President Donald Trump ignited a firestorm by awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest governmental award for civilians, to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh during his State of the Union address. To many Americans, Limbaugh is a misogynistic, racist, hatemonger who has contributed amply to our hyperpolarized political and media landscapes — the antithesis of someone who should be receiving the medal of freedom. Many fans, however, cheered Trump’s move, viewing Limbaugh as someone who reshaped media to include their perspective, and who has tirelessly fought for bedrock American values — their values — for decades on the air, inspiring a generation of conservatives.
Both sides are right. Limbaugh has said countless abhorrent things about racial minorities, women, liberals, AIDS patients (for which he apologized), Democrats and individuals ranging from a young Chelsea Clinton to Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke to actor Michael J. Fox. His comments have often been offensive, fueling and reinforcing not only bigotry and stereotypes about marginalized groups, but the perception that liberals are an America-hating enemy, who will resort to any tactics to destroy the country.
But through many of these comments he also gave Americans who felt marginalized, who believed norms had changed abruptly and without their consent, a voice. Limbaugh pioneered a new form of political media that reshaped radio and television, and paved the way for Donald Trump. Honoring him makes political sense for President Trump, because it further embeds into the political landscape the values and tactics of division and diversion on which his presidency depends.
On Aug. 1, 1988, Limbaugh made radio history by launching his national radio show. At the time, AM radio was facing an existential crisis: music sounded better on FM, which for decades had been luring away listeners and advertisers. AM needed unique programming to survive.
Limbaugh provided it by tapping into the culture wars that left many conservatives angry and alienated. Since the 1960s, white men and conservative white women had watched civil rights movements challenge existing social hierarchies and the “traditional” nuclear family by demanding equal rights for women, as well as racial and sexual minorities. They felt like their values were under siege everywhere: in the classroom, in entertainment, in universities and in newsrooms. Conservatives wanted someone to fight back and counter liberal condescension, someone who could say what they were thinking but felt like they couldn’t say without charges of bigotry.
Ironically, he didn’t take to the airwaves with a political crusade in mind. A former DJ, he loved radio and woke up every day dreaming of what zany high jinx would maximize his audience and keep listeners tuned in for as long as possible, all in the service of charging “confiscatory advertising rates.” He was the consummate showman: brash and controversial, yet always entertaining as he advanced the conservative values he gained from his father’s dinner table seminars. He “aborted” callers drowning them out with vacuum cleaner sound effects and screams to trigger outrage. Why? To joke how his brusqueness bothered liberals more than actual abortions. News updates came with theme music: for feminism updates, “Men” by the Forester Sisters, for updates about openly gay Congressman Barney Frank, “My Boy Lollipop.” He also used nicknames that mocked and maligned public figures, like former House speaker “Fort Worthless” Jim Wright (from Fort Worth, Texas), or later calling Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, “Lurch Heinz Kerry,” to mock both his stiffness and signify that his wife dominated him.
Limbaugh remade all the rules of talk radio. Before him, the norm in talk radio, in the major markets where it existed, was local hosts who rarely aired their views, and whose programs centered around interviews and interesting callers, on a full range of topics. Limbaugh changed that, demonstrating that a market existed for edgy, boundary pushing, nationally syndicated talk that centered around the host’s opinion.
Within a few years Limbaugh had shot to superstardom broadcasting on hundreds of stations and reaching millions of listeners per week. Restaurants even launched “Rush rooms” in the early 1990s, where people could come eat lunch and hear their favorite show.
Limbaugh’s success catalyzed a series of decisions by radio executives that, over the next decade, not only led to an explosion of talk radio, but conservative radio, with most talk stations broadcasting all conservative, mostly syndicated, political talk formats by the early 2000s.
Limbaugh also pioneered an “infotainment” model. Or as he put it on his 30th anniversary in national syndication, “A lot of people have done it since, but it first happened here, the combination of a serious discussion, irreverent humor, the playing of rock ‘n’ roll music … . It’s pioneering stuff, and was used to educate, to laugh to create humor and also inform people of things I wanted them to know about the left.”
This model soon expanded to television, as it directly shaped Fox News. By the late 2000s, it also extended to conservative digital sites like Red State, Breitbart and Townhall, which would explode in number in the 2010s. Through these new media, Limbaugh’s narrative about heroes on the right, and villains on the left and in the mainstream media grew in its reach. Though often broadcasting on “news” outlets, talkers like Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham were not journalists. Like Limbaugh, they were talk-show hosts with a goal of putting on the best show possible. Fact-checking was far less important than connecting with the audience and arousing emotion. Nuance didn’t sell, conflict did.
Limbaugh’s reach went beyond the media landscape and straight into the heart of GOP politics. The types of conservatives who flocked to such programs were the very same Americans who showed up to vote in low-turnout primaries. That meant that, especially as the country became geographically polarized, with primaries becoming more important than general elections in many places, Republicans had to pay attention to their views — and the opinions espoused by the hosts and guests who helped inform those views. Thanks to the deep bond between hosts and listeners, talkers had real influence in congressional primaries with seismic and potentially dire consequences for the GOP.
Why? Because talk radio elevated extreme voices on the right, like Sen. Ted Cruz or Rep. Jim Jordan. They became the heroes in talk radio’s story, which now targeted not only the left, but also mainstream Republicans as villains. The result was a Republican Party that tacked far to the right, and that had a significantly greater appetite for political warfare. This made governance and addressing crucial issues much more difficult especially under divided government.
The party’s most significant leaders became the hosts who conversed each day on the airwaves with the conservative base. And none was more important than Limbaugh. Republicans courted him — including both President Bushes, and of course, Donald Trump. Criticism from Limbaugh could trigger phones ringing off the hook in Republican offices. Elected Republicans leaders nervously monitored his program and routinely tried to share information with him. When they got him to weigh in positively on a debate, it was in the words of Republican communications staffer Kyle Downey, “the Super Bowl, the Holy Grail.”
But ratings were always his goal, not governing. And so Limbaugh often went absurdly far in trying to give voice to his audience’s frustrations and in stoking outrage over liberal hypocrisy. Too often this meant using insensitive language, playing to stereotypes, spreading conspiracy theories and saying outright bigoted or cruel things, leading millions to view Limbaugh as a toxic hatemonger. He also bore significant responsibility for a politics and media that rewarded those who spoke in the most incendiary terms and for deepening the fractures in the country.
In some ways then, it was appropriate for a president known for fueling outrage, degrading opponents with insulting nicknames and putting on a show to award Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom. As Republicans gave him a standing ovation, Democrats sat in stony silence, appalled that someone who fueled bigotry and an incendiary media culture was receiving such an honor. The spectacle was the perfect embodiment of Limbaugh’s career and the politics, media — and president — he helped create.
Brian Rosenwald is one of the co-editors of Made by History, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Talk Radio’s America.”