Rush Limbaugh's bigotry set the stage for Trump's takeover of the Republican Party

Rush Limbaugh

Citation Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Update (2/17/21): Rush Limbaugh died Wednesday from lung cancer. The talk radio titan spent the last year of his life lying to his audience that the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump, downplaying the violence caused by pro-Trump rioters who attacked the Capitol in response to such conspiracy theories, and telling his self-proclaimed “dittoheads” not to worry about the danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

I have sympathy for Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio host who announced this week that he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, and wish him a speedy recovery. Cancer is a brutal scourge that has claimed members of the Media Matters family in recent years, and no one deserves the suffering this disease and its treatment demands.

But Limbaugh received the Medal of Freedom from President Donald Trump during Tuesday night’s State of the Union not because he shares a terrible disease with many Americans, or because of his admirable charity work, but as a reward for what he accomplished for the conservative movement and the Republican Party over his decades-long career. 

The stunt was a diminution of an honor established by President John F. Kennedy for those “who have made exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of America, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” It is nonetheless revealing that it was Trump who awarded Limbaugh the medal. You can draw a straight line between Limbaugh’s rise to prominence and his acceptance by the Republican establishment and the president’s own conquest of the party.

Limbaugh has had a virtually unmatched influence on Republican politics for the last 30 years, rising from obscurity to become a kingmaker who described himself as “the titular head” of the GOP. Speaking daily to an audience which grew to tens of millions, he converted listeners, often working-class whites who in the past might have been Democratic voters, into loyal “dittoheads” who spouted the platitudes of conservatism and supported Republicans. Party leaders -- from the previous three GOP presidents on down -- learned to praise and cater to him, while those who crossed him quickly reversed themselves

All the while, from the dawn of his career into the present day, Limbaugh’s program has been fueled by unhinged vitriol against progressives, conspiracy theories, and bigotry -- at times winkingly transgressive, at times spittle-flecked with rage. It’s impossible to fully address in a single piece the incredible range of his depravity over the decades, from asking listeners in the early 1990s whether they had “ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson” to suggesting in 2018 that mail bombs sent to Democrats and CNN were a false flag. (Eric Kleefeld covered some of the highlights in his piece last night.) I’d also recommend reviews of Limbaugh’s diatribes about women and racial and ethnic minorities from the late Simon Maloy.

Limbaugh’s right-wing media colleagues responded to the firestorms his ugly commentary would unleash with excuses or rationalizations or silence. They may have agreed with him, or thought that his words had been misinterpreted. Or they might have considered that Limbaugh was too big to fail, too important to their movement to be successfully branded a bigot. Making common cause with bigotry was the price they paid for the converts Limbaugh brought them.

Limbaugh’s career shows that by relying on a toxic slurry of bigotry, conspiracy theories, smears, and right-wing talking points, you can win a massive audience of devoted fans who will shower you with lucre and hang on your every word. And it demonstrates that once you achieve a certain trajectory in conservative politics, you become effectively inured to the costs that disgusting remarks might otherwise bring. Once that standard was set in right-wing media, it was only a matter of time before a political entrepreneur tested the same mix in a national political context.

What strikes me the most as an observer of Limbaugh’s career over the past 12 years is his frequent jaw-dropping cruelty. He mocks the suffering of others and trains his audience not to sympathize with people different from themselves. 

Imagine what it might feel like to be Sandra Fluke

Imagine the pride you might feel as a law student testifying to members of Congress about how making birth-control pills more widely available could aid people like your friend, who takes the medication to prevent cysts from growing on her ovaries. Imagine that pride turning to ash when you hear that Limbaugh has responded to your testimony by lying to his national audience that you have essentially said you “must be paid for sex” and are thus a “slut” and a “prostitute.” Imagine trying to seize control of your life’s narrative as that middle-aged man tells his audience of millions over and over, day after day, that you “want to have all the sex you want all day long,” that you are “having so much sex” you “can’t pay for” contraception and need the government to pick up the tab. Imagine walking down the street and not knowing who had heard that about you. Imagine watching a political party and movement rise to that man's defense.

Imagine hearing, years later, that the president of the United States gave that man the nation’s highest civilian honor, before the assembled members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, and other notables, with millions of people watching from home.

Limbaugh’s vile smears of Fluke -- again, not a major public figure but a law student who had given testimony to members of Congress -- cost him his advertisers, but not his audience or his support from Republican politicians or members of the conservative media. The defenses they offered at the time were instructive. Some said that he hadn’t said anything wrong because Fluke really was a “slut.” Others suggested that he had been taken out of context and unfairly targeted by the left, or questioned whether particular Limbaugh statements might have been intended as jokes. A handful, like Washington Post columnist George Will, said that Limbaugh had gone too far. But their voices were drowned out by a chorus more concerned with maintaining the Republican political power Limbaugh helped support.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? 

Do the endless defenses from the right for the indefensible conduct of one of its most powerful members remind you of anything?

As the firestorm crescendoed and his advertisers abandoned him, Limbaugh tried to stop the bleeding. He offered what he called a “sincere apolog[y]” to Fluke -- but only for “two words,” calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” disappearing all his other smears of her character. That apology -- insufficient as it was -- was striking. Limbaugh’s usual practice was to deny comments he had said, falsely claim he had been taken out of context by the left, or laugh off criticism when his virulent remarks caught the attention of the press by arguing that he had engaged in a deliberate “media tweak.” 

Have you seen this type of gaslighting before?

Conservatives of all stripes made their choice long ago. They tallied up the value Limbaugh brought to their movement, compared it to the social cost of his commentary, and decided that any tradeoff was worthwhile. 

The staid, patrician President George H.W. Bush, famed for his handwritten thank-you notes, decided that the impact Limbaugh’s audience could have on his 1992 re-election bid outweighed his transgressions. He invited the radio host to stay at the White House, hosted him in the presidential box at the Republican convention, and took him on the campaign trail. 

Twenty years later, Mitt Romney made the very same calculation with a different powerful yet bigoted figure. He accepted Trump’s endorsement at a heavily promoted event at his Las Vegas casino -- just months after Trump’s public descent into birtherism.

And so, when Trump himself became the party’s nominee four years later, is it any wonder that he was able to defeat Republican dissenters so easily? The trail had already been blazed for accepting a bigot who offered the party power, the permission structure assembled for looking the other way at the costs to seize hold of the benefits. Limbaugh himself was happy to lead the way. “If Donald Trump didn't exist and if the Republican Party actually does want to win someday, they'd have to invent him,” he said at one point, emphasizing the importance of obtaining power above all else.

Of course the president gave Limbaugh an award. None of this would have been possible without him.