Rush Limbaugh, a polarizing radio commentator who single-handedly amplified the voice of American conservatism, has died.
Limbaugh, who was 70, had been diagnosed with final stage lung cancer in February 2020. A day after he publicized his diagnosis, President Donald Trump announced during his State of the Union speech he was awarding the broadcaster the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
Trump, who left office nearly a month ago, broke his post-presidency media silence and called into a Fox News television program Wednesday to eulogize Limbaugh.
“He was with me right from the beginning,” Trump said, referring to the early months of his presidential campaign in 2015. “He liked what I said.”
Trump said Limbaugh had “tremendous insight,” was “very street smart,” and “there’s never been anything like him,” describing his prominent supporter as “irreplaceable.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence issued a statement saying, “Limbaugh gave voice to the ideals and values that made this country great. He inspired a generation of American conservatives, and he will be deeply missed. Rush Limbaugh made Conservatives proud, and he made conservatism fun.”
Former Republican President George W. Bush said in a statement, “While he was brash, at times controversial, and always opinionated, he spoke his mind as a voice for millions of Americans and approached each day with gusto.”
Limbaugh’s rise coincided with the Federal Communications Commission repealing a rule in 1987 that required broadcasters to provide equal time to liberal and conservative political viewpoints. Limbaugh demonstrated that hours of ad-libbed provocative conservative monologues could be highly profitable for hundreds of ailing AM radio stations that carried his syndicated program. It was also lucrative for Limbaugh, who commanded a salary as high as $85 million annually.
The FCC rule change and Limbaugh’s ascent during the presidency of Republican Ronald Reagan saw the American media landscape depart from domination by several broadcast TV networks and a handful of major newspapers that were generally staid and balanced to a more fractured era in which information melded with entertainment, known as infotainment.
“He took the terrain of conservatism of the 1980s and cobbled together a worldview that was not exactly Republican. He was very critical of the Republican Party in many ways but was a huge fan of Reagan,” according to Claire Potter, a history professor at the New School for Social Research and author of “Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Stole Our Democracy.”
“He reshaped the media and Republican politics. He might be the single most important figure in late 20th and early 21st century politics,” according to Brian Rosenwald, scholar-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Talk Radio’s America.”
Limbaugh was unapologetic in his personal attacks on liberal politicians and activists. Those advocating women’s rights were deemed “femi-Nazis,” while environmentalists were “wackos.”
In his final year of broadcasting, he brushed off COVID-19 as nothing more serious than the common cold, arguing the pandemic was blown out of proportion to politically target Trump.
A college dropout, former radio disc jockey and sports broadcaster, Limbaugh also downplayed climate change and opposed health care reform — which became templates for the Republican Party.
Limbaugh overcame personal setbacks, including hearing loss reversed by a cochlear implant and an addiction to prescription painkillers that compelled him to seek rehabilitation treatment.
Over the years, he moved further to the right, taking much of America with him.
“There’s no such thing as a moderate. A moderate is just a liberal disguise,” he declared in 2005.
Liberals loathed Limbaugh, accusing him of distorting facts and littering the airwaves with hate speech.
“Rush Limbaugh helped create today’s polarized America by normalizing racism, bigotry, misogyny and mockery,” tweeted Shannon Watts, founder of the gun control group Moms Demand Action. “He was a demagogue who got rich off of hate speech, division, lies and toxicity. That is his legacy.”
Many Republican politicians, however, echoed Limbaugh to boost their election chances, as opposing his positions could imperil their careers.
“Politically, the far right, warfare politics version of the Republican Party that exists today owes itself to his influence and the changes in the political media catalyzed by his rise,” Rosenwald told VOA. “Without him, the idea of a President Donald Trump is unfathomable — but his influence is far broader.”
Many of Limbaugh’s fans, whom he referred to as “ditto heads,” relished his opposition to political correctness — the use of language and policies to eliminate verbal discrimination or negative stereotyping.
He was effective at taking “monikers of shame being tossed out by liberals” and telling his fans to embrace the labels, Potter said.
For like-minded listeners, some who became prominent commentators in their own right, Limbaugh was their political professor, teaching them that “conservative ideas were intellectual ideas and that it was a system of thought that mattered,” Potter told VOA.
Limbaugh wore criticism as a badge of honor, embracing the label of “the most dangerous man in America.”
He was especially critical of President Barack Obama, whom he described as “an angry Black guy” and declared at the start of the Democrat’s’ presidency in 2009, “I hope he fails.”
During the first impeachment of Trump, Limbaugh defended the Republican president, arguing he was being targeted because he was too successful in lowering taxes, resurrecting the economy and defending the rights of gun owners.
Limbaugh backed Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was riddled with widespread fraud and irregularities and did not regard Joe Biden’s victory as legitimate. He compared the rioters who ransacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6 to interrupt certification of the president-elect’s victory to the 18th-century colonists who opposed British rule in North America.
When asked about Limbaugh’s death during the daily press briefing on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “I don’t know that I anticipate a statement from the president, but I can certainly pass on his condolences and expression of support for the family.”
“I think he’ll be missed by many people on the right,” Potter said. “But I think he’ll be missed by many of us on the left who never failed to turn to him when something was going on to say, ‘OK, what are conservative populists thinking now?'”