When Rush Limbaugh, the Great Bloviater of the AM dial, signed off from the “Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies,” two days before Christmas, he warned the faithful in the raspy remains of his famous trumpeting baritone: “The day is gonna come, folks, where I’m not going to be able to do this anymore.”
For 13 terrible days in Trumpland — while the mad president that Limbaugh helped make possible was flailing for survival, while the faithful were trying to “stop the steal” of the election, and even while the Republicans blew their Senate majority in the Georgia runoffs — the loudest voice in the right-wing echo chamber remained silent. By the time January 6th rolled around, even the millions of fans praying for a miracle cancer cure had to figure: If Rush had passed up the chance to fearmonger about Raphael Warnock’s old sermons and mock Jon Ossoff’s hair, well, he must be finished. At least with his trademark golden microphone, if not with this earthly realm.
But then, a miracle: The president incited a white riot on Capitol Hill, and like a mortally wounded superhero detecting cries of distress from his people, Limbaugh got himself to his Palm Beach studio by noon the next day, and unleashed a master class in state-of-the-art conservative disinformation. He knew the drill. He’d pretty much invented it.
First, a signature move: Belittle the story as partisan hysteria from the lamestream media while sneaking in a big, exonerating lie. “All of a sudden, protesting Congress is being called the end of the world!” Limbaugh sneered, making use of his rested voice. “A bloody coup attempt! Even though the only blood spilled was that of an unarmed Trump supporter.”
Rioting? Looting? Blue Lives lost? Uncle Rush was here to remind everyone that those are things that the left, especially the “anti-American” Black Lives Matter, does all the time. “They’ve burned down political federal courthouses, after barricading people inside of them. They’ve taken over freeways. They’ve taken over entire cities,” Limbaugh said. Contrast that with the harmless shenanigans at the Capitol. “Yeah, I know they breached the doors and took some selfies.” But, folks, really — just look at who was in Washington on January 6th! “These are Republicans, they don’t raise mayhem,” Limbaugh scoffed. “They don’t know how. How many times have we sat here over 30 years bemoaning the fact that this is not what Republicans do?” A master touch there: So far were the “rioters” from actually rioting, one can only wish they had raised just a little hell while they were there, like the blacks and antifa do.
Then, of course, after he dramatically made the case that there was no violent insurrection on January 6th, Limbaugh justified and praised the violent insurrection on January 6th. “We’re supposed to be horrified by the protesters,” he said, feigning perplexity. “There’s a lot of people out there calling for an end to violence” — even, can you believe it, “a lot of conservatives, social media, who say that any violence or aggression at all is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances.” Pause for effect, here it comes: “I am glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea-party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord, didn’t feel that way.”
As Limbaugh surely hoped and expected, social media lit up with both “dittoheads” — shorthand, in Rush World, for 100 percent agreement with the host — and denunciations, as headlines quickly sprouted: “Limbaugh Compares Capitol Hill Riot to American Revolution,” “Limbaugh Dismisses Calls to End Violence After Mob Hits Capitol.” (On the next day’s show, he humble-bragged: “I did it on purpose. … I wanted to take the hit yesterday. I was attempting to take the flak and the incoming for Donald Trump.”)
So there: That’s how it’s done. The plain, observable events of January 6th had not merely been denied and deflected, but transcended — wafted into the bubble of alternative right-wing reality that Limbaugh first began blowing up 32 years ago. Of course, this new narrative (or narratives — you can choose Republican innocence or justified violence, as you please) had absolutely no contact point with reality. And of course, Limbaugh spun his tale (as always) from the flotsam and jetsam of post-riot rumor and innuendo, subreddits, and Gateway pundits. Inside the bubble, sources matter as little as facts or logic. What makes sense in this parallel universe is whatever distracts and absolves white, non-liberal Americans from blame, guilt, or responsibility. It’s whatever reminds them of both their supremacy and their victimhood. It’s whatever emboldens them to strike back at the evil left-wing empire that is always busy plotting to subjugate them and destroy America As We Knew It.
