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"The Voice of American Conservatism Dies," was Wednesday's Associated Press headline, describing Rush Limbaugh. The 70-year-old broadcaster, who once compared Covid-19 to the "common cold," died from lung cancer.
Writing up Limbaugh's career, the AP described his decades of hate programming as a "merry brand of malice," and left out the part where he was the proud voice of racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and lots of other brands of denigration that he spread around the AM dial. A country club demagogue, he helped America’s right-wing normalize a distinct culture of bigotry and cruelty. He steered the Republican Party towards no longer caring about policy and governance in any way, and instead focused on 'owning liberals,’ trolling Democrats, and purposefully lying. And the press cheered.
"I know I have become the intellectual engine of the conservative movement," Limbaugh told the New York Times in a 2008 interview, pretending his programming of mockery and loathing was akin to serious debate. (He used to refer to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama as a “Hafrican American.”) Before birtherism there was Rush. Before InfoWars and QAnon, there was Rush, purposefully polluting American minds for profit.
But yes, Limbaugh clearly did emerge as the Voice of American Conservatism, a proud emblem of mockery, race-baiting, and prejudice. That culture was soon perfected by Trump, where any topic and issue was best debated by lying about everything, at all times. Limbaugh "leaves behind a conservative movement no longer interested in truth," noted former Republican Congressman Joe Walsh.
Over the years, Limbaugh often held back from embracing Republican politicians to the fullest. Much more interested in attacking and defaming Democrats, liberals, women, and people of color, the host gladly defended Republicans but often saw himself as operating a level above politicians. He preferred to operate outside that circle so he could maintain his dominance and not be beholden to elected officials.
With Trump though, Limbaugh found his political soul mate, someone as craven, dishonest, and emotionally needy as he was. Also someone with the same fascist tendencies as Limbaugh, who in recent months made clear his disdain for free and fair elections in this country.
A straight line today exists between the birth of Limbaugh's right-wing career and the murderous mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6. As one Twitter user put it yesterday, "Limbaugh is, and always has been, a very Proud Boy."
Limbaugh's influence may have waned in recent years in terms of right-wing media clout, as the likes of Alex Jones, Ben Shapiro, and a swamp of YouTube hate merchants took over the media mantle, but Limbaugh's hallmark message of detestation became the GOP's guiding principle.
"Rush's legacy was cemented pre-internet, but he never stopped being a vector for hate and disinformation. When I reported on online trolls and propagandists, they were very intentional about seeding their ideas via talk radio, and via Rush specifically," tweeted New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz. "It's all connected.”
Commercially, Limbaugh's career never recovered from his 2012 implosion when he castigated and insulted a Georgetown University graduate student, Sandra Fluke, who testified before Congress about health care and access to contraception. Limbaugh called her out by name, labeling her a “slut” and a "prostitute," insulted her parents on the air, and suggested Fluke post videos of herself having sex on the Internet. His demented outbursts, which lasted days, sparked an unprecedented advertiser exodus from Limbaugh's nationally syndicated show. In following years, he was routinely demoted from major market AM outposts and moved over to stations that served as ratings doormats.
Not surprisingly, the mainstream media coverage of Limbaugh's death has been overly respectful, if not downright effusive. It’s not surprising because the Beltway press for decades glorified his career, only occasionally acknowledging it took place entirely in the gutter. This week, the press is presenting him as a hugely popular, powerful, and oh yes, sometimes controversial host.
He was a "polarizing figure!” CNN reported. The Washington Post obituary read like a press release (“biting but jovial “) for the most vile broadcaster of his generation. "Unflinching brashness," is how ABC News described Limbaugh, whatever that means. After detailing his "long history of making disparaging comments abut minority groups, the LBGT community, suicide, AIDS patients and women," ABC noted that the "divisive reaction" to his death was "emblematic of Limbaugh's legacy." Actually, his legacy is bullying those less powerful and hiding behind his golden microphone while questioning the courage of others.
The New York Times initially described Limbaugh as the "divisive darling of the right," before the obit was updated with some tougher language.
When it became clear last October that Limbaugh was gravely ill, I noted that media coverage of Limbaugh's career needed to be upfront and honest about the damage he had done to this country and to the democratic process — the vile degradation of our public discourse. It needed to be transparent about the endless litany of lies and heartless smears Limbaugh gleefully trafficked in for decades, as he stuffed his pockets with millions and wallowed in the misfortune of others.
Limbaugh was an awful, awful person.