Rush Limbaugh and the rise of the far right

Photo: Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump speaking at a 2019 event hosted by Turning Point USA. Credit — Gage Skidmore

After more than three decades assaulting airwaves and television screens with his vicious right-wing rhetoric, Rush Limbaugh, the bigoted and imperialist radio personality, died last week from a year-long battle with lung cancer. With his death comes the potential end to the most popular radio show in the United States, which since its debut in 1988 has served as a catalyst for the creation of the far-right media landscape that we see today.

Limbaugh, during a February 2020 broadcast, announced his diagnosis of lung cancer to his 15 million listeners. He then revealed in October, again on his show, that the cancer had become a terminal illness. He died at age 70 from the very disease that he falsely claimed had no link to his decades of cigarette smoking.

Limbaugh’s denial of the risk of smoking, however, is far from the worst position he has taken over the decades he spent on the air. His presence as a talk show host set the standard for many of the far-right pundits we see today. The strength of personalities like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck, and even the more ridiculous Alex Jones, owe their success to the framework set forth by The Rush Limbaugh Show. Limbaugh rose to prominence at a time when all of these personalities, and FOX News-adjacent media more generally, did not exist.

Prior to the rise of online radio leading to a more diverse range of programming available to us today, Limbaugh occupied an even more exclusive direct line to millions of people. He permeated the information sphere in a way that you could not simply choose to “log off” or “unplug” from. His TV show, which ran from 1992 to 1996, made his perspective even more commonplace.

He joined the stage in the era of the shock-jock radio host, with his popularity second only to that of Howard Stern. The obvious difference between the two, however, was the explicitly political nature of Limbaugh’s program. Limbaugh spewed vitriol for years most notably by perpetuating racist stereotypes about Black people and immigrants, promoting anti-LGBTQ views, mocking the global AIDS crisis and popularizing the term “feminazi.”

His bigoted rhetoric was not without political backing either. Limbaugh found himself a supporter of essentially any conservative policy adopted in the United States and took a global imperialist stance to match. He was a vocal supporter of the Iraq War and U.S. military intervention overseas. He rejected science and empirical data when it came to the climate crisis. He was a staunch critic of the Green New Deal.

The late 2000s saw Limbaugh ramp up on conspiracy theories, tying the incoming Obama administration to the rise of ISIS. This trend would continue on throughout President Obama’s two terms, sowing distrust in not only the administration but the “mainstream” media landscape as a whole. While the corporate media deserves to be harshly criticized, Limbaugh sought to organize that opposition around the preposterous claim that it promotes left wing politics. This line of attack can be seen widely today, for instance in cries of “fake news” and the spread of misinformation online among supporters of Donald Trump. The foundations were set by the right wing conspiracies parroted by Limbaugh.

The reactionary media stars of today including Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck, and more recently Tomi Lahren or Candice Owens, all pull pages from Limbaugh’s playbook. The “politically incorrect,” bigoted views that galvanizes the far right can be seen, albeit in varied amounts, in these commentators today.

And now, even with the absence of his on-air presence, Limbaugh leaves behind a media landscape in his own image. Right-wing extremism has taken a far more central place in American society. Limbaugh’s show has ultimately been a success in helping usher forth the Trump era of politics along with the violent and fascist trends that Trump has energized.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the fight against the far right has taken on even greater significance. Rush Limbaugh spent his life spreading ideas that have now coalesced in a major political current that menaces the rights of all working class and oppressed people. All those who oppose it need to wage the battle of ideas just as fiercely to defeat his vile ideology. 

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