And that is what Limbaugh delivered, once again, for Republican America in the wake of the insurrection. It was a final command performance of its kind, especially given the host’s condition. But it’s what Limbaugh had done, while dying, for a whole year. This incredibly wealthy super-patriot used his life’s last energies to do his damnedest to recast a pandemic as a deadly, partisan culture war. To paint a lawless and lunatic president as a wronged and heroic savior of the republic, a symbol of all the myriad wrongs done to Team White America. To call the first woman of color nominated for vice president a “ho” and a “mattress,” to depict racial-justice protests as signs of a coming Armageddon, and to stir up hysteria about a Democratic plot to steal the election. And, ultimately, to lead the cheers and comfort the troops as Republicans turned against democracy itself.
He did it all so well, in fact, that Limbaugh — despite frequent absences — shot back to the top of the Power 50 radio rankings for audience and influence. It was the strangest sort of comeback-slash-curtain call. And it should be career-defining now that Limbaugh, who died on Wednesday, has had his final say. Limbaugh might have begun as a ratings-obsessed provocateur, but he became one of the most influential subversives in American history. If we didn’t fully recognize that before 2020, or January 6th, we ought to know it now. No single person — not Reagan, not Cheney, not McConnell, not Trump, not Q — has contributed more than Limbaugh to the mass derangement of white America.
At noon on June 2nd, 1990, Americans got their first live-action look at the country’s most inexplicable pop-culture sensation. C-SPAN was devoting a week to that hottest of new media trends, talk radio. With its characteristic attention to production values, the network simply set up a camera inside a spare WABC-77 studio in New York, and let the self-proclaimed “most dangerous man in America” roll.
Cut to a schlub in a cheap white dress shirt, black tie, and hastily barber-shopped helmet of hair, already wiping sweat and grumbling about the TV lights, planted behind his desk and mic and interrupting the station’s young newscaster, Kathleen Maloney. She’s trying to do her five-minute, top-of-the-hour update — oddly (for 1990) while wearing a mask, because, as she explains, the host had warned her it could be dangerous to let his listeners identify her on TV as a liberal feminist. He was only joking, Limbaugh insists. “You said wear a bag over my head!” Maloney says. Limbaugh keeps threatening to yank her mask off, complimenting her beauty, and interjecting impatiently: “The news just holds up everything here! I’m trying to make the news worthwhile.”
It’s a fitting cold open to a broadcast that was, in those heady early days, all about disruption — and ratings. Limbaugh had blasted into national syndication two years earlier, at age 37, with a talk show that sounded like no talk show before: faster, louder, ruder, and way more opinionated. Also, very quickly, way higher-rated. “Talk shows had always been very polite, very gentlemanly,” says Brian Rosenwald, author of Talk Radio’s America. “Hosts were there to keep things moving along in an evenhanded way. You weren’t supposed to know the host’s politics. It was intentionally irrelevant. Before him, the only successful syndicated radio talker was Larry King, and that was a very different thing. You didn’t know Larry King was a liberal; you didn’t care what he was. It was about callers and guests. And now there’s this. A host who says, ‘I am my own guest,’ takes very few carefully screened-out callers, and tells you what he thinks for three hours.” As Limbaugh later would later explain, “I wanted to be the reason people listened. That’s how you pad your pocket.”
It’s hard to convey, so many media eras later, what a phenomenon The Rush Limbaugh Show was. Within a year of the C-SPAN telecast, Limbaugh was beaming out to 530 stations, with 25 million listeners, and hosting a 30-minute syndicated TV show (also with no guests) produced by Roger Ailes, who would go on to launch Fox News in 1996. The pompous, motormouthed, giddily offensive Neanderthal conservative was a national curiosity, profiled on 60 Minutes, plastered on magazine covers (Newsweek: “Is Rush Limbaugh Good for America?”), topping bestseller lists with a book whose title perfectly captured his approach to “news”: The Way Things Ought to Be. His moon-shaped mug smirked over Broadway on its biggest billboard. “People just can’t get enough of him!” gushed Barbara Walters.
People didn’t know how to make sense of him, though. Were millions tuning into a “garrulous 320-pound gabster” (Entertainment Weekly)? Or were they being indoctrinated by “a self-styled commander-in-chief fight[ing] his private ‘culture war’ against the many liberal, do-gooder notions that interfere with his right to eat and wear and spend whatever he damn well wants and say whatever he damn well pleases” (Los Angeles Times)?
