Rush Limbaugh was one of the most consequential figures in American politics, paving the way for the GOP’s hard-right turn
Before Rush Limbaugh got his big break, he was done with radio.
The year was 1979, and Limbaugh — born in Cape Girardeau, Mo. in 1951 and who died Wednesday at the age of 70 — was pivoting to a career in sales, working for the Kansas City Royals baseball team as their director of promotions.
At this point, Limbaugh was told he would never make it in radio and considered himself a “moderate failure” as a disc jockey under the alias “Rusty Sharpe.”
For most of his lifetime, since 1954, Democrats held the majority in the House of Representatives, and political content on the airwaves was regulated by the “fairness doctrine,” where opposing viewpoints had to be included in coverage of controversial topics of public interest.
By the time he passed away in 2021, the fairness doctrine was long gone, Republicans held majorities in Congress along with the White House three different times, and Limbaugh earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Republican President Donald Trump.
The college dropout who blew his shot in radio rose to become one of the most consequential figures in the history of American politics, particularly for the Republican Party. In tributes and reactions Wednesday, lawmakers from both parties credited him as the driving force behind the GOP’s transformation through the 1990s to the Trump era.
As Limbaugh’s audience grew, dog whistle messaging on racial resentment slipped into outright racism, bipartisan bonhomie in the minority intensified to “taking our country back,” and blatant lies about the birthplace of the nation’s first Black president set the standard for the GOP nominee by 2016.
How Limbaugh got there was made possible by both a major policy shift away from the fairness doctrine and his innovation in the genre of talk radio. Limbaugh’s ascent to commanding an audience of tens of millions of mostly white Americans paved the way for right-wing populists like Trump, catalyzing a rightward lurch that has left the Republican Party grappling with its identity after the January 6 Capitol siege, which Limbaugh defended the day after the insurrection on one of his last shows.
‘A man became a movement’
Former President Trump — a man not known for sharing the spotlight or giving credit to anyone but himself for his success — told Fox News on Wednesday that Limbaugh’s show was a major reason why he was able to emerge from a crowded field in the 2016 GOP primary and go on to win the general election. Trump had not done any interviews since the insurrection and since leaving office, but he made time to do a call-in so he could commemorate Limbaugh.
Other Republican lawmakers and conservative media personalities praised Limbaugh’s legacy.
“Rush Limbaugh mobilized this group of disaffected voters … And was the force — and I think Newt Gingrich would concede this — that helped Republicans retake the House after 40 years,” Fox News opinion host Tucker Carlson said during his own call-in ahead of his nightly show, which became the most-viewed program in cable news history over the summer.
“Here was this guy who took the oldest mass communication media and turned it into a movement to reshape American politics,” Carlson added.
Former Vice President Mike Pence once called himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” during his days as a talk radio host in Indiana, and chuckled about the moniker during a call-in of his own on Fox News shortly after Trump and Carlson came on.
Pence also recalled how he credited Limbaugh for his arrival in Congress, where he proclaimed on the House floor that “I am in Congress today because of Rush Limbaugh.
Even David Axelrod, former President Barack Obama’s chief strategist for both of his winning presidential campaigns, acknowledged the influence Limbaugh had as “indisputably a force of historic proportions.
In what could very well be a version of his stump speech, should he choose to run for president in 2024, Carlson placed Limbaugh at the pinnacle of conservative messaging during his tribute.
“You didn’t have to explain what it meant to be a conservative when Rush Limbaugh did it better than you could,” Carlson said.
“Is there any Republican member of Congress right now who can tell you what it means to vote conservative?”
The fairness doctrine
Limbaugh would end up getting his big break in the late 1980s at KFBK-AM in Sacramento, Cal., where he honed his craft of weaving more incendiary right-wing grievances with a sense of community that he established among his growing audience.
Although Limbaugh joined the Sacramento station in 1984, his brand as it would be recognized for decades to come began coalescing after the fairness doctrine was repealed by the Federal Communications Commission in 1987 under the Reagan administration.
A Wall Street Journal editorial from 2005 aligned Limbaugh’s rise with the fall of the fairness doctrine.
“Ronald Reagan tore down this wall in 1987 (maybe as spring training for Berlin) and Rush Limbaugh was the first man to proclaim himself liberated from the East Germany of liberal media domination,” columnist Daniel Henninger wrote at the time.
“It was when the fairness doctrine was removed that Rush Limbaugh was really able to shine,” Fox News anchor John Roberts said during Wednesday’s coverage.
From that turning point in 1987, what were once considered fringe attitudes about the declining influence of the white working class in America and racial resentment became increasingly mainstream in the GOP as Limbaugh’s show went nationwide.
Limbaugh didn’t just yell incendiary things into the microphone all day, but rather cultivated a sense of shared grievances among his audience.
He pulled niche local stories and loose threads from Washington to both sew and sow a visceral feeling of aggrievement among millions of listeners, telling them day after day that liberal elites didn’t just look down on them, but despised them and perpetually ignored the hardworking Americans of “flyover country.”
In his rousing speech at CPAC in 2009, Limbaugh laid out his vision for Republican politics in the Obama era, where he would go on to propagate the racist birther conspiracy that gave Trump credibility with the GOP base as a former Democrat.
He made clear to Republicans that their movement was in opposition to mainstream media, and that one measure of success would be in how much they could antagonize news organizations.
The other, he said, would be at the ballot box.
“The people that do want control look at us as the enemy,” Limbaugh said. “We’re always going to be — don’t ever measure your success by how many Drive-By Media reports you see that are fair to us … Don’t measure your success by how many people like you. Just worry about how they vote.
“And then at the end of the day how they live, but that’s really none of your business once they close the doors.”