Rush Limbaugh was a unique and ruthless media voice whose influence frightened and impressed presidents for three decades – often at times of trauma to the nation and political upheaval they could trace back to something spoken over the microphone from the radio host.
In 1992, as President George HW Bush faced a right-wing revolt led by Patrick J. Buchanan, a rival Mr. Limbaugh had promoted, Mr. Bush extended an olive branch by inviting the host to spend the night in the Lincoln room. Mr. Limbaugh returned the favor by revealing that the President had been so courteous, 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 air in a reprimand widely seen as directed against Mr. Limbaugh.
And minutes after Mr. Limbaugh’s death was announced on Wednesday, former President Donald J. Trump called Fox News to offer his condolences on live television. He praised his friend, a golf buddy in Palm Beach, Florida, for supporting his false claims that he was cheated of victory in last year’s presidential election.
Mr. Limbaugh was not the first conservative media star to endorse Mr. Trump for the presidency. 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 Trump’s name.
There was no person or subject that was off limits to Mr. Limbaugh’s anger. Blacks, gays and lesbians, feminists, people with AIDS, the 12-year-old daughter of a president, an advocate for victims of domestic violence: all have found themselves the object of disparagement of Mr Limbaugh’s slurs over the years .
He invented conspiracy theories about the alleged involvement of Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, in the death of former Deputy White House attorney Vince Foster, and spread lies about the birthplace of former President Barack Obama. He insisted in 2009, for example, that Mr. Obama “had yet to prove that he was a citizen” and almost always referred to him on air using the former’s middle name. president, Hussein, a trope that right-wing commentators used to evoke the false impression that he was not an American and perhaps was a Muslim.
Few media stars have played such a crucial role in making disinformation, false rumors and fringe ideas the new reality of the right. And towards the end of the Trump presidency, Mr. Limbaugh’s willingness to indulge in paranoia among Mr. Trump’s staunchest supporters was especially powerful in misleading people into believing that bad news about their president – like his loss in November or his mismanagement of the coronavirus response – was simply invented by his enemies or the result of a nefarious plot. (In the case of the virus, Mr. Limbaugh referred to it simply as a “cold”.)
In turn, Mr Limbaugh rarely apologized for his comments and often attacked those who called him, arguing that they took him too seriously or distorted his words out of context. Often Mr. Limbaugh has denied saying what his critics claim.
Mr. Trump’s widespread appeal to voters initially confused many in politics. But anyone who regularly listened to Mr. Limbaugh’s three-hour weekday radio show, which reached about 15 million listeners each week, would have been less surprised.
“To conservatives, this all sounded familiar,” said Nicole Hemmer, media scholar at Columbia University and 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 enjoyed this as a form of political entertainment for a quarter of a century before Donald Trump,” added Dr Hemmer.
Mr. Limbaugh attacked black athletes like quarterback Donovan McNabb, whose success he attributed to a news outlet that was “very keen on a black quarterback to succeed.” He described a preteen Chelsea Clinton as the “White House dog.” He denigrated Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay man to be a serious presidential candidate, as “a 37-year-old gay kissing his husband on stage.”
Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Trump made fun of people with disabilities. Mr Limbaugh once shook his body on a show to emulate actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease. Mr. Trump, in a surprisingly similar display, once flapped his arms in a cruel impersonation of a New York Times reporter who has limited use of his upper body.
But it was more than their behavior. The manner in which their fans were also eager to defend the more indefensible conduct of the two men was a sign that the political divide in the country was hardening into something more personal and tribal. Mr. Limbaugh’s most loyal listeners developed an ability to excuse almost anything he did and deflect, saying the Liberals were just hysterical or hateful. And many loved him even more for it.
Conservative writer and podcast host Allie Beth Stuckey responded to news of her death on Wednesday via saying, “Rush was hated by all good people.”
Mr. Limbaugh’s recklessness with the truth and the obvious lack of 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. President. Mr. Limbaugh, who worked with his producers to carefully comb through his fan’s calls and emails, listened to his audience but rarely stepped out on a branch where he couldn’t be sure it would follow. And he wasn’t 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 seaside estate, has only grown stronger as Mr. Trump’s conduct during the 2016 and ruling campaign has been the subject of multiple investigations, one lawyer investigation and two indictments.
Last year, Mr Trump awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union address and asked Melania Trump, the first lady, to hang it around the sick host’s neck .
And Mr. Limbaugh stood behind the former president until the end, stoking the political flames. He compared the rioters who stormed the Capitol last month, furious because they believed the lies about the election of Mr. Trump and media figures like him, to the patriots of the Revolutionary War. And on President Biden’s inauguration day, Mr Limbaugh still claimed it was all a fraud. “I think they know this is something that has been arranged rather than legitimately researched and earned,” he said, referring to Democrats.
Mr. Limbaugh’s rise to prominence as a guardian of conservatism and kingmaker in the Republican Party has helped accelerate the trend of GOP politics away from serious and substantial thought leaders and politicians, and towards prominent figures. provocative, entertaining and anti-intellectual. Mr. Limbaugh – like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and other right-wing hosts who later broke – did not graduate from college. He started his radio career as a disc jockey, not as a political commentator.
“Without Rush Limbaugh, there is no way to go from George HW Bush’s party to Donald Trump,” said Brian Rosenwald, a Harvard scholar who follows disinformation on talk radio. “For 32 years, he conditioned his audience to what they wanted to hear and what they wanted. And it delighted them to hear from someone who said what they might have thought, but felt uncomfortable saying it. And Trump applied that to politics.
Prior to the establishment of Fox News in 1996 – the brainchild of Roger Ailes, who was Mr. Limbaugh’s friend and former executive producer and who negotiated the peace attempt with Mr. Bush in 1992 – Mr. Limbaugh was the undisputed king of the conservative media. He forged a personal bond with his audience that was unlike what vanguards of right-wing opinion like National Review had.
“I remember it was the first time that there was this universal feeling that everyone was listening to, and people were asking, ‘Did you hear what Rush said today? Said Russ Schriefer, a veteran Republican media consultant.
“The conservative media market has become so fragmented now,” he added. “But it was in a pre-Fox world. And at the time, he was the singular voice of conservative politics in America.
Mr. Limbaugh was barely modest or did not know how he could elicit 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 said with more pride than annoyance: “He just can’t tell me. to forget. I live without rent in his head.
Isabella Grullón Paz and Elaina plott contribution to reports.