angry denigration of anyone who found themselves on the opposite side of Limbaugh’s culture wars. Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, referred to Limbaugh as the voice of the Republican Party.
And, for all the talk of identity politics on the left, few embraced bringing identity into politics like Limbaugh. In 2004, he said that the National Basketball Association, many players in which are black, should be renamed to be the TBA, or Thug Basketball Association, and that basketball teams should be referred to as gangs. He said “Caucasians” were the race that should not have to feel guilty about slavery. He pushed the racist lie that Obama was not born in the US, a piece of disinformation which Trump used to kickstart his national political career.
In 2012, Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, a law student who went before Congress to argue that employers should be required to offer health insurance that pays for contraception, a “slut” and a “prostitute”. He called feminists “femi-nazis”. In 2007, he insinuated that veterans from the war in Iraq who spoke out against it were “phony soldiers”.
He received the presidential medal of freedom from Donald Trump, to whose defence he often jumped. He said Democrats allowed the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 — when white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us” and waved confederate flags — to spiral out of control on purpose, and that the coronavirus was the common cold and was being “weaponised” to hurt Trump.
But, in a way, the real medal for Limbaugh’s career was the Trump presidency itself. It was a logical conclusion of decades of people hearing sensational, bigoted, us versus them rhetoric for hours a day. Along with Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes of Fox News, Limbaugh, as much as any single American figure, created the politics of the Republican party we see today.
And more than the others, Limbaugh created an obvious blueprint for Trump, who spoke warmly of his friend after his passing. The insults, the bombast, the outlandish statements followed by half-apologies, or no apologies at all: that was Limbaugh. The white, male grievance that characterised so much of what Trump said: that was Limbaugh too.
It is possible, of course, that America would have arrived at this point had Limbaugh done any number of other things that did not involve talk radio. It is possible that we could have had a Trump presidency without him. It is possible that even if the fairness doctrine had stayed in place, and Limbaugh had been required by federal regulation to present both sides of an issue, that America would still be as polarised as it is today.
We will never know. What we do know is what happened: the fairness doctrine was lifted, Limbaugh became a radio personality and political kingmaker, Trump became president.
In an interview after the announcement of Limbaugh’s death, Trump said that Limbaugh believed he, Trump, had won the election. That is not true of course. But to Limbaugh, and to Trump, truth was besides the point.