How Rush Limbaugh changed American politics

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host who was a major force in right-wing media for more than 30 years, died Wednesday of lung cancer at the age of 70.

Through his syndicated radio show, which was first broadcast to national audiences in 1988, Limbaugh established himself as a singular voice in American media and grew to hold a powerful influence over the Republican Party. His commentary played such a significant role in helping the GOP take control of the House of Representatives in 1994 that the party named him an honorary member of its caucus. Over the course of the next two and a half decades, Limbaugh helped set the rhetorical agenda for the conservative right. He was a staunch defender of Republican presidents and a scathing critic of Democrats.

Limbaugh was an early supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump last year. The former president called Limbaugh a “legend” and a “great man” during a Fox News interview on the night of Limbaugh’s death.

Limbaugh’s unapologetic, bombastic style — a major element of his appeal to conservative listeners — was often couched in racism, sexism and homophobia. He also occasionally promoted conspiracy theories including lies about Barack Obama’s birthplace, unscientific claims about the dangers of the coronavirus, and baseless accusations of election fraud in the 2020 election.

Why there’s debate

While there are profound differences of opinion over whether Limbaugh’s career should be lauded or loathed, there’s near-universal agreement that he had a substantial impact on the shape of American politics. Limbaugh was the key figure in establishing the industry of talk radio and he pioneered the personality-driven news format that now dominates cable news, media experts say. He also played a critical role in the Republican Party’s evolution from the Ronald Reagan era — when issues like taxes and government spending were top of mind — to a modern GOP that puts greater emphasis on cultural controversies.

In the eyes of his fans on the right, Limbaugh gave voice to a previously ignored group of working-class Americans who had been left out of the political conversation. By speaking about issues they cared about, in a style that felt familiar, Limbaugh turned his listeners into a potent political force that transformed American conservatism — and by extension, the country — for the better, they argue.

Limbaugh’s detractors see him as the forefather of a modern right-wing media that is defined by cultural grievance, tribalism and conspiratorial thinking. He demonstrated the electoral potency of white resentment and pushed the Republican Party further into adversarial politics and performative outrage, they say.


Limbaugh’s belief system has become the core ethos of modern conservatism

“The American right has been molded in his anti-elitist, grassroots, demotic, irreverent, patriotic, hard-charging image. Rush Limbaugh is not just a talk show host. He defines an era.” — Matthew Continetti, National Review

Limbaugh helped radicalize the Republican Party

“You cannot overstate the influence of Rush Limbaugh in what has happened to American conservatism. You can track the trajectory of the rise and the derangement of the conservative movement by tracking Limbaugh.” — Bulwark editor-at-large Charlie Sykes to Daily Beast

He is one of the most influential figures in modern conservative politics

“I think Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump are three of the five most important and influential conservative figures in American life over the past three decades. ... The conservatism we have is the conservatism they have forged.” — MSNBC host Chris Hayes

He brought millions of forgotten Americans into politics

“He gave millions of listeners a voice and, for many conservatives, his radio program was the first time that they had heard their views expressed in such a public and uncompromising way, revealing that they were not alone in their beliefs.” — Becket Adams, Washington Examiner

Limbaugh turned right-wing media into a force that shaped today’s GOP

“Rush Limbaugh radically transformed the Republican Party. He elevated conservative media into a coequal branch of party politics, and pioneered a style of rhetoric, argument, and entertainment that would come to define conservative politics.” — Political historian Nicole Hemmer

He made bigotry a core conservative principle

“When a Republican politician promoting racist and sexist policies could only use a dog whistle, Limbaugh provided a bull horn.” — Nick Robins-Early and Christopher Mathias, HuffPost

Limbaugh made punditry the dominant form of political news

“He discovered that many people didn’t want their politics served nicely on a china platter, with a smattering of ideological courses served for edified sampling. They wanted the political equivalent of backyard barbecue. ... It’s impossible to understate the influence that discovery wrought. Cable news shifted from the understated presentation of facts and left-right discussion shows to the host-centric, opinion journalism that prevails today.” — Henry Olsen, Washington Post

Limbaugh helped bring conspiracy theories into the mainstream

“Long before Fox hosts began amplifying the fringier theories about American politics, Limbaugh was busy mainstreaming Wingnut World. The conspiracy cranks, the John Birchers, the Christian Zionists, the science deniers, the InfoWarriors — their wildest fantasies, fears, and paranoias all came out to play in national prime time on The Rush Limbaugh Show, repackaged by the host into palatable fare for the Republican masses.” — Bob Moser, Rolling Stone

Limbaugh set the stage for Trump’s presidency

“In politics, he was not only an ally of Mr. Trump but also a precursor, combining media fame, right-wing scare tactics and over-the-top showmanship to build an enormous fan base and mount attacks on truth and facts.” — Robert D. McFadden and Michael M. Grynbaum, New York Times

Is there a topic you’d like to see covered in “The 360”? Send your suggestions to

Read more “360s”

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images