Rush Limbaugh’s Toxic Legacy

Rush Limbaugh’s Toxic Legacy

The more unpleasant side of Limbaugh does not appear in his new posthumous bookbut it is hard to not think about its influence.


Radio’s Greatest of All Time is a new book credited to conservative radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, who began compiling it from transcripts of his program before his death from lung cancer in 2021. The final published version, which lists his widow, Kathryn, and his younger brother, David, as coauthors, serves as the definitive collectible tribute to the man described in the book’s publicity material as “a modern-day Founding Father—the George Washington of Radio.”

Those kinds of superlatives appear throughout the book, a 500-page “timeless collection of Rush’s brilliant words” and “authoritative body of Rush’s best work,” interspersed with pictures from various stages of his career and tributes to him by Ron DeSantis, Ronald Reagan, Ben Carson, Mike Pence, Benjamin Netanyahu, Clarence Thomas, and Donald Trump. The illustrations include a full-page photo of three of the crystal-obelisk award trophies that Limbaugh received from the National Association of Broadcasters, several full-page photos of his Presidential Medal of Freedom (given to him by Trump in 2020), a double-page spread showing Limbaugh’s Palm Beach mansion, another showing his private plane, another with screen grabs from his appearances on The Tonight Show and Family Guy, as well as covers from his monthly Limbaugh Letter (including photos of Rush as a boxer, Rush as Captain America, and Rush behind a presidential desk in a mock-up of the Oval Office). We see Rush in a tuxedo, flanked by uniformed Marines; Rush by his signature golden microphone with an American flag behind him; and Rush on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, smoking a big cigar. There is also—because why not?—a full double-page spread devoted to a photograph of Margaret Thatcher sitting next to Ronald Reagan. It must be conceded that the book is a slickly produced homage that will delight Rush’s fans, and that there are many dads “across the fruited plain” (to use a favorite Limbaugh phrase) who will be pleased when they get it as a birthday or Christmas present. Perhaps for this reason, it has already debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list.

For the nonfans among us, all of this might be a bit comical; few of us would consider Limbaugh “the greatest radio broadcaster the world has ever known.” But he was certainly one of the most successful broadcasters of all time. Limbaugh appeared on 650 stations, reached 30 million listeners, and was at one point the highest-paid person in the entire field of journalism. (Although one can dispute whether this is the best description of Limbaugh’s “field.”) He was a pioneer in talk radio, spawning an entire genre and a generation of insufferable conservative chatterboxes. It can be argued that Limbaugh deserves significant credit for both the 1994 “Republican Revolution” and the Trump presidency.

To those who know Limbaugh only as a right-wing blowhard, Radio’s Greatest of All Time helps explain some of what made him appealing to listeners. Many of the transcripts printed in the book are from callers who claim that Limbaugh changed their lives in one way or another, by encouraging them to take control of their destinies and reject “victimology.” Limbaugh haters may be surprised—I certainly was—by how many of the included transcripts are more like self-help or life-coaching sessions than the crass diatribes Limbaugh was better known for. One listener tells Rush: “The message that you’re giving us every day—self-sufficiency, self-reliance, get out there, do what you love, be aggressive, be bold—if we live our lives by the principles that you are espousing, we’ll all be successful.” One of the show’s guest hosts describes Limbaugh as “that voice in our head when perhaps we debuted ourselves, faced a fear in life, or just needed some encouragement and motivation.” Radio’s Greatest of All Time presents Limbaugh as someone who inspired listeners to be their best selves, who offered a positive and uplifting vision of America (as opposed to liberals and leftists, who hate their country), and who believed in beautiful, noble, patriotic things. He loved the Bill of Rights and the spirit of individualism and believed that the American dream was attainable by all. An entire section of the book is devoted to chronicling Limbaugh’s “generosity,” with his philanthropic contributions enumerated in a bullet-point list.

No matter his supposed philanthropy, Limbaugh never really concealed the fact that he was far more interested in making money than in effecting social change. Asked by 60 Minutes what he was trying to do with his show, Limbaugh replied that he was ultimately “trying to attract the largest audience I can and hold it for as long as I can, so I can charge advertisers confiscatory advertising rates. This is a business.” Asked by the host if he was therefore “in it for the money,” Limbaugh replied that of course he was in it for the money. In Radio’s Greatest of All Time, he similarly notes that when his critics “examine this program, none of them do so in terms of the career aspect of it” but instead “look at me as a political figure who happens to be on the radio.” Limbaugh was selling a product, not waging a policy crusade.

The more unpleasant side of Limbaugh does not appear in Radio’s Greatest of All Time, but it is hard to not think about its influence. The book reprints his stirring monologues about American values and the can-do spirit of the nation rather than, say, the time he called a Georgetown student a “slut” and a “prostitute” for wanting birth control to be covered by health insurance and said that if she wanted public subsidies for her sex life, she should have to post videos of it. We also don’t get treated to Limbaugh’s infamous comments on Native Americans and Covid-19. His career had plenty of ugly lowlights, including his mocking of Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s symptoms, his “ racist” imitation of Hu Jintao, and his “ Barack the Magic Negro” song.

