Rush Limbaugh medal an insult to Latinos, immigrants
During the 2020 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump interrupted his report to the nation to honor a person he called “a special man beloved by millions of Americans.” In the gallery of the House of Representatives, First Lady Melania Trump then presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Just one day earlier, Limbaugh had revealed that he had advanced lung cancer. The president described Limbaugh as “the greatest fighter that you will ever meet.”
Although presidents award the Medal of Freedom at their discretion, Limbaugh does not meet the criteria for such an honor. Already, his medal has sparked a backlash, because of his history of divisive speech. Latinos and immigrants have long been favorite scapegoats for Limbaugh, and his award deserves to be viewed as an insult to the Latino community.
Harry Truman began the tradition of the Medal of Freedom, and it was later re-introduced as a presidential honor in 1963 under John F. Kennedy. It was created for “any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Past recipients include Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Frank Sinatra. Limbaugh, described by the website Vox as “one of America‘s most prominent racists,” does not belong in such esteemed company.
Limbaugh launched his national radio show in 1988 and has built a following by trafficking in offensive commentary. His legacy of hate includes mocking everyone from Asians to people with disabilities to African American athletes.
Limbaugh has reserved particular scorn for Latinos, consistently using his platform to conflate Latinos with illegal immigration and crime. In 2009, he questioned why Latino advocacy groups would lobby for the Affordable Care Act, since “illegal aliens” would not be eligible for coverage. In 2013, he inaccurately described Mexican immigrants as lazy and government-dependent. In 2019, he compared the Allied troops landing in France on D-Day to migrants at the U.S. southern border, calling the latter “an invasion force.” Such words have had the effect of poisoning the debate around immigration.
Limbaugh’s ugly rhetoric about Latinos is so pervasive that his words were cited by the New York Times in an analysis of the possible ideological inspirations of the gunman who carried out the mass shooting in El Paso.
Limbaugh has also been disrespectful of prominent Latinas. When Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court, he called her “a hack” and “a reverse racist.” Likening Sotomayor to a housekeeper, he joked about sending her “a bunch of vacuum cleaners.” When Dolores Huerta received the Medal of Freedom in 2012, Limbaugh slammed the labor icon as “a professed Marxist and a socialist.” More recently, when speaking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he pronounced her name with an exaggerated accent and dismissed her as “some young uppity.”
All this anti-Latino sentiment comes with a side of hypocrisy: Limbaugh, who has bemoaned what he sees as the lack of assimilation by immigrants, is selling his children’s book in Spanish. So he doesn’t support diversity or people not speaking English, but he is willing to profit from Spanish-speakers.
Some conservative media outlets have assailed Limbaugh’s critics for celebrating his cancer diagnosis. While any person facing a serious illness deserves sympathy, Limbaugh himself has a poor track record of showing any empathy for others. He mocked Michael J. Fox’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease, and joked about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health. He suggested in 2014 that Robin Williams committed suicide because liberals are “never happy.” Limbaugh’s cancer diagnosis does not erase years of such toxic statements.
He is not a great man worthy of a high honor. He is a mean-spirited bully who will be remembered for his vitriol.
Yet Limbaugh is not always wrong. In fact, he was amazingly prescient in 2012, while whining about Dolores Huerta receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. “The Presidential Medal of Freedom is now being rendered meaningless. It’s just a political award,” Limbaugh said. “That’s all it is. It’s another great tradition, institution down the tubes.” He wasn’t right then, but he sure is right now.
Limbaugh does not deserve the nation’s highest civilian honor. His career reflects the worst brand of destructive partisanship. Limbaugh receiving the Medal of Freedom contaminates the honor for all past and future recipients.
Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.