I was a teenage girl in the '90s, and my father was deep in Rush Limbaugh's sway. Dad would pick me up from school with the Buick's AM signal crackling and buzzing, Rush pounding home a point about the Gulf War. Dad was a Ditto Head. He wasn't a reader, but he bought Limbaugh's "The Way Things Ought to Be" in hardcover, where it sat — displayed but untouched — on a living room end table until I could write my initials in the dust on top. He rarely cried but did, in devastation, the November night in 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected president, claiming the next weeks would bring "the very end of the world." One Saturday when I was 14, our whole family trekked to an antiabortion protest, where I was given an aqua T-shirt to wear with a picture of a fetus on it. I grimaced, and Dad wasn't angry but looked at me, his brown eyes open wide with deepest disappointment as he asked me, "You're not going to end up one of these feminazis, are you?"
I ended up a much different kind of adult than the adults who raised me, and I give partial credit for that to Limbaugh, who was effectively one of those adults. Like many teenagers, I grasped at various ideas I suspected would dismay my parents, such as swearing off TV entirely from 1995 to 1998 and wearing the same pair of electric blue Dr. Martens shoes every single day of my senior year in high school. I wrote insufferable poetry, read Walt Whitman, snuck out to late-night live music concerts and generally flirted with rebellion for its own sake. These were simple gestures at defining myself during a time when 20 million listeners per week — including my dad — were in thrall to a vivid, personified version of an ideology I was growing to reject. From his hateful views to the odd way he captured my father's attention, Limbaugh taught me more about myself than almost anyone else did. His years of great influence were the years when I was figuring out how I wanted to conduct myself in the world. He taught me how not to be.
The Limbaugh influence was so deeply interwoven into our family culture that I still have trouble pulling apart the threads. My parents loved me fiercely while also embedding deeply problematic ideals into how we lived and the plans they made for my future. Did my parents exult in Limbaugh's bombastic diatribes because he embodied their beliefs, validating them by shouting his message into radio waves with historically massive listenership? Or did those diatribes shape my parents' beliefs and the way they raised their kids?
My little brother needed orthodontia more than I did, objectively, but we could afford only one set of braces. I got them, for reasons later explained to be related to marriageability, as though we were living in an era of dowries instead of early 1990s suburban Indiana. This was not long after Limbaugh proclaimed that "Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society." My brother and I could both conclude that the braces were a kind of insurance for my future. Much later, in 2009, when I was signing my daughter up for day care, my parents both blanched at my blasphemy. "How many mass shooters went to day care?" Limbaugh once asked his listeners.
It wasn't always easy to tell when a comment my father made was his own. Once, during a semester in which I was taking a ceramics class, he was very concerned about my fingernails, which he said men would like better if they were longer and filed into half moons. There is a razor-sharp righteous indignation specific to 17-year-olds, which I unleashed mercilessly on my father that afternoon. He was authentically surprised. "I was trying to help you," he said, in a meeker voice than he had used to deliver the grooming advice.
Twenty-first century teenagers' rebellion and their indignation, which I celebrate, is justified by the many wrongs in our world, some of which I couldn't even imagine 25 years ago. The courageous teens orchestrating climate and racial justice protests now often have mentors, sometimes slightly older activists who have cut their own path toward justice and who are committed to doing their own work while raising up a new generation of changemakers.
As a White girl growing up in the Detroit suburbs in the late '90s, I didn't see such revolutionary thinking in my community. It filtered in through my Sonic Youth and Fugazi tapes, and in the occasional overheard conversation at the coffeehouse where I waitressed. But a much more powerful driving force was the specter of Limbaugh, whose program ran three hours daily. I hated everything I heard him say. I wanted the world to be different from the one he painted for his listeners. I may not have had a discernible leader to follow, but I did have a crystal-clear antagonist, a night to my day, a right to my left. Defining my values came from an up-close look at Limbaugh and an insistent voice I heard in my teenage brain: "Hell, no. I don't belong to this."
Neither of my parents lived to see Donald Trump's rise and the fuel Limbaugh laid for the near immolation of our government that followed. I often wondered when or if they might have had their own "Hell, no" moment, standing up for their Christian values or just plain humanity, which was notably scarce in both Limbaugh's and Trump's rhetoric. They did live to see me become a vegetarian, feminist working-mother Democrat, a living iteration of their darkest fears. I'm not happy I disappointed them, but a few decades on, I have to give Rush Limbaugh a little credit.
Amanda Uhle is the publisher and executive director of McSweeney's. This piece was written for The Washington Post.