IN 1987, AMERICA’S Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the airwaves, repealed the Fairness Doctrine, a policy that required broadcasters to present balanced views of controversial subjects. One year later, a former executive at ABC radio gave an opinionated but little-known talk-radio host from Sacramento a nationally syndicated show. This contravened accepted practice; most nationally known radio hosts were bland and inoffensive interviewers, the better not to alienate a range of listeners.
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Rush Limbaugh was the opposite. His shows rarely had guests or more than a few brief pre-screened callers—the better to let him expound, for hours on end, on the ills of modern American society, most of which were the fault of liberals and the left. His political view was Manichean: easy to understand and engagingly delivered. He made no effort to credit opposing views; he—and by extension his listeners—were defenders of all that was good about America, while the liberalism of Democrats, as he put it, “is a scourge. It destroys the human spirit. It destroys prosperity.” He built this simple format into one of the most popular radio programmes in America, attracting millions of listeners and inspiring scores of imitators.
Like Donald Trump, whose presidency he championed, he styled himself a tribune of the common man, willing to say things that no one dared but everyone thought. Indeed, much as William F. Buckley’s libertarian-inflected traditionalism prefigured the conservatism of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Mr Limbaugh’s cocksure derisiveness, and the glee he took in angering the left, provided the stylistic underpinnings of the contemporary, Trumpist Republican Party.
And like Mr Trump, he inspired a quasi-cultic following, with fans who called themselves “Dittoheads,” for the propensity to agree with everything he said, even though—or, perhaps, especially because—the things he said could be repellent. “Feminism,” he maintained, “was established so that unattractive women could have easier access to the mainstream of society.” He called gay men “perverts”, mocked people dying of AIDS and treated the rare phone-in guest who disagreed with him to a “caller abortion”—hanging up after playing the sound of a vacuum motor. He told an African-American caller to “take that bone out of your nose and call me back,” remarked that “all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson,” and said that the National Basketball Association should be renamed “the Thug Basketball Association”.
His first book, released in 1992, championed standard conservative views: small government, anti-environmentalism and a belief that “racial relations will not be enhanced or prejudice eliminated by governmental edict.” But few tuned in to hear what he was for. People wanted to hear him hate who they hated. He had particular scorn for Hillary Clinton, who he said kept her trophies in a “testicle lockbox,” and Barack Obama, who he mused may not have been an American citizen (he played a song on his programme called “Barack the Magic Negro”). He survived some embarrassing scrapes with the law, including getting stopped with Viagra prescribed for someone else in his luggage, and an oxycodone addiction. Being married four times did not seem to dent his traditionalist bona fides any more than did Mr Trump’s being thrice married.
Mr Limbaugh continued broadcasting until February 2nd, though by then he was something of an elder statesman. The day after he announced that he had advanced lung cancer, Mr Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, previously awarded to, among others, Jonas Salk, Felix Frankfurter and Martin Luther King junior. Yet that just testifies to how deeply Limbaughism had been absorbed into the conservative mainstream—its influences discernible in Trumpist Republicans’ demand for complete fealty, and their casting of political opponents, not as fellow Americans with whom they disagree but as evil. Those attributes make for entertaining radio. But they make governing impossible. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Tower of babble”