It’s Rush Limbaugh’s America Now
The conservative shock jock is dead, but the toxic style of politics he fostered will be with us for decades
I grew up listening to Rush Limbaugh. This was not by choice, mind you. My father, a distributor who serviced grocery stores all across East Texas and Louisiana, kept the dial fixed on conservative talk radio whenever he was in the car. Half his job was driving, so on any given day he probably spent between four and six hours listening to this stuff in transit. I often went with him on these trips, so I got a hefty dose of it as well.
Limbaugh’s fans were called “dittoheads” because when they called in, they usually began their comments with the phrase “ditto, Rush” or “mega dittos.” His producers turned it into a gimmick, but I’ve no doubt this expression of perfect agreement from his fans was sincere.
Limbaugh was like a prophet to men like my dad, which is to say, white men working menial jobs who felt they deserved more. Men who aspired to a middle-class existence. Men who dreamed of starting a small business or owning enough property that they could sit back and collect rent checks.
Long before Trump became a serious force in politics, Limbaugh was crafting the style of politics that came to be known as “Trumpism.”
Not long after Barack Obama became president, I was riding with Dad and Limbaugh was on. He was raving about an incident where a Black kid got into a fight with a white kid. With that furious, red-faced, vein-popping-out-of-the-forehead rage he was known for, Limbaugh began screaming into the mic: “This is Obama’s America! The white kids now get beat up with the Black kids cheering, ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on!’’’
He went on to recommend that schools bring back segregation on buses. This little segment told you everything you needed to know about how dangerous Rush Limbaugh was.
Long before Trump became a serious force in politics, Limbaugh was crafting the style of politics that came to be known as “Trumpism.” He gave voice to a current within the right that was dismissed and ridiculed by mainstream conservatives much in the same way Trump was written off until he won the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency.
Limbaugh embodied what sociologist Michael Kimmel called “aggrieved entitlement.” He was the apotheosis of the angry white man.
People throw around the word “fascist” a lot as an insult divorced from any definite meaning, but it accurately describes what Limbaugh was all about. At the core of fascist politics is a reactionary longing for an idealized past and a sense that the nation’s way of life is under threat from internal or external enemies. Fascist rhetoric presents national glory as degenerated and in need of rejuvenation. His bit about “Obama’s America” in many ways presaged Trump’s inaugural “American carnage” address.
Limbaugh was the call and Trump was the response.
Obama governed as a tepid moderate Democrat — more conservative than Richard Nixon by his own account. But to Limbaugh that didn’t matter: Here was an opportunity to tap into the racist fears of a Black president, and to use apocalyptic tales of “Obama’s America” to try to instigate a race war. In this fictional parallel universe, Obama was a radical Marxist secret Muslim who was hell-bent on taking your guns, taxing you to death (then taxing your death), and shipping your job to China.
Throughout the Obama years, Limbaugh and people like him steadily nurtured this sense of aggrievement. Meanwhile, record numbers of militias and other far-right groups formed, gun sales skyrocketed, and hate crimes spiked.
These forces, so carefully cultivated by folks like Rush Limbaugh over decades, finally found expression in the person of Trump. They will continue to be a fixture in politics long after Trump’s defeat and Limbaugh’s death.
Even as Limbaugh’s body was dying of cancer, his spirit could be seen rampaging through the Capitol grounds. One talk radio reactionary may be gone, but there are dozens more in his place, as well as a host of more radical media sources like OANN, that will carry on his work of incubating right-wing extremism.
Any folks who have a mind to dance on Limbaugh’s grave should qualify these celebrations with an acknowledgment that his politics are still very much alive.