These incidents were only the tip of the iceberg: The millions who tuned in to Limbaugh’s show were fed complete rubbish on a regular basis. Limbaugh frequently didn’t know what he was talking about, but he talked about it with a great deal of confidence and, it must be said, a stellar radio voice. On climate change, for instance, listeners were told, “ If you believe in God, then intellectually, you cannot believe in man-made global warming.” Limbaugh suggested that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig might have been blown up by environmentalists (or even the Obama administration) to erode support for fossil fuels, citing the “timing” as proof. (It didn’t matter anyway, though, because Limbaugh said of the oil spill that “the ocean will take care of this on its own.”) He told shameless whopping lies, informing Americans that immigrant children were infecting the country with measles, that Austin liberals had banned barbecue restaurants, that the American Medical Association had endorsed hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19, that Obamacare was increasing the divorce rate, that Barack Obama wanted to ban fishing and mandate circumcision.

But Limbaugh wasn’t just any propagandist. As leading progressive talk show host Thom Hartmann once told me, Limbaugh “transformed American politics,” while “the Democratic Party constantly underestimated talk radio.” Limbaugh had a real skill: Not every conservative broadcaster can get listeners raving that “I equate you to Alexander Hamilton,” “I think you are practically perfect,” “[You] made us believe in our country, and “Thank you for just being you.” It may be somewhat nauseating to read David Limbaugh describing his brother as “the greatest gift in broadcasting the world has ever known” and someone who “changed America forever.” But it’s true that there is nobody on the left with anything like Limbaugh’s reach.

There is one thing the left can learn from Limbaugh: not how to tell lies or make bigoted jokes but how to communicate effectively to a broad public. Limbaugh promised to make his listeners “the go-to guy in your circle of friends who has the answers” by putting them through the “Limbaugh Institute of Advanced Conservative Studies.” In the book, his listeners recount how he served as both an educator and a voice of reassurance.

An obituary in the American Thinker asserted that Limbaugh “managed to convey what conservatism is about to a mass audience better than any teacher ever could.” Indeed, Thom Hartmann has written in The Nation that the left is making a big mistake by not competing effectively with right-wing talk radio, which is still an important force. The rumors of radio’s death are greatly exaggerated: 83 percent of Americans still listen to terrestrial radio in a given week, and almost all of the top-rated political talk show hosts are conservatives. Hartmann notes that in conservative talk radio, “there’s a mentoring system, there are people coming up through it on the right. And there’s nothing like that on the left.”

With electoral races often decided by tiny margins, and with persuading undecided voters an important factor, having media that can successfully convince people to support progressive ideas is crucial if we are to stop the radical right. But we also need to understand what made Limbaugh so successful. It was not just that, for conservative listeners, he was the guy on the radio “sayin’ what I’m thinkin.’” He also had charisma and humor (even if that humor was frequently repugnant). He coined catchy little phrases and in-jokes for his listeners to feel part of a community. He expanded into a line of patriotic children’s books to reach even younger audiences. (Radio’s Greatest of All Time tells us that “eight and ten year olds started to call into the program” and sent in “photos of themselves dressed as Rush Revere by the thousands.”) Limbaugh had an extraordinary ability to connect with his audience—when conservative pundit Mark Steyn describes hearing Rush on the radio for the first time, you would think he was describing watching the first moon landing or seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Limbaugh’s messages tended to be simplistic and often not true: Big government is bad; America is a wonderful free country where anyone can achieve anything; our values are under attack by the liberals. But Limbaugh was good at what he did, even if what he was doing was bad.

Limbaugh’s vast wealth did not buy him longevity. He was a lifelong advocate of smoking cigars and told his listeners that the risk of cancer was a liberal myth: “I’ve never seen cause of death: Tobacco products.” As with so many other topics, he turned out to be wrong about this. One might be tempted to view him sympathetically as a tragic figure, if not for the knowledge that his confident reassurances on tobacco and Covid-19 probably sent multiple credulous “Dittoheads” to their graves.

In the end, I doubt that Limbaugh will actually be remembered by many for very long. Daily talk radio is an ephemeral medium, and even a book like Radio’s Greatest of All Time will mainly be of interest as a souvenir to those who once listened to his program. Limbaugh lost ground toward the end of his life, being surpassed in listenership in 2016 by NPR’s drive-time programs. He will likely end up a historical footnote like Father Coughlin, with little of his output ever consumed again. But those of us who don’t want to see his politics prevail should still study his career and work. Rush Limbaugh demonstrated the extraordinary power and potential reach of political media. We would do well to appropriate a few of his techniques, if not his abhorrent worldview.

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