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There is much to say, upon the death of Rush Limbaugh, about his career and his landmark role in talk radio and in conservative politics. Few men have ever been as important to the direction of an entire medium as Rush was to AM radio for decades. After the decisive shift of music radio to FM by the mid 1980s, many people gave up on radio in general and AM in particular as an old, declining technology. Rush’s rise after the Reagan FCC’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 not only led the reversal of that trend, it also symbolized and helped bring about the end of a top-down media landscape dominated by a handful of center-left establishment outlets, and inaugurate an era when conservatives had their own mass-communication platforms.
His death also marks the decisive end of another era: the post-Reagan, post–Cold War Right of the 1990s, in which he was a central figure. For conservatives of varying stripes, the years from the mid 1960s to the late 1980s had been a dizzying ascent. Conservatives went from deep in the political wilderness to winning the White House and a 49-state landslide in 1984. Ronald Reagan’s first landslide, in 1980, flipped twelve Senate seats. The Right was brimming with ideas, movements, and new institutions. The one big thing that held everyone together, but also often forced other priorities aside, was the fight against Soviet Communism. And then, faster than even the greatest optimists could imagine, it was gone. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Soviet Union itself unraveled in 1991. And a weighty question loomed over the Right: Now what?
With Reagan and the Soviets gone, domestic policy and culture came to the fore, and the formal leadership of the Republican Party passed mainly to uninspiring figures who could not sell conservative ideas, and in some cases did not believe in them, notably George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and Bob Michel. New leaders were needed, and new battles needed to be fought.
Five towering figures, all of them fairly fresh to the fight in the mid to late 1980s, led the way on different fronts. All of them were converts to Reaganism, but each had come of age in the darker Nixon years. Newt Gingrich led the populist-conservative revolt that wrested the House back from the Democrats in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. Rudy Giuliani, elected mayor of New York in 1993 after a narrow defeat in 1989, led the battle against urban crime and decay, taking conservative policy onto the most hostile domestic turf and winning. Antonin Scalia led the intellectual movement to restore legitimacy and rigor to the interpretation of the Constitution, beating the academy at its own game. Former Bush consultant Roger Ailes started Fox News in 1996, creating a television platform for ideas and perspectives that had previously been limited to radio and print.
The fifth, and as important as any of the other four, was Rush Limbaugh.
American conservatism, like any other political movement or tendency, is a mix of the light and the dark; of hope and fear, optimism and pessimism, altruism and self-interest. These are the stuff of humanity, all of it legitimately the subject of politics, but too much darkness can poison a movement. Reagan had his own share of the darkness — witness his battles with Hollywood communists in the Fifties and campus radicals in the Sixties — but he had made an art of elevating the light in conservatism: economic opportunity, the bedrock importance of family, the blessings of liberty, the stirrings of patriotism, the sacredness of human life, the shining city on the hill as a beacon of hope for the world’s oppressed.
Rush always understood, at an instinctive level, how to tap into both light and darkness. If you are not a conservative, or if you listened to Rush only in his last years, it may surprise you today to see quite what a variety of people on the right were fans of his at one point or another in their careers. I was an active Rush listener mainly in the early 1990s, after one of my college roommates turned me on to him. He was at his peak then, and a great evangelist for Reaganite optimism at a time when Reaganism and populism were allies, not enemies.
As caustic as Rush could be against Democrats and the Right’s various cultural foes, the essential thrust of his program in those days — and for many years thereafter — was upbeat, hopeful, even jaunty. Rush could thunder with a smile. He truly believed his ideas, but he also winked at the audience: He was an entertainer doing shtick, blowing smoke up his own rear, and you were in on the joke. Conservatism, Rush wanted you to know, was good for everybody, more people should try it, and it didn’t have to be stuffy or dour; it could be fun.
Consider his first book, with its oddly utopian tongue-in-cheek title, The Way Things Ought to Be, published in late 1992 at the tail end of a terrible election year for Republicans, with glowing blurbs from Bill Buckley and Oliver North. Rush concluded the introduction by noting that some readers were sure to be offended, but:
Believe me when I say that my purpose is not to offend. In fact, it bothers me when someone is honestly offended because I don’t consider myself an offensive guy. I am just a harmless, lovable little fuzzball. So, take some advice. Lighten up. We should all laugh more at ourselves . . . . And if you can’t laugh at yourself, turn these pages and laugh at me laughing for you.
Rush lauded Ronald Reagan as “my hero” and thanked Pat Buchanan for “destroy[ing] David Duke’s so-called Republican candidacy” and “dispatching Duke to the ash heap of irrelevance.” Then, from the final chapter, “We Are Winning”:
Many times I get calls on my show from people who rail against one liberal outrage or another and complain that the country is going down the tubes. “The liberals are winning, Rush,” they mournfully conclude. “America is never going to be as great as it once was.” I have one word for such defeatism: NONSENSE . . .
