It’s fair to say that without Limbaugh, there would never have been a Trump presidency. But without Limbaugh, there would not have been a generation of conservative speakers who emulate his populist style. Without Limbaugh, it’s hard to imagine having a Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Ben Shapiro, Tucker Carlson, or Laura Ingraham.
Like his acolytes, Limbaugh was never really a “thought leader” in the traditional sense. He may have started his career with the obvious aim of popularizing conservative ideas, often using parodies and exaggerations. But, as he often openly admitted, Limbaugh wasn’t really interested in ideas or, it turned out, conservatism.
“I never spoke once about conservatism in the presidential campaign,” Limbaugh told his audience after Trump’s election, “because that’s not the point here.” He was quick to discard ideas of “limited government” and in his later years stopped pretending to speak of “conservative” ideas at all. Instead, he was more interested in triggering the libs – whatever that required.
He also created the template that Trump so effectively copied. In many ways, Trump was a creature of talk radio, or as described by former Barack Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau: “Long-time listener, first candidate.” Trump won, wrote Favreau, “by making a pretty good impression of a right-wing media star.”
Limbaugh had for years channeled the anger of his predominantly male and predominantly white audiences because they were ridiculed by liberal elites for their backward beliefs. Trump inherited both Limbaugh’s Lexicon (“the world laughs at us”, you have been treated very badly by the liberal media …) and an audience that moved seamlessly from the radio to the political arena.
As I wrote earlier this year, Today we live in the world that Limbaugh created, including a political culture that is less driven by facts and ideas than by slander, rationalization, conspiracy theories and alternative realities.
Limbaugh could be provocative and funny, but he also introduced cruelty, racism and misogyny among a new generation of speakers and then helped normalize them. He called women “sluts,” mocked people who died of AIDS, and referred to President Obama as the “magical negro,” all while posing as a brave truth-teller who defied the PC police. In Limbaugh’s world there is no racism, just a liberal overreaction.
Perhaps most importantly, Limbaugh pioneered a style of disinformation that is now almost routine. In 2015, he defended Trump’s lie that thousands of Muslims were celebrated in New Jersey after the 9/11 attacks. His defense was a huge boon to Trump’s campaign, but it was also a classic Limbaugh. The talk show host admitted Trump’s story was wrong but defended it because it revealed a more important “truth” – that Muslims around the world hated America.
That was how Limbaugh began preparing Republicans to rationalize Trump’s many lies.
In his final months, he downplayed the severity of Covid-19, hinting that it was merely “the common cold” that is “armed against Trump”. He downplayed the significance of the January 6 attack on the Capitol and recorded much of the Big Lie over the 2020 election, openly questioning the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory.
One incident seemed to capture both his sophistry and legacy: in 2020, Trump suggested for no reason that MSNBC presenter Joe Scarborough may have murdered a young employee while he was serving in Congress. Trump ignored requests from the wife’s husband and others to stop spreading the lie. Even some of Trump’s trusted allies were appalled by the viciousness and cruelty of the attacks. But Limbaugh defended Trump and rationalized that lie like this:
“Do you think Trump cares whether Scarborough murdered someone or not? No, of course he doesn’t care. Then why is he tweeting it? Well, because it’s out there. He didn’t make it up. It’s been out there a long time that there is something suspicious about this death. So Trump is just throwing gasoline on the fire here, and he enjoys watching the flames – and he enjoys watching these holy left-wing journalists who react as if their moral senses have been shaken forever and never themselves could recover. “
Limbaugh wanted his audience to believe this was the “secret knowledge” he was passing on: the lie doesn’t matter; Moralizing is a joke; Cruelty is prudence.
You can see his legacy all around us.