OP-ED: Even before Trump was in politics, Limbaugh was paving the way for him on talk radio

Rekha Basu
Des Moines Register (TNS)
Radio personality Rush Limbaugh and wife Kathryn, left, attend the State of the Union address with first lady Melania Trump in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 4, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/TNS)

Something clicked into place last week, between tributes to the late Rush Limbaugh and speculations of a Republican Party splitting in two. It helped give context to why 75% of Republicans want the twice-impeached president to continue playing a prominent role in the GOP, while 60% of all Americans don't. It explained why a few Republican members of Congress hoped they could vote their consciences on Trump while hanging onto their supporters, but can't.

That something poses a serious question about the future of the Republican Party, where it has been and what it will stand for going forward. And much of that has to do with Limbaugh and his so-called Dittoheads.

Before Donald Trump spoke vulgarly about disadvantaged countries or declined invitations to condemn white supremacists, Limbaugh as a talk radio host was attacking America's first Black president by challenging his country of birth, and slinging mud at "Feminazis," those women who had the temerity to seek equal pay or campaign against rape. He had a name for then-law student Sandra Fluke, who argued for her right to birth control — "slut" — for which he would later apologize. Before Trump ridiculed a questioner with disabilities, Limbaugh made fun of actor Michael J. Fox who has Parkinson's disease, for shaking. And just like Trump, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Limbaugh likened it to the "common cold," and blamed the press for hyping it.

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Revisiting Limbaugh's legacy, his successful courtship of the far right and his hold on an expanding sector of conservatives, it's hard not to see the extent of his influence on both Trump and his base. Limbaugh was the first to legitimize crude talk and even conspiracy theories in the mass market. I don't know if the Proud Boys, Marjorie Taylor Greene and QAnon conspiracy theorists were his followers, but he had "deep state" theories of his own. On President Joe Biden's inauguration day, he asserted that Biden hadn't legitimately won. He suggested rioters in the Capitol were like the founders of the American Revolution, complaining, "There's a lot of ... conservatives, social media, who say that any violence or aggression at all is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances. I am glad Sam Adams ... Thomas Paine ... the actual tea party guys ... didn't feel that way.”

Limbaugh, whose radio talk show ran from 1988 for almost 33 years, helped spawn a cultural and political revolution among conservatives, leaving his imprint on everyone from the discredited Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly to former President Ronald Reagan, the father of trickle-down economics, to now, tragically, members of the U.S. military. CQ Roll Call just wrote about a 2020 Pentagon report that says white supremacists and neo-Nazis have made inroads into the military.

But to our discredit, many progressives missed what was happening because we saw him, and the other talk radio mavens on the right that his legacy has spawned, as fringe players. We changed the station or clucked at how out of touch they were with a changing America, when they were exploiting those changes to scare and anger listeners. Limbaugh tapped into white men frustrated or confused at the loss of longtime perks and privileges, affirmative action, immigrants moving into once all-white neighborhoods, women rejecting men's workplace advances and filing complaints with HR. He gave those followers a pass to engage in race- and gender-baiting over it.

His brand of populism was eventually deemed acceptable even by a president. it was lauded as truth-telling. Trump's former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany recalled for CNN listening to Limbaugh in her dad's pickup truck in Plant City, Florida. She praised what she called his “unrelenting boldness to proclaim the truth," calling herself "the definition of a ‘Rush Baby.’"

"There are tens of thousands of us all across the conservative movement,” she said.

Reagan called Limbaugh the "Number One voice for conservatism" in the country." Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Limbaugh has bragged about having hated school and he spent less than a year in college. He was fired as a DJ four times in the '70s. But by 2008, his rhetoric was earning him some $38 million a year. As far as modern-day Republicanism goes, aided by Limbaugh it's breaking with any tradition of intellectualism or scholarship.

Limbaugh may have thought himself an entertainer and provocateur, but to his followers, he was telling truths politicians wouldn't. The result of that movement he started is that there is little space anymore for the old-style Republican politician — fiscally conservative but civil and diplomatic, like Iowa's late Gov. Robert D. Ray. But what future is there for them now?

Republicans in Congress saw the writing on the wall for themselves after insurrectionists rioted to stop the vote certification and called for the heads of Vice President Mike Pence and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Some who voted to impeach Trump are now feeling the heat. Rep. Peter Meijer of western Michigan felt their wrath after former supporters talked of primarying him for not agreeing the election was stolen. The Michigan Republican Party is “more Trumpy today than it was before the election,” its former executive director Jeff Timmer told The New York Times.

On the Senate side, Washington County, Pennsylvania, Republican Chairman Dave Ball told MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who voted to convict, "We did not send him there to vote his conscience or do the right thing, but to represent the party."

Wyoming Republican U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney got lucky. After she voted for Trump's impeachment, members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus rallied to strip her of her leadership position for “aiding the enemy.” But House colleagues had her back, voting 145-61 not to. They could do that because it was a secret ballot.

After the November election, Limbaugh suggested America could be heading for a secession because of the gulf between red and blue, then walked it back a bit. Hopefully the Republican Party is doing some deep soul-searching on whether this is what it wants, or things have gone too far, for their good or the nation's. Let's hope it can find a way to being the "big tent" it once prided itself on.

— Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.