It was a little of both, actually. Partisan politics was only one element of the weird mix in the show’s early days, and for good reason: The host didn’t know or care much about the subject; he hadn’t registered to vote till he was 35 (and got called out on it by a reporter). Though he grew up in a family of prominent local Republicans in the small river city of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, “Rusty” Limbaugh was no budding Stephen Miller, plotting white domination in his basement; he was a rock & roll radio geek whose ambition from age eight was to have one of those overnight Top 40 shows with banging gongs, goofy voices, nicknames, skits, and pranks.
He got his first gig at 16, DJ’ing after school at a local station formerly part-owned by his archconservative father, “Big Rush.” After dropping out of college to pursue his passion, Limbaugh was fired from a string of DJ jobs around the country. (“Unfortunately,” one station manager said while firing him, “I don’t share your enthusiasm for your performance.”)
When Limbaugh landed his first local talk gig in 1983, rescuing him from a dead-end sales job with the Kansas City Royals, he started boning up on politics, he later claimed, by reading George Will and William F. Buckley. Mostly, Rosenwald says, “he channeled the conservative dinner-table talk he heard as a kid.” His father had loved to spout his reactionary politics — and his bluffly confident views on every topic of the day — at full volume in the evenings, sometimes attracting audiences of gawping neighborhood kids. Essentially, when Limbaugh opened his mouth to start opining about politics, Big Rush came flowing out.
Once Limbaugh had his own show, he added his DJ skills to the talk-show mix — and the bluster — and launched a whole new genre. “It had a sound to it, a mix to it, pacing — it had a combination of elements that jumped out of the speaker saying, ‘This is a radio show,’” says Michael Harrison, publisher and editor of Talkers, the industry magazine. “It was the use of rock & roll, which talk radio never had. It was the way he used sound effects, production elements, musical parodies, and the way he blended his voice into the continuum of sounds. It was an audio festival. When you first heard Limbaugh, it was like hearing Elvis Presley — what’s this?”
The content was as jarring as the format. Until 1987, there was a federal policy against The Rush Limbaugh Show. Since 1949, the Fairness Doctrine had required broadcasters to present “fair and balanced” news coverage, including equal time for both sides. Limbaugh became the first to take full advantage of the new freedom — and, very quickly, to demonstrate how lucrative the opposite of “fair and balanced” could be.
At first, Limbaugh was more of a culture warrior than a partisan spear carrier. The great enemy was the “PC police,” stifling white Americans’ right to openly express their bigotries and assert their various forms of supremacy. Limbaugh was a master self-publicist, issuing a stream of intentionally quotable blasts of crude racial stereotyping (“Have you noticed that every mug shot looks like Jesse Jackson?”), gay bashing (AIDS “updates” introduced by the song “I’ll Never Love This Way Again”), and misogyny (“I love the women’s movement, especially when walking behind it”). He wasn’t selling political ideas — and he never has. He was selling political attitude. The swaggering certitude. The mocking dismissiveness. The freedom to offend. The right to assert your privilege without guilt or embarrassment. And partly because he was modeling that “liberation” with such wicked glee, Limbaugh was making himself indispensable. Within six weeks of tuning in regularly, he would tell new listeners, they’d be on “the cutting edge of social evolution.” Best of all, he promised, “I will do all your reading, and I will tell you what to think of it.”
That’s how the right wing’s first alternative-news bubble was built. “Rush started this thing,” says former Sen. Al Franken, who responded to the Limbaugh peril with the 1995 bestseller, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. “And he was good at it. I mean, he’s awful, obviously, a monster, but very talented. Three hours a day is a long time to do ‘unguested confrontation,’ which is the actual name for his format. You listen to most of these guys, they just have nuts calling them, they agree with the nuts; and that’s how you fill three hours. Not this guy. You have to give him that. At the same time, for — what? — 30 years now, it’s always been true: If there’s some awful right-wing thing happening, chances are that Rush was behind it.”
It didn’t take long for Limbaugh’s political influence to become more direct. His sky-high ratings and the rabid fandom of his Dittoheads — who just happened to fit the profile of people who voted frequently in Republican primaries — made it inevitable that the GOP would come courting. In 1992, after he’d boosted Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork-populist “Make America First Again” challenge to George Bush, the president became so hellbent on gaining Limbaugh’s favor for the general election that he not only invited the host to the White House, but toted his bags personally into the Lincoln Bedroom. Limbaugh had only praise for Bush from that day forward, at least until he lost to Bill Clinton in November.
