I never met or even spoke to Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio host who died on Wednesday after a long battle with lung cancer. But I feel like I know him — or at least the part he put out there to his audience of tens of millions of Americans.
In researching my book, I read every show transcript from the eight years of the Obama-Biden administration. The book’s title gives Limbaugh and his race-baiting rhetoric on the Obama presidency credit — if you want to call it that — for paving the way for President Donald Trump. In a career that saw the host tower above the conservative talk radio industry going back to the early 1990s, that will be his most important legacy.
According to Talkers Magazine, right to the end Limbaugh maintained the largest talk radio audience — 15.5 million weekly listeners. Incredibly, he held the No. 1 spot throughout all the 40 years Talkers tabulated such figures. But numbers alone can’t measure his impact. He was the first truly national right-wing media host. After Bill Clinton became president, Limbaugh led the charge on radio and TV during the 1994 campaign that saw Republicans flip the House and the Senate. But it wasn’t until President Barack Obama took office that the host reached the absolute height of his influence — and reached his greatest depths as a purveyor of lies and hate.
Limbaugh played and preyed on the cultural and racial anxieties of conservative whites about demographic change, the so-called "browning" of America, anxieties that the inauguration of our first Black president only exacerbated. The host depicted Obama as a Black radical who wanted to transform our country by raising Americans of color to the top of the hierarchy, taking away power and wealth from whites — i.e., his audience. He told his listeners that Obama wanted open borders so that millions of Mexicans could come across and then reward their benefactors by voting Democratic — thus cementing the power of the liberal, anti-white forces in the United States. Limbaugh’s message aimed to scare listeners, and encouraged them to see politics as tribal — not a disagreement over policy but a metaphorical fight to the death between groups defined by race, culture, and ideology.
Trump got that message. Before launching his campaign in 2015, his top aides had listened to "thousands of hours of talk radio" and passed their "reports" to Trump. They told their boss which topics got conservatives most worked up, and he shaped his campaign accordingly, copying Limbaugh’s template on immigration, Black Lives Matter, and much more.
Trump’s entire campaign was a pitch to make America what it had been — in his words, "great "— before people like Barack Obama started taking a share of power. Trump became the 45th president by practicing white identity politics, following the path laid out for him by right-wing hatemongers — the most prominent of which was Limbaugh. Trump repaid the debt and showed his gratitude by rewarding the host with the Medal of Freedom.
Limbaugh’s lasting influence, to some degree, is up to us. He sought to divide Americans, and crafted a blueprint for a politics centered around hate and fear. We, as a people, have a choice. If we allow that kind of politics to dominate, then Limbaugh’s impact will be all the greater. My hope is that it, and he, fade into obscurity.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of "The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump" and professor of historical studies at SUNY- Empire State College.