March 6, 2021

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How Rush Limbaugh created modern politics

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“Rush” was not a nickname. This was something I learned when Rush Hudson Limbaugh III died at the age of 70 on Ash Wednesday amid an outpouring of joy from the countless enemies he had made in three decades of national broadcasting and praise from Donald Trump, who in a message from Elba reminded us that Limbaugh “was very strong, physically” and “hit the ball very hard.” Before then I would have guessed that “Rush” was short for “Russell,” but it turns out to have been one of those old-fashioned WASP first names derived generations ago from the maiden name of a relation, one Edna Rush.

This strange dynamic, in which populism is belied by elite prerogatives, was in many ways the defining feature of Limbaugh’s life and career. What Limbaugh showed us, when he rose to national prominence three decades ago, was that after 40 years of publishing magazines, funding think tanks, organizing conferences, and writing ponderous books, the conservative movement mattered less than one man who knew how to engage white working-class voters in what was then considered a dying medium. (Among other things, in the mid-90s Limbaugh was almost single-handedly responsible for boosting the circulation of the small but respectable American Spectator into the range of a major glossy publication.)

As someone who entered the world of conservative media in my early 20s without ever having listened to talk radio or indeed having known anyone who did, I can say without hesitation that the vastness of Limbaugh’s achievement is something with which I am still coming to terms. Over and over again I have been astonished to meet people, including those who had not actually heard his program in many years, for whom he was a familiar and comforting voice, an essentially avuncular figure. Hearing them provided me with a window into a world in which the most important issues of the day were whether the NFL was too solicitous of the feelings of African-American players and the sorts of foods that one’s perceived enemies ate, one almost impossibly removed from the kitchen-sink politics — roads, schools, health care, wages — that I had learned at my UAW grandfather’s knee in the post-industrial Midwest. My relations always referred to Limbaugh as “that other fat guy.” (They were distinguishing him from Michael Moore.)

The issues themselves have changed. We are now more likely to hear about “SJWs” and their avocado toast than about “feminazis” and “Islamofascists,” but Limbaugh’s basic premise that the culture war is not limited to such questions as the legality of abortion remains with us. Indeed, there is a very real sense in which these epiphenomenal concerns have totally overtaken the moral issues that animated the social conservatives of 30 or even 10 years ago. Whatever one thinks of this legacy, it is arguably the most significant one of any figure in modern American political life who was not himself an elected official. Progressives every bit as much as their enemies live in the world Limbaugh helped to create, in which bad faith is universally presumed amid a never-ending cycle of partisan recriminations that have little if anything to do with what people half a century ago would have recognized as “politics.”

An entire column could be devoted to a litany of the persons, groups, and causes Limbaugh offended. (It would be remiss of me not to mention that I myself had the pleasure of being criticized by Limbaugh on the air as a delusional “NeverTrumper” and a supporter of the Russiagate conspiracy.) He spoke contemptuously about everyone and everything from Chelsea Clinton, Al Gore, and Pope Francis to trees (“The most beautiful thing about a tree is what you do with it after you cut it down”), feminists, and the homeless. Limbaugh not only denounced celebrities but created them. (Who now remembers Sandra Fluke, I wonder?) He accused Michael J. Fox of exaggerating the effects of Parkinson’s and referred to AIDS as “Rock Hudson’s disease.” Long before Colin Kaepernick, he “politicized” the NFL with his bizarre criticism of Donovan McNabb (which was echoed at the time in Slate of all places) and comments suggesting that the league “all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.” Among his most dubious legacies was convincing his audience to support NAFTA at a time when right-wing populist opinion was otherwise mostly in step with that of labor unions. As far as I am aware, he never acknowledged his role in creating the free trade consensus that Trump would attempt to undo.

I do not believe that any obituary should be free of admiring comments. It is certainly worth pointing out that Limbaugh almost single-handedly saved AM radio from destruction, putting all of us who spend our summers outdoors with radios and ludicrous pennant run fantasies in his debt. There is also a world in which Limbaugh might have been responsible for keeping the Rams in St. Louis, a possibility for which anyone who grew up in awe of the Greatest Show on Turf would have been grateful. His defense of tobacco smokers (especially after the advent of cannabis legalization) was a genuine public service.

In many ways Rush’s most characteristic public statement was the monologue in which he announced that his lung cancer had become terminal:

Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, New York Yankees, set the record for consecutive games played until Cal Ripken came along decades later and broke it. And on the day that Lou Gehrig announced that he had his disease that was forcing him to retire from Major League Baseball, he said to the sold-out Yankee Stadium, “Today I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

I didn’t understand that. I mean, here’s a guy who’d just been diagnosed with the most terminal of terminal diseases, and I said, “This can’t be real. He can’t really think he’s the luckiest guy in the world. This is just something that he’s saying because it will play well.” I don’t mean to be insulting Lou Gehrig; don’t misunderstand. I’m just saying, how in the world if you’re being honest can you feel like you’re the luckiest man on the face of the earth?

His cynical response to Gehrig’s moving retirement speech, a small masterpiece of old-fashioned plain-spoken American rhetoric, is a telling reminder that, every bit as much as the liberal antinomians against whom he set himself, Limbaugh contributed to the destruction of a consensus on the mixed economy and the limited scope of partisan engagement whose values made possible the shared prosperity and very real progress in (for example) race relations of the post-World War II era.

I’d like to think at the end of his life he regretted its passing as much as anyone.


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