Rush Limbaugh has died at the age of 70. And as far as I’m concerned, the custom of not speaking ill of the dead is rendered moot when the dead person in question spent the better part of his adult life speaking ill of the living. To repurpose Christopher Hitchens’ words on the occasion of Jerry Falwell’s death: if you’d given Rush Limbaugh a moral enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox.
I am not sad he is gone. I am sad that his legacy flourishes.
A year ago, when Donald Trump broke with tradition to award Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union Address, I thought to myself “That would be like Obama giving that honour to …” And I realized I could not finish the sentence because I could not think of a prominent liberal or progressive person who would fit the analogy. Oh, I quite quickly had a huge laundry-list of examples of people who would be sure to infuriate Republicans and send Sean Hannity et al in paroxysms of bile-flavoured spittle, but nobody who quite played a comparable role on the left to Limbaugh.
The first name that leapt to mind is Michael Moore, and that might be about as close as we come: Moore is, after all, a left-wing provocateur who doesn’t mind erring on the side of embellishment and untruth in the name of stirring an uncritical and emotional response. But even then, when Michael Moore dies, he will do so having built more than he tore down—indeed, his legacy will be having been a tireless advocate for the less privileged. At his best, he spoke on behalf of the voiceless, whether they were out-of-work auto workers in Roger & Me or people bereaved or literally wounded by gun violence in Bowling for Columbine. At his worst, he took cheap shots; at his best, he made powerful arguments for positive social and political change.
I cycled through the list in my head. Bill Ayers? Angela Davis? Noam Chomsky? Tom Morello? The problem was, the more radical the choice, the less likely they were to (a) accept the award, and (b) be chosen in the first place. Most of the time, honorees are relatively uncontroversial figures, and largely non-partisan. Trump’s decision to award Limbaugh was at once typical of his compulsive determination to reward people who lavish praise on him, but also a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the semantic equivalent of bile is now the standard form of discourse on the Right.
And in no case would any of the names in my head function as a proper analogy to Limbaugh: we can argue over whether the criminal actions of Angela Davis or Bill Ayers were justified or not, or whether the good work they’ve done later in life obviates it, but they’re people who have exhibited passion for their causes born of love for the people they represent. Since he first went on air shortly after Reagan revoked the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, Rush Limbaugh’s entire schtick has been incessant attack—attacking liberals, feminists, people of colour, LGBTQ people, Democrats, insufficiently conservative Republicans, the disabled—the list goes on—largely in the name of inciting rage and fear among his almost exclusively white audience, and dehumanizing those he targets.
If Limbaugh, even with his enormous audience, had proved to be an outlier, it wouldn’t be worth noting his passing. But of course he wasn’t an outlier, or at least not for long: he tapped into a seemingly bottomless well of resentment and created a template for a model of rage-based conservatism that Roger Ailes would soon employ when he launched Fox News in 1996. It’s entirely likely that Newt Gingrich would have led his 1994 insurgency to a successful conclusion without Limbaugh on the airwaves, but it would be disingenuous to suggest Limbaugh had no influence.
So I guess in a perverse sense, he has built something: he built the foundation on which American conservatism went from the self-described ideology of ideas to the ideology of owning the libs. I have to assume that when he received his surprise Presidential Medal of Freedom, he was suffused with pride at being granted an honour from a president who probably would not be president without Limbaugh’s media business model having become the default setting for the Right.
At least he lived long enough to see Trump voted out of office and impeached for a second time.