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Rush Limbaugh taught me to love the conservatism that he betrayed for Donald Trump

David Mastio, USA TODAY
·4 min read
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The first time Rush Limbaugh read one of my columns on the air, I was in my early 20s and writing for the campus daily at the University of Iowa. I had blasted a particularly egregious example of Hawkeye political correctness, and Rush had taken my words national. For a "dittohead" since high school, nothing could have been cooler. My friends were in awe. I didn't buy a beer for a month.

It was a turning point for me and my decision to go into opinion journalism. I am not alone.

The fact is that if you talk to any conservative under 50 and they tell you they weren't shaped by Limbaugh, they're embarrassed to admit it or they are unaware of how much Rush shaped the conservative world they inhabit. Nobody since William F. Buckley had been as influential a gateway drug to conservatism except maybe George Will and The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

But Rush stood above them all. Buckley built the institutions of the conservative movement, most notably National Review, Will had The Washington Post and ABC News behind him, The Journal was a national newspaper — they were all company men.

Rush was a regular guy with a microphone. His infectious curiosity and incandescent sense of humor brought him an audience in the tens of millions.

Entry point to conservative world

Listening to him starting when I had a skull full of mush ready to be shaped didn't just give me many of the attitudes I have today, it also gave me the confidence that I had a set of tools to understand everything around me. He was an entry point to the world of conservatives ideas and voices with increasing sophistication.

As an individual instead of an institution, Rush connected with his audience on a gut level. I don't think anyone could understand how deep and broad the affection for him was. For me, he was a friend and mentor without ever knowing me.

Dialogue is happening: Rush Limbaugh deserves mega-thanks for empowering regular people and giving them a voice

The last time Rush read one of my columns on the air, it wasn't as big of a deal. Biased fact-checkers had descended on Dr. Ben Carson to blast him for his misinterpretation of constitutional history. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal that Limbaugh used to launch a monologue that was even better than my snarky column. Our senses of humor meshed perfectly, and I was glad.

Rush Limbaugh and President Donald Trump in 2019, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Rush Limbaugh and President Donald Trump in 2019, in West Palm Beach, Florida.

By then, I was a senior editor at USA TODAY, and it was another day at the office for me. No awe and no beer. But I think it was a turning point just like the first, only this time for Limbaugh and not me.

That was in November 2015, when the Republican presidential primary was still up in the air and Rush was at his peak.

By then, Donald Trump had been called a Nazi but hadn't proved he was an authoritarian.

Trump had been called on his tenuous relationship with the truth, but he had not yet uttered over 30,000 lies.

Trump had declared bankruptcies six times, but he hadn't run a morally bankrupt administration that separated children from their mothers and put both in cages.

Limbaugh was as smart as they come. He knew all this and could see what was coming as well as I could. After all, Limbaugh was the one who taught me to think for myself. That's why we could have our differences and remain friends.

His satire could have torn down Trump

Limbaugh's powers then were immense. He could get any Republican leader or conservative thinker on the phone in a minute. He had an army of dittoheads just like I had been, and he had three decades of affection from everywhere in the conservative world for his role as the happy warrior for the right on cause after cause.

If Rush had stood up at that moment and said no, there’s a chance that the past four years of history would have been different. Who can say what would have happened. But no voice on the right had a better chance of rallying voters around a principled conservative instead of a reality TV huckster who says he paid to have the Clintons come to his wedding.

Rush could have wielded the power of satire to tear Trump down with a power that no voice in the mainstream media could match.

Instead, Limbaugh spent his last years embracing an unprincipled president and betraying the conservative ideals he taught me to love. I am not sorry to see that end.

David Mastio is the deputy editorial page editor of USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMastio

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rush Limbaugh was a friend and mentor without ever knowing me