Twenty-five years ago, Rush Limbaugh graced the cover of Time magazine. Wearing a striped shirt, an expensive suit, and a look of total contempt, he held his trademark cigar between two stubby fingers. A thick plume of smoke obscured part of his face, styling him in brimstone. The issue’s cover asked a simple, almost innocent question: Is Rush Limbaugh good for America?
The answer to that question was as obvious 25 years ago as it is today: Limbaugh was not merely bad for the United States, he was bad in uniquely terrible ways, and uniquely terrible right up until the end. He is near the top of any list of malign actors in the post-Vietnam period.
Obituaries of Limbaugh, who died on Wednesday at the age of 70 of lung cancer, have—much like the Time cover—danced around this fact in the same “have the cake and eat it too” fashion. Limbaugh’s politics have been sanded down in these tellings, which label him as merely “controversial” or “polarizing.” The New York Times described him as “relentlessly provocative,” a particularly weaselly way of describing his approach to talk radio. The Wall Street Journal wrote that he “rode a wave of national polarization.” Nearly every obituary notes that he was “influential.”
These are the kinds of things you could say about so many people in politics: generic appellations that would leave someone unfamiliar with Limbaugh’s oeuvre confused as to why this instant bellowing of eulogy is even necessary to memorialize a man who merely possessed these ordinary qualities. What earns Limbaugh this special peal of immortalization is the qualities that these obituary writers know full well but have assiduously buffed into nothingness in their drafts: that Limbaugh’s politics were forged in a crucible of hatred and cruelty; that his racism and extraordinary misogyny are the only standout contributions he made to the world.
Limbaugh was undoubtedly influential. But he didn’t ride a “wave of national polarization,” he was the source of its tidal pull, directing it with a bullhorn for decades. He first appeared on the airwaves shortly after the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, helping to introduce a new style of decidedly unfair media. His politics were vicious and deceitful, aimed at undercutting liberal institutions in service of policies that made people like Limbaugh wealthier, often at the expense of his listeners. He thrived on making people angrier and more alienated, on obscuring the truth, and rewarding meanness at every turn.
You could fill shelves of books with Limbaugh’s vile statements. He spent decades denigrating gay people, mocking people with AIDS, and fighting against equal rights for LGBTQ people. He suggested that Jesse Jackson looked like “all composite pictures of wanted criminals” and compared watching NFL games to watching the “Bloods and the Crips without weapons.”
His attacks on America’s first Black president were relentless and disgusting—Obama was a “halfrican American,” an “affirmative action candidate.” Feminists were “feminazis,” a term he must have used thousands of times. A chauvinist and sexist in every way one could possibly be, Limbaugh mocked anyone who wasn’t rich or white or male for daring to seek equality. His show reveled in punching down, particularly on marginalized communities, as the purpose of politics itself. Whatever discussion there is to be had about whether he was the author of this unique style of grievance politics or merely the man who profited most from it is a moot point. Limbaugh loosed a dark and ichorous ooze of anger and resentment into our political groundwater, one that has polluted American politics and culture. His legacy is a civic Superfund site, an untreated hog lagoon that continues to spill its poison into the cracks in our democratic foundation.
Limbaugh’s energy had dimmed in recent years. That was, to a certain extent, a reflection of his fading health; those cigars doing unto his body what he’d done to our body politic. But it also pointed to the fact that he was hardly unique anymore: His influence was felt everywhere; a thousand copycats still prowl the media’s darker corners. Sean Hannity’s smarmy bloviating approach to opinion programming, Glenn Beck’s Looney Tunes conspiracy theorizing, Tucker Carlson’s white grievance politics and nativism all owe a great debt to Limbaugh. It’s a debt that the rest of us have to pay. Limbaugh paved the way for media that was angrier and dumber, and we are all worse off.
Donald Trump, who awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, also owes a huge debt to the broadcaster. Trump’s own seemingly improvised, crass, and mean-spirited speeches weren’t too distinct from Limbaugh’s own radio show transcripts. Trump’s electorate was, of course, Limbaugh’s audience—the alienated and aggrieved who wanted someone to “fight” for them and against everyone who was against them, the liberals, the experts, the feminists, the nonwhite. Limbaugh, maybe more than any other figure in recent American political history, made Trump inevitable.
This inevitability extends beyond politics. Limbaugh’s entire career was based on a series of provocations; he was, to borrow from Chappelle’s Show, a habitual line-stepper. What he proved, in the end, was that American politics and culture had no red lines. You can be as racist and sexist, as hateful and divisive as you want—and millions of people will love you for it. Rush is gone now, but he leaves a baleful reckoning behind for the rest of us to face.