‘Slurs’ and ‘alternative realities’: Conservative lays out Rush Limbaugh’s toxic yet enduring impact

Eleven months have passed since the death of far-right radio host Rush Limbaugh, who was 70 when lung cancer ended his life on February 17, 2021. Yet Limbaugh continues to have a major influence, from right-wing media to former President Donald Trump’s MAGA movement. Never Trump conservative Charlie Sykes examines Limbaugh’s influence in a think piece published by Politico this week — influence that Sykes views as mostly negative.

“Limbaugh, who died this year at age 70 of lung cancer, effectively remade conservatism in his own image as the architect of the entertainment wing that now dominates the GOP,” Sykes explains. “At the peak of his influence, he reached tens of millions of listeners every day, far exceeding his nearest competitor in talk radio. From 1988 until his death, Limbaugh held court for three hours every weekday, thrilling his audience with ribald taunts and a know-it-all’s blustery dismantling of liberal pieties. He was outrageous, occasionally hilarious and immensely influential.”

Before the rise of Limbaugh in the early 1990s, the most famous right-wing media figures in the United States were columnist George Will and the late National Review founder William F. Buckley — both of whom championed an intellectual sort of conservatism. Buckley, agree or disagree with him, was smart as hell, and many liberal and progressive Democrats reasoned that if they could appear on “Firing Line” and survive a debate with Buckley, it would show that they weren’t lightweights.

Indeed, one of the things that made author Gore Vidal revered as a liberal icon was the fact that he performed so well during his famous debate with Buckley in the late 1960s.


Limbaugh, in contrast, favored a rude-and-crude approach. He didn’t single-handedly invent it; radio hosts Bob Grant and Lester Kinsolving and Southern California television host Wally George were equally buffoonish during the 1980s. But Limbaugh, more than anyone, made crude, mean-spirited buffoonery the norm in right-wing media.

Sykes makes it clear that he much prefers Buckley’s approach, writing, “William F. Buckley Jr. made conservatism intellectually respectable by saving it from the wackos and the demagogues. Rush Limbaugh gave it right back again. In the Age of Trump, Limbaugh might not have been the most important figure, but he was a central player in the devolution of the conservative mind.”

Limbaugh, according to Sykes, “created the template that Trump copied so effectively.”

“It’s fair to say that without Limbaugh, there would never have been a Trump presidency,” Sykes emphasizes. “But without Limbaugh, you would also not have had a generation of conservative talkers who emulated his populist style. Without Limbaugh, it’s hard to imagine having a Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Ben Shapiro, Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham.”

Limbaugh’s influence, Sykes notes, is all over the Trumpified GOP.

“We now live in the world Limbaugh created, including a political culture that is driven less by facts and ideas than by slurs, rationalizations, conspiracy theories and alternative realities,” Sykes explains. “Limbaugh could be provocative and funny, but he also introduced and then helped to normalize cruelty, racism and misogyny among a new generation of talkers. He called women ‘sluts,’ mocked people who died of AIDS, and referred to President Obama as the ‘Magic Negro,’ all the while posing as a brave truth-teller who was defying the PC police. In Limbaugh’s world, there was no such thing as racism, only liberal overreaction. But, perhaps most important, Limbaugh pioneered a style of disinformation that now seems almost routine.”

In 2020, Trump suggested that foul play was involved in the death of a young staffer who worked for MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough back when he was a conservative GOP congressman in Florida in the early 2000s. There was, of course, zero evidence of foul play, but that didn’t stop Trump from implying that there was — and the fact that Limbaugh defended Trump for promoting a slanderous lie, according to Sykes, speaks volumes about his warped view of the world.

Limbaugh said, “Do you think Trump cares whether Scarborough murdered anybody or not? No, of course he doesn’t care. So why is he tweeting it? Well, because it’s out there…. He’s having fun watching these holier-than-thou leftist journalists react like their moral sensibilities have been forever rocked and can never recover.”

That belief that “owning the liberals” is all that matters, Sykes laments, is a prime example of Limbaugh’s enduring influence.

“Limbaugh wanted his audience to think this was the ‘secret knowledge’ that he was passing on: The lie doesn’t matter, moralizing is a joke, cruelty is cleverness,” Sykes observes. “You can see his legacy all around us.”

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