That set a pattern: Limbaugh might instinctively gravitate to the radicals, but he was ultimately a team player — “the national precinct captain of the Republican Party,” as Mother Jones described him. Two years later, Limbaugh basically co-captained the “Republican Revolution” with House leader Newt Gingrich. When their efforts produced a landslide that brought 73 anti-government zealots to Congress, the host was made an honorary House freshman and feted at the GOP orientation in December, where the new members wore “Rush Was Right” buttons and listened to his marching orders. “This is not the time to get moderate,” he said. “This is not the time to start trying to be liked.”
Now that Limbaugh was the Man in Republican America — declared by none other than Ronald Reagan, in a letter to the host, “the Number One voice for conservatism in our country” — where did he want to lead the GOP? What was he for, exactly? Well, “I consider myself a defender of corporate America.” There was that. Plainly enough, he was also a champion of white male privilege and Buchanan-style xenophobia (to put it mildly). But try — even today — naming one policy that Rush Limbaugh famously pushed, or one conservative idea he advanced. What the self-proclaimed “instrument of mass instruction” really advanced, from the get-go, was a purely Manichean view of politics: Our side all good, their side all evil.
“Any Republican candidate is better than any Democratic candidate,” Limbaugh told his audience early on. Which might sound kind of innocuous on the surface. Except that, for Limbaugh, the superiority of our side and the inferiority of them was, increasingly over the years, a deadly serious matter. It became tribal warfare.
You can pretty much summarize the way Limbaugh led the irrational opposition during Bill Clinton’s two terms with one quote from 1994: “Vince Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton and the body taken to Fort Marcy Park.” Conspiracy theories — once the province of fringe right-wingers — started to become the mainstream Republican fare they are today during Clinton’s two terms, and Limbaugh was the great popularizer of the genre. Long before Fox hosts began amplifying the fringier theories about American politics, Limbaugh was busy mainstreaming Wingnut World. The conspiracy cranks, the John Birchers, the Christian Zionists, the science deniers, the InfoWarriors — their wildest fantasies, fears, and paranoias all came out to play in national prime time on The Rush Limbaugh Show, repackaged by the host into palatable fare for the Republican masses.
By the time he’d spent eight years defending George W. Bush to the hilt in the 2000s, Limbaugh had understandably lost a bit of his oomph and his audience. He’d also been outed as a serious opioid addict in 2003, when his former housekeeper was investigated for selling him thousands of pills in a span of months — and three years later, after three treatment stints, Limbaugh landed in trouble for “doctor shopping” to get his fix. Always an outspoken drug warrior, shouting to “lock ‘em up” for the most minor drug offenses, Limbaugh got off with a slap and an expunged criminal record. He was still the loudest voice in the right-wing echo chamber, maybe, but it was harder to be heard in there. The sheer volume of imitators and competitors he inspired, across platforms, had spurred what Rosenwald calls an “arms race” in conservative media, with a million loud voices competing to be the most envelope-pushing, the most offensive, the most radically partisan, the most headline-hogging.
The ascent of a black president gave Limbaugh his bite back. During the campaign, Limbaugh mostly took the old-school route, trotting out racial-stereotype “jokes” (“If Obama weren’t black, he’d be a tour guide in Hawaii”) and “parodies” (“Barack the Magic Negro”). But something snapped in Limbaugh, just as surely as in his listeners, when the black man won. Four days before the inauguration of the popular and historic new president, Limbaugh told his listeners that he’d been asked by The Wall Street Journal to join others in writing 400 words on their hopes for Obama’s next four years. Limbaugh said he only needed four: “I hope he fails.”
For all Limbaugh’s Democrat-demonizing and liberal-bashing over the years, this was something new. This was openly rooting for a president, and thus for the country, to bomb. Right in the middle of a devastating recession and two unwinnable wars. Not, he insisted, because Obama was black. “Doesn’t matter to me what his race is. He’s liberal, is what matters to me.” And it certainly wasn’t “unpatriotic” — just the opposite, in fact. As Limbaugh explained, “rooting for liberalism to fail is rooting for America to succeed.”
Right. The real threat of Obama was far more tribal than ideological, of course — and thus, right up Limbaugh’s alley. Here was a president capable, among other terrifying things, of normalizing non-white rule in America. But stopping Obama was “what I was born to do,” Limbaugh boasted. And thank goodness for that, because, as he reported in the fall of 2009, “In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering.” Limbaugh turned Obama-hating into a kind of litmus test for white pride — a way to show that you won’t be played by the liberals and their white-guilt trips. “If any race of people should not have guilt about slavery, it’s Caucasians,” he declared. “And yet white guilt is still one of the dominating factors in American politics. It’s exploited, it’s played upon, it is promoted, it is used, and it’s unnecessary.”
