It’s fair to say that without Limbaugh there would never have been a Trump presidency. But without Limbaugh, you also wouldn’t have had a generation of conservative talkers who imitated 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 cronies, Limbaugh was never really a “thought leader” in the conventional sense. He may have started his career with the apparent aim of popularizing conservative ideas, often using parodies and hyperbole. But – as he often openly admitted – Limbaugh wasn’t really interested in ideas, or as it turned out, conservatism.
“I never spoke of conservatism” during the presidential campaign, Limbaugh told his listeners after Trump’s election, “because that’s not what it is. He quickly gave up on “limited government” ideas and, in his later years, stopped pretending he was talking about “conservative” ideas. Instead, he was more interested in triggering libraries, anyway.
He also created the model that Trump so effectively copied. In many ways, Trump was a talk-radio creature, or as former Barack Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau described it: “Longtime listener, first-time candidate.” Trump won, Favreau wrote, “making a pretty good impression of a right-wing media celebrity.”
For years, Limbaugh had channeled the anger of his predominantly male, predominantly white audience to be mocked by liberal elites for their backward beliefs. Trump inherited both Limbaugh’s lexicon (“the world is laughing at us”, you were treated very badly by the liberal media…) and an audience that moved from radio to the political arena.
As I wrote earlier this year, we now live in the world that Limbaugh created, including a political culture that is motivated less by facts and ideas than by slurs, rationalizations, conspiracy theories and alternate realities.
Limbaugh could be provocative and funny, but he also introduced and then helped normalize cruelty, racism, and misogyny among a new generation of speakers. He called women “sluts”, mocked people who have died of AIDS, and called President Obama a “Magic Negro,” while posing as a brave truth-teller who defied the PC police. In Limbaugh’s world there are was not racism, only a liberal overreaction.
But, perhaps most importantly, Limbaugh pioneered a style of disinformation that now seems almost routine. In 2015, he defended Trump’s lie that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey were seen celebrating after the 9/11 attacks. His defense was a major boon to Trump’s campaign, but it was also vintage Limbaugh. The talk show host admitted that Trump’s story was false, but defended it because it revealed a bigger “truth” – that Muslims around the world hated America.
In doing so, Limbaugh began to prepare Republicans to rationalize Trump’s many lies.
In his final months, he played down the severity of Covid-19, suggesting it was simply “the common cold” that was “armed against Trump.” He downplayed the significance of the Jan.6 attack on Capitol Hill and embraced much of the big lie about the 2020 election, openly questioning the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory.
One incident seemed to capture both its fallacy and its legacy: In 2020, Trump made a baseless suggestion that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough could have murdered a young staff member while in Congress. Trump ignored calls from the wife’s husband and others to stop spreading the lie. Even some of Trump’s trusted allies were appalled at the malignancy and cruelty of the attacks. But Limbaugh came to Trump’s defense, rationalizing the lie:
“Do you think Trump cares whether Scarborough killed someone or not? No, of course he doesn’t care. So why is he tweeting it? Well, because it’s over there. He didn’t invent it. Something suspicious about this death has been around for a long time. So Trump just throws gasoline on a fire here, and he’s having fun watching the flames – and he’s having fun watching these left-wing journalists holier than you react as if their moral sensibilities have been forever shaken. and could never recover.
Limbaugh wanted his audience to think it was the “secret knowledge” he was imparting: the lie doesn’t matter; moralizing is a joke; cruelty is intelligence.
You can see his legacy all around us.