Before Fox News and Donald Trump, there was Rush Limbaugh. A talk radio trailblazer who chased ratings by stoking bigotry and shielding his listeners from uncomfortable truths, Limbaugh reshaped right-wing media and eventually the Republican Party itself.
On February 17, Limbaugh’s wife announced on air that he died after a battle with lung cancer.
The Rush Limbaugh Show began broadcasting nationwide in 1988 and the host soon amassed an army of “dittoheads,” a term which came to signal fans with unquestioning support for Limbaugh’s views. According to Talkers Magazine, more than 15 million unique weekly listeners tuned into his show in December 2020.
Not only was Limbaugh syndicated on hundreds of stations across the country, but most other conservative talk radio hosts who came after him were — with few exceptions — Limbaugh wannabes. His disciples included future Vice President Mike Pence, who once described his own 1990s talk radio personality as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” The cumulative effect was a never-ending stream of Limbaugh or Limbaugh-like rhetoric available day or night to anyone with access to a radio.
GOP leaders recognized the hold that Limbaugh, the self-described “titular head of the Republican Party,” had on their voters. They responded by heaping praise on the host and fashioning their politics to fit his monologues. After the 2012 election, when some Republicans pushed to expand outreach to minority voters, the party instead chose to double down on Limbaugh’s exclusionary politics.
As my colleague Matt Gertz observed, Republican leaders' constant appeasement of Limbaugh foreshadowed their approach to candidate and then President Donald Trump. Trump and Limbaugh understood the value they offered one another; Trump as the fighter Limbaugh’s audience always wanted, and Limbaugh, who was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Trump last year, as the sycophant who could be counted on to spin or ignore Trump’s failures.
Weeks before the 2020 presidential election, Trump turned to Limbaugh once again, participating in a two-hour interview in which he knew his lies would never be questioned. And throughout the final days of his program, Limbaugh continued to falsely insist that President Joe Biden had not legitimately won the election.
Media historian Brian Rosenwald notes that talk radio is an intimate medium, one in which hosts develop a deep and lasting bond with longtime listeners. Limbaugh manipulated that bond to convince his audience of things that were not true and to turn them against Democrats, the news media, and anyone else who failed to share his hardline views.
Bigotry and lies were an essential part of Limbaugh’s appeal
Limbaugh entertained an audience that was primarily composed of older, white conservative men by mocking women, minorities, and anyone else who did not embody his default listener — setting the tone for the toxic, cruel politics of the modern-day conservative movement.
Sexism was one of the most reliable features of Limbaugh’s program, and women were regularly referred to on the show as “babes” or even “feminazis” — a term which Limbaugh boasted about coining. Feminism, according to Limbaugh, was created to enable “unattractive women” to have “easier access to the mainstream.”
In 2012, the host faced widespread backlash and advertiser boycotts after he referred to a law student who testified in favor of health care coverage for contraceptives as a “slut.” During the #MeToo era, Limbaugh mocked and attacked women who reported sexual assault. The host was also virulently opposed to reproductive health care, once comparing abortion clinics to “death camps” and attacking groups like Planned Parenthood as “death squads.”
People of color and members of the LGBTQ community were also frequent punching bags on Limbaugh’s show.
Limbaugh once remarked that “all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson” and that “the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.” During Barack Obama’s presidency, the host fed into birtherism and the conspiracy theory that Obama was secretly a Muslim.
Limbaugh repeatedly downplayed racial discrimination and espoused white nationalist talking points, arguing that immigrants are trying to “invade” the United States. Once, when discussing genocide against Native Americans, Limbaugh asked, “They all have casinos -- what's to complain about?”
After the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, Limbaugh described the decision as an “assault” on American culture that would lead to incest and polygamy. Limbaugh referred to transgender people as mentally ill and blamed the Roman Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals on “the gay infiltration of the Catholic Church.”
When confronted with facts that contradicted his conservative worldview, Limbaugh promoted conspiracy theories and obvious lies.
After a Trump supporter mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and media organizations in 2018, Limbaugh suggested that the attack was a false flag designed to damage conservatives. The host made similar remarks in 2019 after the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand.
And when the coronavirus first began to spread through the United States, Limbaugh assured his audience — one of the oldest in conservative media — that it was merely “the common cold.” As the death toll continued to mount, the host claimed that the virus had been weaponized by Trump opponents, mocked mask wearers, and accused journalists and hospitals of inflating COVID-19 case counts.
Talk radio may struggle, but Limbaugh’s legacy is secure
For more than 30 years, Limbaugh’s show helped to set the agenda for hosts across the country, and it’s not clear who is likely to succeed him as talk radio’s unifying voice.
One possible replacement may ironically be the only Fox News prime-time host without radio experience. Tucker Carlson’s monologues are already frequently cited by right-wing radio hosts, and his emphasis on culture war topics — particularly his xenophobic, anti-trans, and misogynistic content — aligns well with standard talk radio fare.
But even Carlson is unlikely to match the hold Limbaugh had on a now-declining industry. Today, conservative talk radio is just one facet of a much larger right-wing media ecosystem, where television hosts and conservative writers all sound somewhat like Limbaugh. This ecosystem controls a political party whose latest president regularly sought the counsel of Fox News hosts.
Even without one of its central architects, a right-wing media machine built on outrage and cruelty will continue to deceive its audience long into the future.