Limbaugh spun conspiracy theories that grew wilder, more menacing, more elaborate, and more violent (“Race riots are part of the plan that this regime has”). Obama was transformed into a symbol of the bleak future that white Americans might expect if they didn’t recognize the existential peril and rise to fight it. “We live in two universes,” Limbaugh was now telling his listeners. “One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it.”
Fortunately, with Democratic fascism looming so close, white America still had one last thing going for it, one last flicker of hope. Limbaugh is routinely credited with “paving the way for a President Trump,” the same way he’s characterized as “helping move the Republican Party to the right.” But it went much deeper than that, on both counts. Limbaugh served as a sort of original model for Trump — the comic-blowhard authoritarian who provides endless entertainment, infallible-though-incredible wisdom, and marching orders for the tribe. And by 2015, he’d helped nudge and bully the party not toward some kind of hardcore conservatism, but in a radically nihilistic direction.
When Trump came slithering down the escalator in June 2015 and started talking exactly like a right-wing talk-show host (even borrowing some of Limbaugh’s anti-Mexican slander verbatim), one might have expected Limbaugh to have some qualms about seeing himself supplanted. Instead, he seemed to understand the rise of Trump, and Trumpism, as a sort of capstone to his decades of deranging the masses. While everyone was busy scoffing at Trump’s announcement spectacle, Limbaugh knew that Republicans were ready — finally — to cast aside the last vestiges of Reagan conservatism (which Limbaugh had long fashioned himself the flame keeper for) and follow a leader into battle with them. “This is gonna resonate with a lot of people,” he prophesied that day, “I guarantee you.”
There was more than a touch of narcissism in that prediction, no doubt. He knew that the vast majority of Republicans were fully prepared to take a character like Trump seriously as a political force. After all, look how seriously they had taken him. “The average Trump supporter loves Trump because he fights, man, he fights!” says Joe Walsh, the former Tea Party congressman from Illinois who became an ardent Never Trumper and a talk-show host himself. “Not because of any policy or issue or political philosophy. That’s why they loved Rush before him. It wasn’t about conservatism. I still can’t tell you after 30 years what the fuck he believes in,” says Walsh, who was a fan in Limbaugh’s early years. “But he knew how to prey on audiences’ grievances and resentments, which is what conservative talk radio does. Rush was a son of a bitch; he’d lie about the Dems, and punch them, and make fun of them. That gave him a cult-like following from the beginning. Trump sort of inherited it.”
Though he wasn’t a Trump confidant like his only radio-ratings rival, Sean Hannity, Limbaugh more than earned that Medal of Freedom Trump awarded him by leaping to Trump’s defense at key moments when others wavered — Access Hollywood, Charlottesville, the Ukrainian smoking-gun tape — with his full complement of disinformation tactics. But more powerful than anything, when it came to turning conservatives into Trumpheads, was the way Limbaugh — big, loud, swaggering, king-of-the-hill Limbaugh — was now modeling the kind of fealty that all “freedom-loving” Republicans were expected to pay to Trump. It was one thing seeing Hannity and Tucker Carlson bow and scrape; it was a whole ‘nother thing to see Rush bending the knee to another mortal, and speaking of him in the gushing, worshipful tones he once reserved for himself. “You are one of the strongest, the most unwavering, the most determined, most loyal people I’ve ever met,” Rush told Trump last October, when the president called in for an hour-and-49-minute chat. “It’s just a breathtaking thing.”
If anyone dared imagine that looking death in the eyeballs might have some tempering effect on a character like Limbaugh — that it might give him a moment’s pause to reflect, for instance, on his critical role in transforming Reagan’s GOP into Trump’s cult — they were quickly disabused of such fantasies. When Trump surprised him with a Presidential Medal of Freedom last February 4th, in a State of the Union stunt the day after Limbaugh originally announced his lung-cancer diagnosis, it gave the 69-year-old host a fresh gust of attention and, best of all, controversy. (“The selection of Mr. Limbaugh for the honor was not devoid of criticism,” as The New York Times politely put it.)
