The Era of Limbaugh

First Lady Melania Trump delivers the Medal of Freedom to radio personality Rush Limbaugh after being acknowledged by US President Donald Trump as he delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 4, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

I think I was born conservative, in a way that perhaps only a boomer born to parents who had worked their way through the Great Depression and World War II can understand. They were indeed conservative, not to mention frugal, and yet they were New Dealers. And so it was for many.

It was a matter of leadership as much as anything. FDR at least was willing to try things that might help, Hoover seemed to sit there feeling sorry for both the American people and himself. And not everything in the New Deal was all that bad for America, some were, and for the most part, none of it affected the depression, but some things did deliver real progress, especially in rural areas. It brought US agriculture into the 20th century, and thusly contributed greatly to winning World War II. Anyway, that’s how it was.

In college, I discovered William F. Buckley, and I never looked back. I loved his erudition, his vocabulary, his knowledge of the classics, and above all, his conservatism. Like all young people, I became a non-critical acolyte, and in some ways, I still am. But eventually, he got supplanted by Ronald Reagan, who to me always combined Buckley with the down to earth libertarianism of Barry Goldwater. It was an epic brew, sliding the Overton window for a while, defeating the Soviet Union and so many other things.

Then came the resurgence of what we at the time called the Rockefeller Republicans, and we now call the GOPe and much worse things, which were and are deserved. If I never see another Bush or acolyte on stage, it will be much too soon. They perhaps meant well, but their timidity and fear of the media almost destroyed the country. As Reagan slipped away from us mentally, the reason it did not is mostly down to one man: Rush Limbaugh.

Due to things that Reagan had championed, he was able to become a national voice, and you will not understand today’s American conservative without understanding Rush. Matthew Continetti at The Washington Free Beacon wrote well recently about why Rush Limbaugh matters so very much.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis spoke to Rush Limbaugh last fall at a gala dinner for the National Review Institute. The radio host was there to receive the William F. Buckley Jr. award. “He actually gave me one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had,” Limbaugh told his audience the next day. “He listed five great conservatives and put me in the list.” DeSantis’s pantheon: William F. Buckley Jr., Ronald Reagan, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Limbaugh.

Good list. No media figure since Buckley has had a more lasting influence on American conservatism than Limbaugh, whose cumulative weekly audience is more than 20 million people. Since national syndication in 1988, Limbaugh has been the voice of conservatism, his three-hour program blending news, politics, and entertainment in a powerful and polarizing cocktail. His shocking announcement this week that he has advanced lung cancer, and his appearance at the State of the Union, where President Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, are occasions to reflect on his impact.

It is, in fact, the defining list. Buckley brought forward the tenets of American Conservatism from before the war, Reagan is pretty self-explanatory, Scalia and Thomas highlighted how the left had used the courts against us, and Limbaugh showed the way ahead.

Limbaugh made the most of these opportunities. And he contributed stylistic innovations of his own. He treated politics not only as a competition of ideas but also as a contest between liberal elites and the American public. He added the irreverent and sometimes scandalous humor and cultural commentary of the great DJs. He introduced catchphrases still in circulation: “dittohead,” “Drive-By media,” “feminazi,” “talent on loan from God.”

The template he created has been so successful that the list of his imitators on both the left and right is endless. Even Al Franken wanted in on the act. Dostoyevsky is attributed with the saying that the great Russian writers “all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.'” Political talk show hosts came out of Limbaugh’s microphone.

Limbaugh’s success prefigured more than the rise of conservative radio. His two bestsellers, The Way Things Ought to Be (1992) and See, I Told You So (1993), were the leading edge of the conservative publishing boom. And his television program, The Rush Limbaugh Show, produced in collaboration with Roger Ailes, was a forerunner of the opinion programming on Fox News Channel. “I had to learn how to take being hated as a measure of success,” he told a Boy Scouts awards dinner in 2009. “Nobody’s raised for that. And the person that taught me to deal with this and to remain psychologically healthy was Roger Ailes.”

Yep, here are the roots of the Fox News that we depended upon to bring us through the various reigns of error, it all goes back to Ailes, but more to Rush himself.

Bold, brash, divisive, funny, and amped up, President Trump’s style is similar to a shock jockey’s. His presidency is another reminder of Limbaugh’s staying power. The American right has been molded in his anti-elitist, grassroots, demotic, irreverent, patriotic, hard-charging image. Rush Limbaugh is not just a broadcaster. He defines an era.

Indeed so, and with luck, it will define the Second American Century, as still more people are lifted from tyranny and destitution with the help of the freest people on earth, not because it benefits us (even if it sometimes does) but because it is the right thing to do.

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