Rush Limbaugh, a talk radio pioneer who saturated America’s airwaves with cruel bigotries, lies and conspiracy theories for over three decades, amassing a loyal audienc
e of millions and transforming the Republican Party in the process, has died, his wife revealed at the beginning of his show on Wednesday. He was 70 years old.
Limbaugh announced in February 2020 that he had been diagnosed with advanced stage 4 lung cancer.
Former president Donald Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the 2020 State of the Union, calling Limbaugh “the greatest fighter and winner you will ever meet”.
Perhaps no moment better encapsulated Limbaugh’s legacy, nor demonstrated the immense influence he came to wield in Washington.
The medal was a just reward: Trump’s ascension to the presidency couldn’t have happened without Limbaugh’s brand of right-wing media.
The modern Republican party often functioned with Limbaugh as a fulcrum. President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, once called Limbaugh “the voice and intellectual force of the Republican Party”. Limbaugh would at times massage the failures of the party and its leaders, dismissing obvious policy or political failures as simply part of liberal conspiracies.
But he also helped set the agenda. When a Republican politician promoting racist and sexist policies could only use a dog whistle, Limbaugh provided a bull horn – he was, for example, an early progenitor of the racist birther conspiracy theory about Obama that Trump would later use to fuel his political career.
For decades, Limbaugh was associated with the far-right fringes of the Republican Party. In 1995, only days after Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, president Bill Clinton issued a blistering attack at a speech in Minneapolis in which he said the “nation’s airwaves […] spread hate, they leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable. […] It is time we all stood up and spoke against that kind of reckless speech and behaviour.”
Limbaugh vehemently protested the characterisation, assuming that it was about him – which in all likelihood it was. “Make no mistake about it: liberals intend to use this tragedy for their own political gain,” he said on the radio afterwards.
People did take up Clinton’s charge to speak against Limbaugh’s style of “reckless speech and behaviour,” but without much success. While remaining a controversial figure and at times suffering advertising boycotts and derision from the mainstream media, less than 25 years, rather than be condemned by another American president, Limbaugh was given a medal.
Decades Of Hate
A full accounting of Limbaugh’s lies and exaggerations; his racism and his misogyny; his homophobia and his Islamophobia; and his sheer cruelty could fill books – and have – but even a cursory overview of his lowlights makes his prejudice clear.
In 2003, he was forced to resign from ESPN after stating that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was only receiving praise because the media was “very desirous that a Black quarterback do well”.
In 2004, Limbaugh said the NBA should be renamed the TBA —“the Thug Basketball Association”. He then added: “Stop calling them teams. Call ’em gangs.” He similarly whined that watching the NFL was like watching “a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons”.
Once, after arguing with a Black man who called into his show, he told the caller to “take that bone out of your nose and call me back“. Another time, Limbaugh asked his audience, “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?” while discussing the Black civil rights activist and politician.
Limbaugh once ludicrously asserted that “if any race of people should not have guilt about slavery, it’s Caucasians”. He invited a guest on air who sang “Barack, the Magic Negro” to the tune of “Puff, the Magic Dragon”. In 2016, he read an essay on air that had been penned by a well-known white supremacist.
Limbaugh’s radio career was also one long exercise in misogyny, perhaps best summed up by his thesis that “feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society”.
In one of his most infamous episodes, he called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” in 2012 after she testified in Congress about the importance of women having access to birth control.
Nearly every marginalised group or minority bore the brunt of Limbaugh’s bigotry. Once, while speaking about the genocide of America’s indigenous peoples, Limbaugh said: “Holocaust 90m Indians? Only four million left? They all have casinos, what’s to complain about?”
Limbaugh frequently mirrored white nationalist talking points when discussing Latino immigrants, whom he described as lazy and dependent on the government. He called migrants at America’s southern border an “invasion”.
An opponent of marriage equality – which he suggested was “perverted” and “depraved” – Limbaugh argued in 2016 that legalising gay marriage would lead to bestiality. “What happens if you love your dog?” he said. He once referred to transgender people as being mentally ill.
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Limbaugh also frequently denigrated those who were HIV positive, saying the best way to stop the spread of the virus was to “not ask another man to bend over and make love at the exit point”. He spoke out against federal funding to fight the virus too, calling it the “only federally protected virus”.
His Father’s Son
Limbaugh’s journey to becoming one of America’s foremost bigots began in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where he was born to a prominent local political family on January 12, 1951. His father, a lawyer and Republican activist, would sternly lecture about politics in the home and rant against communism. Limbaugh later called his father “the smartest man I ever met”.
At age 14, Limbaugh says his parents bought him a Remco Carevelle radio set, which enabled him to broadcast on AM channels within a few hundred square feet of his house. In high school, Limbaugh worked as a DJ at KGMO, a local radio station co-owned by his father.
“Even when I was a little boy, I dreamed of being on the radio,” Limbaugh told biographer Ze’ev Chafetts. “In the mornings getting ready for school I’d hear the guy on the radio, and he just sounded free and happy, like he was having a wonderful time. That’s what I wanted, too.”
Limbaugh enrolled at Southeast Missouri State University but dropped out after a year to pursue a career in radio. Throughout the 1970s, he worked at different radio stations in Missouri and Pennsylvania but was often fired after clashing with management. He eventually landed a steady on-air gig in Sacramento, California, before getting hired to host his own show at WABC in New York, which remained his flagship station throughout much of his career.
As his fame rose, Limbaugh liked to explain his success by claiming he had “talent on loan from God,” but it was a Reagan-era Federal Communications Commission policy shift that allowed Limbaugh to reach national infamy and create the mould for modern right-wing media stardom. In 1987, the FCC abolished the decades-old Fairness Doctrine which mandated that TV and radio broadcasters present both sides of controversial issues. This meant that stations were no longer required to feature opposing views, and instead radio hosts like Limbaugh could spend hours spouting right-wing fallacies without challenge.