Limbaugh’s cachet had faded a bit after Trump came clumping along in 2015, and his show had become as dark and humorless as his politics. But now the Dear Leader had given him a special stamp of approval that made his voice resonate more resoundingly across the right-wing media machine than it had for years. And he’d be speaking as the dying sage whose every show, every pronouncement, every conspiracy theory, could be his last.
How did he use this strange new mojo he’d acquired? A week after the medal, Limbaugh kept his buzz going the old-fashioned way, kicking up a new round of cheers and condemnation by mocking the presidential prospects of Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, against that god of masculine virility, President Trump.
But that was just the old song and dance, minus any of the old verve. Limbaugh soon had a subject better suited for the darker talents of his later years. By February 24th, he was leading the parade of Covid-19 denial and deflection with a quote that would echo through the right-wing chamber for months to come: “The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” And those conservatives who dared take it seriously would be subject to relentless mockery, he made clear two days later: “Drudge has a screaming headline: ‘Flight attendant working LAX tests positive.’ ” Limbaugh pitched his voice up as high as it could go, mocking the (gay) news-aggregator: “Oh, my God, 58 cases! Oh, my God. Oh, my God!”
Afraid of a virus? Rush Limbaugh, stage 4 cancer patient, had a message: Real Americans are made of sterner stuff. More aggressively than anyone with a large audience, even the president, Limbaugh turned Covid-19 into a culture war, a partisan litmus test — and one that would have particularly deadly consequences in red-state America, of course, once summer rolled around and the “common cold” had somehow not magically disappeared. Mask wearing was a “symbol of fear,” he preached from the start; taking precautions against the virus was downright unpatriotic.
“This isn’t who we are, folks, this cowering and fearful and almost giving up in the face of this enemy, Covid-19,” Limbaugh declared. “So much of the way we’re dealing with this is unprecedented — and it’s un-American.” So forget about the “staged overrunning of hospitals” being used to inflate the coronavirus numbers. Pay no heed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, that known “Hillary Clinton sympathizer” working to “get rid of Donald Trump.” Don’t go around looking like a “mask-wearing freak.” Instead, gird yourself for battle.
“Folks, I’m gonna tell you, these next four months are gonna be a veritable war like we have not seen,” Limbaugh said in May as he inveighed against public-health precautions. “The American left and the Democrat Party is going to do its best to keep this economy shut down, to extend and expand that shutdown — and blow up their own country’s jobs — just to ensure that Trump loses.” Death counts were being inflated, “as we know,” in “states Trump needs to win.” The supposed “pandemic” had been cooked up for one reason only: to expand mail voting and “flood the system with fake ballots, fake votes.”
But Democrats weren’t merely “weaponizing” the virus to steal an election; as Limbaugh explained, in a plot that became more far-flung and elaborate as the election drew closer, they were doing nothing less than executing a deep-state coup, in plain sight.
“Joe Biden is a placeholder,” Limbaugh had decided by summer. “Joe Biden is suffering from old-age mental deficiencies that are going to make it impossible for him to carry out presidential duties daily. Now, he’ll appear to be president, but he’s not going to be. Whoever is behind Biden is anonymous. They’re running, but not running. They’re campaigning, but not campaigning. They don’t have to raise any money. They don’t have to tell you who they are. They don’t have to say what their agenda is.”
Despite these deep cloaks of secrecy, Limbaugh — always with the special wisdom — knew exactly what they had in mind: a grand plot to appoint Kamala “Kommie” Harris dictator of a new socialist regime by invoking the 25th Amendment “a day or two” into the Biden administration. And then, of course, down will come the hammer of black-supremacist socialism on what used to be America — by any means necessary.
This was perfectly plausible, in the right-wing bubble, because stealing elections and governing by force are precisely the things that Democrats do. Liberals had changed a lot since the early days of Limbaugh’s show. Back then, they were objects of humor and derision, often more to be pitied than feared; by 2020, they’d become a quasi-demonic force hellbent on the violent destruction of all that made America good. And throughout the year, in Limbaugh’s telling, they just kept exhibiting all the dangerous proclivities the “media” kept accusing Republicans of. Exactly the same proclivities. “If you’re the Democratic Party,” Limbaugh said in July, you find elections “offensive,” and “believe in forcing and being able to force your beliefs and your policies on people via intimidation and fearmongering. You govern by force.” The 2020 Republican National Convention, meanwhile, had been devoted to “saving America from a race war.” Funny how that worked.
