Rush Limbaugh: His Media Voice Was the First to Popularize the Style of Politics Synonymous With the Trump Name

From a New York Times story by Jeremy W. Peters headlined “The Legacy of Limbaugh: Setting a Path for Trump”:

Rush Limbaugh was a uniquely merciless media voice whose influence frightened and awed presidents for three decades — often at moments of trauma for the nation and of political upheaval that they could trace back to something uttered through the radio host’s microphone.

In 1992, as President George H.W. Bush faced a revolt from the right led by Patrick J. Buchanan, a rival Mr. Limbaugh had promoted, Mr. Bush extended an olive branch by inviting the host to stay overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom. Mr. Limbaugh returned the favor by leaking that the president had been so gracious, he carried his guest’s bag upstairs.

In 1995, after Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people with a fertilizer bomb in Oklahoma City, President Bill Clinton called out the “promoters of paranoia” on the airwaves in a rebuke that was widely seen as directed at Mr. Limbaugh.

And within minutes of the announcement of Mr. Limbaugh’s death on Wednesday, former President Donald J. Trump called Fox News to offer his condolences on live television. He praised his friend, a golfing buddy in Palm Beach, Fla., for backing up his spurious claims about having been cheated of victory in last year’s presidential election.

Mr. Limbaugh wasn’t the first conservative media star to endorse Mr. Trump for president. But he was among the first to popularize — and normalize, for many Republican politicians and voters — the style of politics that would become synonymous with the Trump name.

There was no person or subject that was off-limits for Mr. Limbaugh’s ire. Black people, gay men and lesbians, feminists, people with AIDS, the 12-year-old daughter of a president, an advocate for victims of domestic violence: All found themselves the subject of denigrating put-downs by Mr. Limbaugh over the years.

He spun conspiracy theories about the supposed involvement of Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, in the death of the former deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, and spread lies about former President Barack Obama’s birthplace. He insisted in 2009, for instance, that Mr. Obama “has yet to have to prove that he’s a citizen” and almost always referred to him on the air by using the former president’s middle name, Hussein, a trope that right-wing commentators used to evoke the false impression that he was not an American and was possibly a Muslim.

Few media stars were as crucial in making disinformation, false rumors and fringe ideas the right’s new reality. And toward the end of the Trump presidency, Mr. Limbaugh’s willingness to indulge the paranoia among Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters was especially powerful in misleading people to believe that bad news about their president — like his loss in November or his mismanagement of the coronavirus response — was simply made up by his enemies or the result of a nefarious plot. (In the case of the virus, Mr. Limbaugh called it nothing more than a “common cold.”). . .

Mr. Trump’s widespread appeal with voters initially confused many people in politics. But anyone who was a regular listener of Mr. Limbaugh’s three-hour weekday radio program, which reached roughly 15 million listeners each week, would have been less surprised.

“To conservatives, it all sounded familiar,” said Nicole Hemmer, a media scholar at Columbia University and the author of a book on Mr. Limbaugh and other conservative media figures, “Messengers of the Right.”

“The insults, the nicknames, the really outrageous statements — they had been enjoying that as a form of political entertainment for a quarter-century before Donald Trump,” Dr. Hemmer added. . . .

Both Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Trump made fun of people with disabilities. Mr. Limbaugh once shook his body during a broadcast to mimic the actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease. Mr. Trump, in a strikingly similar display, once flapped his arms in a cruel imitation of a New York Times reporter who has limited use of his upper body.

But it was more than their behavior. The way their fans were similarly eager to defend the most indefensible conduct of both men was a sign that the nation’s political divide was hardening into something more personal and tribal. Mr. Limbaugh’s most loyal listeners developed a capacity to excuse almost anything he did and deflect, saying liberals were merely being hysterical or hateful. And many loved him even more for it.

Allie Beth Stuckey, a conservative writer and podcast host, responded to news of his death on Wednesday by saying, “Rush was hated by all the right people.”

Mr. Limbaugh’s recklessness with the truth and lack of any evident concern for the danger posed by feeding paranoia on the right served him well once Mr. Trump became the Republican nominee in 2016 and later the president. . . .He was not initially all-in on Mr. Trump.

But that changed after Mr. Trump won the nomination. Mr. Limbaugh’s loyalty to the president, whose Mar-a-Lago club in Florida is not far from his own oceanfront estate, only grew stronger as Mr. Trump’s conduct during the 2016 campaign and in office became the subject of multiple investigations, a special counsel inquiry and two impeachments.

Last year, Mr. Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union address and had Melania Trump, the first lady, hang it around the ailing host’s neck. . . .

Mr. Limbaugh was hardly modest or unaware of how he could rouse a response from the president of the United States. In 2013, after Mr. Obama criticized Republicans for being “concerned about what Rush Limbaugh might say about them,” Mr. Limbaugh claimed with more pride than annoyance: “He simply cannot get me off his mind. I live rent-free in his head.”

Jeremy W. Peters covers national politics. His other assignments in his decade at The Times have included covering the financial markets, the media, New York politics and two presidential campaigns. He is also an MSNBC contributor.

Speak Your Mind

*