How Rush Limbaugh Contributed To The Polarisation Of American Politics
Rush Hudson Limbaugh III – political commentator, author, TV show host, and most notably radio personality – passed away on February 17th, 2021, just three weeks after the death of counterpart Larry King. Having been an avid smoker all his life, he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in January 2020, which became terminal that October. Limbaugh’s announcement of his diagnosis that February was met with widespread solidarity from conservatives, most notably the incumbent President of the United States Donald Trump, who, a month later, awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian award in the US). Further grief outpoured following news of his death a year later; he was described by Senator Ted Cruz as a “tireless voice for freedom and the conservative movement”; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell described him as “a generational media trailblazer”. Yet, Limbaugh’s death was met with relief and even outright joy from progressives, despite criticism of even the most controversial of figures being typically withheld immediately following their passing. Why? Why such vicious, seething hatred from even the most moderate of liberals?
The answer – Rush Limbaugh was no regular political conservative commentator. Limbaugh revolutionised conservative media, providing a voice for millions of citizens, but he was not merely “polarising” or “controversial”. Today’s Republican Party leans towards the far-right of the political spectrum, seemingly concerned with making lives worse instead of providing real governance. Politics is infected with all kinds of toxicity largely due to Trump, with last year’s presidential campaign reduced to vicious verbal attacks, rather than true civilised debates over which style of governance better suits the needs of the people. And this, in large part, is down to one man – Limbaugh.
Our current polarisation in modern politics was always to be expected in the United States of America to some extent as a natural consequence of the two-party system. Although politics in the country is now impossible to conceive of without the Democrats and the Republicans, the nation’s founder George Washington would have shuddered at the thought of their current political system. Washington believed that disagreements between political parties weakened governments’ power. The country’s Founding Fathers specifically omitted political parties from the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton described political parties as “the most fatal disease” of popular governments. Yet it was the Founding Fathers’ early disagreements in the 1790s, notably those between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, that led to the nation’s two political parties, the Democrat-Republican parties and the Anti-Administration Party. A two-party system quickly followed.
Of course, since around the 1850s, the two-party system in America has been dominated by the blues and the reds. Some level of toxicity has always existed under this arrangement (for example, that time when a group of states tried breaking off from the USA). When the two groups are intolerant of each other due to strictly opposing ideologies on fundamental issues, there is always bound to be some passion. However, this does not mean that the levels of toxicity that has plagued politics in recent years have always existed.
Even as recently as 13 years ago, the 2008 presidential election between Barack Obama (D) and John McCain (R) featured an unexpected moment of unity and civility when, following a McCain supporter telling him she did not trust Obama because “he’s an Arab”, McCain responded not by validating her anti-Muslim sentiment, but with “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” One’s (valid) personal thoughts on McCain aside, it is clear that McCain responded to the question bravely and with class; such a marker for civility has been looked back on fondly in recent years, in light of the anti-Muslim sentiment espoused by Donald Trump, proving that fundamental differences do not always need to mean toxicity. Following McCain’s death in 2018, Obama’s eulogy for him strongly criticised “bombast and insult and phoney controversies and manufactured outrage”, a not-so-subtle indirect jab at Trump, known for his frequent outbursts of rage and insults on Twitter.
So, what happened? How did politics, more specifically, the Republican Party, experience a decline in integrity to such an extent? Rush Limbaugh is not, of course, the sole reason for this happening. But his eventual turning to Trumpism and friendship with Trump definitely played a part in poisoning the party.
Limbaugh made a career out of attacking persecuted groups. He once stated that all newspaper pictures of criminals resembled African-American political activist Jesse Jackson. He pretended to imitate Chinese president Hu Jintao in 2011 by saying “Ching cha. Ching chang cho chow. Cha Chow. Ching Cho.” He frequently attacked the LGBT community, saying “When a gay person turns his back on you, it is anything but an insult; it’s an invitation.” He ran a segment on his show in the 1990s mocking gay victims of HIV/AIDS. He has regularly dismissed the concept of sexual consent, once asserting “How many of you guys in your own experience with women have learned that ‘no’ means ‘yes’?”. He described feminism as “unattractive ugly broads [wanting] easy access to the mainstream of society”. He mocked actor Michael J. Fox for supposedly “exaggerating” his struggle with Parkinson’s disease, saying he was "shameless" in "moving all around and shaking". He described student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute”. He parodied Obama as a “Magic Negro”. He was sceptical of climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. All this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Prior to Limbaugh emerging as a dominant media force in 1988, conservative media as we know it today did not exist; for example, FOX News was only founded eight years later. But Limbaugh used his talent as a performer – capturing his supporters with witty, incendiary jokes and entertainment – in order to influence the Republican Party. David Astin Walsh, a historian at the University of Virginia, wrote that “Rush built upon an already robust right-wing media and organizational infrastructure and married it to lowbrow entertainment culture, appealing to a deeply politicized audience of angry white men who did not consider themselves political. Limbaugh was the fountainhead for an entire generation of radical right-wing GOP politicians who owe their careers to the politics of resentment and white racial rage.” And of course, the most important politician among this generation of leaders was President Donald Trump.
Where the Republican Party subtly adopted the influence of commentators like Rush Limbaugh, it was the party’s 2016 Presidential nominee and winner that openly embraced this attitude to politics. Trump’s use of toxicity over the course of his presidency and two elections to support his right-wing populist policies is widely known, both at his many rallies and through his presence on social media, with a 2019 Pew Research Center survey suggesting that 55% of Americans believed Trump changed the tone and nature of political debate for the worse, with an even greater majority (85%) believing political debate in the country had become more negative and less respectful. Limbaugh was, naturally, a consistent supporter of Trump since his preferred candidate Ted Cruz dropped out of the 2016 election.
According to the aforementioned 2019 study, a large majority (73%) of Americans believed that elected officials should avoid using heated language because it could encourage violence. This was proven in the early days of 2021 when Trump, having lost the 2020 Presidential election used his vitriolic words to rally his supporters to siege the United States Capitol building - a tragedy that was undoubtedly shocking for America and for the world. Limbaugh likened the rioters to the heroes of the American War of Independence, serving as an apologist for them, and repeating a claim that the rioters were “some Antifa Democrat-sponsored instigators”.
Limbaugh was undoubtedly a large influence on Trump, and this was shown most clearly by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump, as mentioned earlier. In many ways, making attacks on marginalised groups and mocking specific people, Trump embodied the belligerent and politically incorrect humour that Limbaugh had relied on in order to reach out to his supporters. It is possible that without Limbaugh to show Trump the way of rallying supporters against a common enemy, in Trump’s case, “the radical left”, his agenda before and throughout his presidency would have been entirely different. As CNN’s Stephen Collinson described it, “Rush Limbaugh was Trump before Trump”.
Trump was, of course, defeated in the 2020 Presidential election, but the sizeable effect he had on American politics will be remembered for many years. It is difficult to say the extent to which Trumpism will prevail in the future – it could completely die out, or fall back and experience a resurgence decades from now. Either way, the effects his attitude and policies have had on modern American society are immense, and Rush Limbaugh certainly had a large part to play in this. His death in February was met with sorrow, even from conservatives who did not resort to the toxicity he had promoted throughout his career, but perhaps more prevalent was the widespread criticism and revilement he received from progressives, even in death. The philosophical debate on whether or not speaking ill of the dead is insensitive is a topic for a separate essay. But for those who have been affected by Limbaugh’s vile words throughout his career, I am reminded of a quote from Clarence Darrow which circulated on social media following Limbaugh’s death. “I’ve never wished a man dead,” he said. “But I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.”