The Memo: Limbaugh's divisive legacy

Rush Limbaugh invented the template for conservative talk radio, delighting millions of listeners and appalling millions of others, before his death on Wednesday from complications of lung cancer. 

Along the way, he could be seen as a cause, symptom and beneficiary of America’s deepening divisions across a four-decade career that made him a conservative institution. 

He gave voice to the beliefs and fears of a segment of American society that felt ignored or derided by mainstream media. And that voice was often belligerent, mendacious and cruel.

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At various points in his career, he made fun of deaths from AIDS, said that an NFL quarterback got undue praise because he was Black, downplayed sexual harassment and called a young Georgetown University Law School student “a slut” merely for expressing the belief that health insurance should cover contraception costs.

The final of those controversies elicited a rare Limbaugh apology after some advertisers announced plans to pull their support for his show.

The appetite for incendiary commentary remained until the end, with Limbaugh pushing former President TrumpDonald TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit MORE’s false claims about the 2020 election and suggesting that the nation might be headed for secession.

His audience had declined by then, to about 13 million weekly listeners, but he remained arguably the single most influential figure in conservative media.

Limbaugh, who had once been a fairly generic Top 40 DJ, switched tracks in the 1980s and began leaning into his conservative beliefs. 

The “Fairness Doctrine,” which required broadcasting companies to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues, was abolished in 1987 during the Reagan administration. The following year, “The Rush Limbaugh Show” would enter national syndication.

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It took less than two years to become the nation’s biggest talk radio show.

Like Fox News founder Roger Ailes — perhaps the media figure who provides the closest parallel — Limbaugh found a popular and lucrative niche arguing that traditional America was under attack.

“El Rushbo,” as he styled himself, presented a worldview in which the dominant groups in American society — white, straight, culturally conservative men — were besieged by liberal armies on multiple fronts, including “feminazis,” “tree-huggers” and other representatives of “political correctness.”

To some, especially younger, liberal-leaning Americans, it seemed like an outright con — a rhetorical sleight of hand allowing those who enjoyed many of society’s advantages to consider themselves victims. 

But among older, whiter Americans, much of what he said rang true — and they rewarded him. They supported a media empire that encompassed bestselling books, merchandise and a well-read website as well as a less successful venture into TV.

The result was a vast fortune for Limbaugh, who before his death was earning around $40 million per year.

In its obituary, The Washington Post unearthed an old quote that comes as close as any to capturing the heart of Limbaugh’s appeal to his fans. 

“I represent a group of people who aren’t heard from very much in the media, the average normal American guy and his family,” he said on a CBS TV show in 1990. “I have the unique ability to take the opposing point of view and just nuke it, laser it out of existence. ... People say, ‘You really believe the stuff you say?’ That’s for you to figure out.”

The implication — that he was a genuine conservative but that his rage was also performative — is revealing.

Even some of Limbaugh’s critics acknowledged his skill as a performer. Much as liberals who hated Fox News would envy Ailes’s mastery of the nuts and bolts of television production, they could also admire Limbaugh’s special ability to hold millions spellbound for three hours a day without a script or supporting cast.

“He used his talents to make the world a worse place,” was the verdict of New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie on Twitter on Wednesday.

There were, obviously, millions of people who did not see it that way — some of whom were in the halls of Congress or the White House.

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Trump broke his media silence to call in to Fox News soon after Limbaugh’s death became public. Limbaugh was a “legend,” Trump said, adding that listening to the radio talk show host was “like a religious experience for a lot of people.”

Former President George W. Bush released a statement calling Limbaugh “a friend throughout my presidency.” 

Former Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R-Ga.), who rose to national prominence at roughly the same time as Limbaugh, called him "one of the great heroic figures of the conservative movement."

For Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanMcCarthy pulls GOP picks off House economic panel GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger House GOP blames Pelosi — not Trump — for Jan. 6 MORE (R-Ohio), one of the staunchest Trump allies in Congress, Limbaugh was simply “the greatest radio host of all-time.”

Limbaugh’s influence on conservative politics is one of the few things on which his fans and detractors can agree. 

Trump himself is the most obvious example of a politician who has far more in common with the tendentious, declamatory tone of talk radio than with Beltway conventions. In many ways, that tone, pioneered by Limbaugh, has become the main one in the GOP.

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Nicole Hemmer, the author of a book on conservative media, tweeted on Wednesday that Limbaugh had “elevated conservative media into a coequal branch of party politics, and pioneered a style of rhetoric, argument, and entertainment that would come to define conservative politics.”

But there were also different voices heard on Wednesday — those for whom Limbaugh’s demagoguery was no abstract subject for study but a cause of real and visceral fear.

Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas tweeted that there would have been “no Trumpism” without Limbaugh. 

Drawing on his own experience, he added that he had come to the United States in 1993.

“As an undocumented, gay Filipino, Limbaugh has attacked my very existence –– and millions more –– for as long as I've dared call this country home,” he wrote.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.