Last summer, when Trump was inflaming one conspiracy theory or another, Limbaugh was moved to express some professional admiration for the president’s skill set. “When you get to Trump and his conspiracy theories, he does it in a really clever way,” Limbaugh observed. “Trump never says that he believes these conspiracy theories that he touts; he’s simply passing them on. It’s his way of jamming them up, it’s his way of teasing them, it’s his way of getting these conspiracy theories out there. So Trump is just throwing gasoline on a fire here, and he’s having fun watching the flames.”
Maybe that’s what Limbaugh was doing all through his final year — having fun watching the flames. He certainly tossed plenty of flammable materials on the anti-democratic bonfire that started to rage across Republican America after Election Day, echoing and amplifying sketchy conspiracy theories to “prove” the electron had been stolen. “Votes for Biden” being tallied late at night, he said on November 6th, were “about as legitimate as the Steele Dossier.”
After the Supreme Court finally put an emphatic kibosh on Trump’s legal appeals to overturn the results, Limbaugh stirred up one of his patented controversies — and tossed more kindling on the anti-democratic fire. “I actually think we’re trending toward secession,” he said, and went on to declare, “There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs. We can’t be in this dire a conflict without something giving somewhere along the way.”
In some respects, it still seemed surprising to hear Rush Limbaugh, super-patriot, flag-hugger extraordinaire, say such things. But the definition of a “patriot,” as many people learned for the first time on January 6th, ain’t what it used to be. And Limbaugh had a lot to do with changing it. Limbaugh taught white Americans to distrust truth and democracy with equal vehemence. “Rush really earned that Medal of Freedom,” says Al Franken. “Without Rush, there’s no Trump. I truly believe that. Rush’s show was the starting point basically for all of this. And it’s horrifying. What’s more horrifying is that I don’t know what we can do about it.”
Over the past year, Limbaugh got an extended preview of how he’ll likely be remembered. In the mainstream, he’ll be euphemized as “controversial” and “influential,” and lauded as the savior of AM radio who “attracted an unusually loyal audience.” The right will deify him. The left will dispatch him with one last batch of “Worst Things Rush Limbaugh Ever Said” lists. The send-offs will be as fragmented as the political landscape Limbaugh will leave behind. They’ll miss the reason why Limbaugh is a figure (like it or not) of historical import: He did more than anybody to create the conditions for an ever-more-radical GOP that drove straight around the bend when Trump took the wheel.
What mattered most about Limbaugh was never primarily whom he helped elect, or which groups of people he offended, or why. It was the effect he had on his fans — on the millions of white conservatives he coddled, flattered, tickled, entertained, disinformed, fearmongered, and pulled into a counterfactual universe that became darker over time. It was the way that universe, that bubble of disinformation, kept expanding and metastasizing after he’d shown it could draw record ratings and dollars — across the radio spectrum, onto cable news, into the digital sphere, into statehouses, into Congress, and finally into the White House with Trump. And lastly, it was the way he, more than any other single person, created the conditions for an anti-democratic Republican Party.
“I didn’t think at the end of his life that Rush would sell out to Trump the way he has,” Joe Walsh told me a week before Limbaugh died. “He had every opportunity this final year to come clean and be decent. I mean, he was still on this February! — lying about a stolen election. He’ll keep up this act till he dies, and it’s sad.”
I suggest to Walsh that maybe Limbaugh kept coming back to his mic because, in the final analysis, he’d actually believed what he preached. Walsh laughs at this, but counters with what he believes is a better theory: “Maybe, knowing him, it’s one last, big, extended fuck-you,” he says. “Maybe it’s Limbaugh saying ‘I’m not gonna bend to the Dems and everybody else, no matter what. Never! To the end I’m not gonna do it.’”
The debate over whether Limbaugh really meant his bullshit will no doubt be revived now that lung cancer has taken the man who once, while denying the dangers of smoking, declared, “I want a medal for smoking cigars!” But what matters isn’t ultimately why Limbaugh used his extraordinary talents to lead white America into the arms of Trump; it’s the reality of the smoking ruins left behind after his three decades as white America’s talker-in-chief. The Pandora’s box of right-wing nuttery that Limbaugh brought into the mainstream will be loose on the land for the foreseeable future. There’s no putting the lid back on it now.