Rush Limbaugh was one of the most influential media figures of my lifetime, if not the most influential of all. This failed sports broadcaster became the central figure of both the Republican Party and conservative movement, the one person that the libertarians, Bible thumpers, militia nuts, and rank and file right wingers could agree on. He united this broad coalition through their common hatred of "the liberals."
Limbaugh always pronounced that phrase with such dripping contempt. I remember when he had a late night TV show in my youth, and the ad consisted of stereotypical liberals acting offended at what Rush said. Well before social media was a glint in Mark Zuckerberg's dead eyes"triggering the libs" was the conservative staff of life.
Sometimes out of morbid curiosity I would watch that TV show, and was struck by just how scared and resentful his audience seemed to be when it came to the most milquetoast liberals. Early in the Clinton presidency he would come in and out of commercials with a "America held hostage" graphic. Well before January 6th, 2021, he had propagated the notion that any Democratic presidency was de facto illegitimate.
What unnerved me was how people in my life who were devout Catholics and extremely kind in their personal lives and careful not to say negative things of others embraced Limbaugh so much. One aunt of mine who I never heard say a disparaging word to others would listen to him and parrot his arguments. She was a clerk and her husband a small farmer and yet followed the corporatist Limbaugh line. Family friends who sponsored my church youth group had his books displayed prominently. I would flip through them sometimes, taken aback by the rank misogyny and cruelty masquerading as humor.
Nowadays, I understand the connection. The same kind of people also voted for Trump, another showman with a big mouth full of hateful words completely unburdened by shame. I have come to realize that conservatives who are kind upstanding people in their personal lives long for a champion who can express all the contents of their id. Limbaugh and Trump both gave them that.
Limbaugh was Trump's John the Baptist. (The awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom was a real game recognize game moment.) Limbaugh made it clear that Republicans were far more animated by the culture war than they were about actual tangible political goals. As long as the people they didn't like got hurt worse than them they didn't really care all that much about a whole lot else. For decades the respectable conservative movement thought of itself as being animated by higher principles and ideas, but in reality that was only for the occasional Frum and Kristol type. Trump knew that in 2016 and came in like wrecking ball, forcing the likes of Ted Cruz to drop their high-minded schtick and get down into the muck.
Limbaugh also knew that Republicans would get far more support from obstructing Democrats than doing anything themselves. His infamous speech at CPAC in 2009 rallied conservatives chastened by their huge defeat in the 200 election. His call for them to derail the Obama administration was heard, and by 2010 the Tea Party would sweep Republicans back into power.
At the end of the day, however, Limbaugh was primarily in it for himself. There was no animating ideology behind him apart from making a buck. His CPAC speech reasserted his relevance at a time when he faced more competition from other conservative talkers trying to win his crown. He made his bucks appealing to the cultural resentments of his ditto heads, and that only occasionally steered him wrong. (I remember his disastrous stint as a NFL studio commentator when he said Donovan McNabb was getting praised as a quarterback because he was Black. That basically killed ESPN's dumbass experiment.)
What's striking is that this carnival barker dishing out racial resentment, misogyny, and homophobia to his eager audience ended up being so important. It's another sign of our failed media, failed politics, and failed society. Limbaugh was a smart enough showman to give the people exactly what they wanted. In the process he turned the right wing's dark id into the Republican Party's mainstream. I guess the clown gets the last laugh.