Conservatives are an ever-growing majority. So take heart, dear reader. Don’t get down. Remember how I handle them. I laugh at their outrageous statements and I ridicule their latest lunacies. So should you. Laugh and move on. They are the past. We conservatives are the future. . . . Be confident. This country has not run out of opportunity. Your children can live in an America that is better, safer, more moral, and more prosperous.
You can understand why a lot of my generation of twentysomething conservatives found this an inspiring message, delivered by a man in his early forties who brimmed with wit, energy, and zest for his job. You could be a Reaganite or a Buchananite or a moderate; there was something for everyone on Rush’s show. He even had a lot of liberal listeners, some of whom he converted over the years, others of whom he just entertained. He was current on the day’s arguments, he knew how they all fit in his framework, and his three-hour time slot gave him the space to go further in depth than anything you would find on television. Rush was populist in his style even then — a style that fits the intimacy of radio — but he never talked down as if he thought his audience was stupid.
Those of us seeking a deeper intellectual grounding and tradition for our conservatism could and did find one elsewhere — I stopped listening regularly to Rush once I had a full-time office job by the middle of the 1990s — but we never quite left behind the common spirit of the Rush Limbaugh program and the knowledge that it united millions of Americans listening to Rush give ‘em hell with a smile and half his brain tied behind his back. Like a lot of conservative writers, I had the thrill a couple times of having Rush read things on the air that I wrote. He was generous with attributions, especially in the Internet age, and made his “Stack of Stuff” available to his listeners. His durability and continuing relevance on AM radio as the technological landscape moved from the age of UHF to the age of AIM and Netscape to the ages of blogs, streaming, Twitter and podcasts is a testament to his talent and adaptability.
Of course, a collection of Rush’s lowest moments on air makes for grim reading. But some context is in order. Anyone who has done even a small amount of talk on radio, TV, or even on a podcast must come away with a new appreciation for Rush’s monumental talent. Yes, he put his foot in his mouth more than a few times — ranging from factual errors and political misjudgments to things that were mean, offensive, or in poor taste. Sometimes he apologized, took correction, or changed what he was doing; other times, he stuck to his guns or tuned out the critics. But when you think about what it takes to be on the air, live, mostly alone, 15 hours a week for 33 years, and be consistently interesting that whole time, you realize how hard the job really is. Anybody who is any good at it will occasionally say things that were best left in the silent part of their brain. Multiply “occasionally” to 20,000-odd hours on the air, and you’re going to cross a lot of lines, especially when you are as combative as Rush. Yet, despite an Ahab-like decade-long campaign by Media Matters and other left-wing agitators to run Rush off the air, he was too big to cancel. Only returning the talent on loan from God could take Rush away from his beloved EIB microphone.
The passage of time is remorseless, and in politics, the world turns over, and then it turns again. Rush’s talent and his vast audience never left him, but as I tuned in or caught excerpts of the show in his later years, there was more darkness and less light. The “we’re the majority, and we’re winning” optimism of the early 1990s was harder for anybody on the right to sustain over the setbacks of the late 2000s in particular, and in light of the past few years of cultural madness. It is harder still to sustain that optimism as you grow older and more unwell.
We live today in the political aftermath of September 11, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the 2008 financial crisis, Obamacare, same-sex marriage, cancel culture, #MeToo, Donald Trump, a revival of socialism, Black Lives Matter, and a global pandemic, among other things unforeseen in the 1990s. Adjusting and adjusting again to the shifting sands of new controversies and new trends in the culture has gradually stripped away the landscape that Rush originally thrived in. His audience grew older with him. The Right has fractured into many warring camps, and Rush did not always make the same choices as others. He supported Trump with enthusiasm, having been old friends with The Donald from well before his political debut in 2015. But then, populism naturally appealed to Rush’s faith in people and his mistrust of the elite gatekeepers who would have taken him off the air decades ago if they could. Some of Rush’s old fans grew disenchanted with his stances — I did, at times — but he never stopped mattering, or attracting new ears.
The Trump campaign in 2020 had the air of a last ride for the 1990s generation. Scalia and Ailes are both dead, and Ailes’s career had ended especially ingloriously. Rush, despite a public battle with terminal cancer, threw himself into the fray with everything he had remaining. Giuliani and Gingrich played their own parts, both clearly now past their primes. With Rush gone now from the scene, it is time for that generation to take the gold watch and give way to voices that embody the hope and optimism that fueled the early Rush Limbaugh show. But as conservatives, we do not burn down our forebears simply because their moment has passed, or because they made some mistakes or left some things unfinished. Such could be said of every generation. Rush Limbaugh was a vital voice on the right in his time, who brought a lot of people into the fold. He was an entertainer and a comfort for millions for decades. R.I.P.