Decades before online extremists and pro-Trump trolls used memes and ironic detachment to make their far-right beliefs seem less repugnant, Limbaugh employed the same strategy. He popularised cartoonish terms such as “commie-libs” and “feminazi”, while also claiming that abortion represented a “modern day Holocaust”. He used mocking voices and affectations as he belittled women’s rights, Black activists and gay people. His persona as an absurd blowhard gave audiences an excuse to brush off Limbaugh’s mainstreaming of far-right views as part of an act – just Rush being Rush, or El Rushbo, as he was often called.
Becoming A National Star
The end of the Fairness Doctrine allowed for Limbaugh’s brand of unhinged right-wing rhetoric and shock jock persona to become a media phenomenon. By 1990, his nationally syndicated show aired on 300 stations ― a number that more than doubled over the next four years.
Limbaugh’s rise turned him into a ubiquitous cultural figure in the 1990s. Limbaugh’s voice echoed for hours a day on syndicated radio stations around the country; he appeared on magazine covers and in newspaper profiles. His success made him into a curiosity for the mainstream media, but little of the coverage properly grappled with what Limbaugh was doing to radicalise his listeners.
As his radio audience grew, Limbaugh got his own half-hour television show on Fox in 1992 and created a prototype for prime time opinion shows hosted by right-wing pundits like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. The show’s executive producer was Limbaugh’s longtime friend Roger Ailes, who would go on to launch Fox News in 1996 and run it for two decades until he was fired for widespread sexual harassment.
Limbaugh’s political influence made him beloved among Republican Party elites. When the GOP won the House for the first time in 40 years in 1994, Republicans called him the “majority maker”. At then-house speaker Newt Gingrich’s victory party, they sold “Rush Limbaugh for President!” T-shirts.
But Limbaugh never fully tied his fate to any one politician, always staying focused on his own success above all else. “I don’t define my success by who wins elections, because politicians are going to come and go, and I’m going to be around as long as I choose to be,” Limbaugh told Time Magazine in 2008.
Like any successful right-wing media star, Limbaugh had a financial angle behind his vitriol and an appetite to centre himself in controversies. He turned his infamy into extreme wealth: In 2008, he signed an an eight-year deal for his show worth around $400m. He bought a private jet and a fleet of luxury cars to usher him from place to place.
“I wanted to be the reason people listened,” Limbaugh told The New York Times in 1990. “That’s how you pad your pocket.”
While he claimed to represent the views of the average American, Limbaugh lived for years as a caricature of an East Coast elite in his luxury condo overlooking Central Park in New York City. He sold the property in 2010 for $11.5m, moving primarily to a sprawling mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, where he lived until his death.
Meanwhile, Limbaugh used his platform to condemn policies designed to actually help working-class Americans. He fervently opposed the expansion of public health care and said an Obama-era health insurance program for low-income children “ought to die”. He condemned taxes against the ultra-rich, such as himself, and fled New York after the proposal of increased taxes on millionaires.
In 2006, Limbaugh – despite once saying that all drug addicts should be convicted and “sent up the river” – struck a plea deal with prosecutors in Florida after being charged with prescription fraud. Limbaugh, who admitted to being an oxycodone addict, was accused of “doctor shopping,” the act of deliberately deceiving physicians in order to receive multiple prescriptions. Although Limbaugh had previously told his listeners that “too many whites are getting away with drug use” and should all be sent to prison, Limbaugh avoided time behind bars himself, paying a $30,000 fine and agreeing to stay clean.
The President’s Ear
Limbaugh was still the most popular radio host in America by the time of the 2016 election. Although initially supportive of Republican senator Ted Cruz during the party’s primary, he became a staunch supporter of the eventual nominee, Donald Trump. Limbaugh could be counted on to support the president during some of the most disgraceful episodes of Trump’s sole term in the White House.
In 2017 white supremacists, emboldened by Trump’s presidency, gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the “Unite The Rally” rally, the largest such gathering in a generation. A neo-Nazi rammed his car into counter-protesters at the rally, killing one person. Trump initially refused to condemn the white supremacists, and Limbaugh swiftly came to the president’s defence, blaming anti-racist activists for the violence.
It was part of a pattern for Limbaugh, who repeatedly tried to downplay white supremacists during Trump’s four years in the White House, a period of rising far-right terror across the globe. After an avowed white supremacist massacred 51 Muslims inside two New Zealand mosques in 2019, Limbaugh speculated on air that the shooter “may in fact be a leftist” who shot Muslims “to smear” those on the right.
Limbaugh was a close confidant of the president, and he and Trump went golfing together in Florida. The president sometimes called into Limbaugh’s radio show, and Limbaugh claimed they spoke on the phone weekly.
Their relationship culminated with Trump awarding Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union address in February 2020. In his speech, Trump heralded Limbaugh as “a special man” who has inspired millions of Americans through his “decades of tireless devotion to our country”. Limbaugh had announced the day before that he had lung cancer.
The next month, when the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across the US, Limbaugh promoted conspiracy theories about the virus and its death toll. Despite that, vice president Mike Pence, the head of the White House coronavirus taskforce, appeared on his show multiple times during this period.
Limbaugh spent his final months on air downplaying the historic pandemic and spreading dangerous medical misinformation, including calling coronavirus “the common cold” and telling listeners “we have to remember that people die every day in America”.
On the day Limbaugh died, the coronavirus had killed more than 488,000 Americans.