Updated at 12:07 p.m. ET on February 19, 2021.
As a radio broadcaster, Rush Limbaugh, who died yesterday, was a great success: He pioneered his genre, attracted millions of listeners for several decades, and grew fantastically wealthy. Many good people were used to his daily company, something unimaginable to critics who heard only the most odious excerpts from his broadcasts, never the more typical segments. If you’re a Limbaugh fan who feels like you’ve lost a friend, my condolences, and best to stop reading here.
As a proponent of conservatism in America, Limbaugh was a failure who in his later years abandoned the project of advancing a positive agenda, culminating in his alignment with the vulgar style and populist anti-leftism of Donald Trump. Character no longer mattered. Budget deficits no longer mattered. Free trade no longer mattered. Nepotism no longer mattered. Lavishing praise on foreign dictators no longer mattered.
All that mattered was owning the libs in the culture war, in part to avenge a deeply felt sense of aggrievement. Limbaugh and Trump were alike in attaining great wealth and political influence while still talking and seeming to feel as though society was stacked against guys like them.
In obituaries and commemorations, many right-leaning commentators are crediting Limbaugh with advancing movement conservatism, as if he were the William F. Buckley Jr. of the Baby Boomer generation. That’s certainly how it felt in the 1990s when I would hear him in the car with my grandparents. Back then, before Fox News, no one on the right was as popular with the public.
Yet he wasn’t for everyone with conservative instincts, and the proposition that Limbaugh helped conservatism thrive or grow is unsubstantiated. National Review and Barry Goldwater reinvigorated conservatism in postwar America. The high-water mark of American conservatism, Ronald Reagan’s presidency, was over before Limbaugh was a force in American politics.
Over the ensuing decades, as Limbaugh grew in fame and gained as much influence in the Republican Party as anyone, the conservative movement suffered from political and intellectual decline. “In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar,” a writer at The American Conservative once complained. “Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right.” The seesaw of partisan politics gave conservatives occasional victories, such as the 1994 Republican takeover of the House and the 2010 Tea Party wave, but once in office the GOP tended to squander those victories quickly and never accomplished much conservative change. The government kept getting bigger. The country kept getting more socially liberal. The right delighted in the fact that the left was never able to create its own Rush Limbaugh, despite various attempts. But perhaps that supposed failing has helped progressives make gains.
Since Limbaugh’s political radio career took off in the late 1980s, each successive Republican president has been less conservative than the last, and Trump was the least conservative GOP president since Richard Nixon. Looking at that trajectory and thinking that Limbaugh helped advance conservatism in America is as delusional as believing Jeb Bush’s claim that his brother kept Americans safe on 9/11.
In 2006, after Republicans lost the House in midterm elections, Limbaugh admitted that he’d long been “carrying water” for GOP elected officials even though he didn’t believe they deserved it. Over time, as the talk-radio style of culture-war point scoring over a substantive agenda, and loyalty over intellectual honesty, became more common among GOP politicos as well as right-leaning entertainers, the coalition got less and less conservative, culminating in the GOP’s takeover by populists who openly championed tariffs and other barriers to the free trade of goods.
“This is called the Republican Party,” Trump emphasized during his 2016 campaign. “It’s not called the Conservative Party.” Or as Limbaugh himself put it on his show that same year, “Can somebody point to me the conservative on the ballot? What do you mean, Rush? Are you admitting Trump is not a conservative? Damn right I am! Folks, when did I ever say that he was? Look, I don’t know how to tell you this. Conservatism lost in the primary, if that’s how you want to look at it.”
Limbaugh isn’t solely or mostly responsible for conservatism’s decline, but he is partly responsible. He spent several decades running interference for whoever was leading the Republican Party, only to complain later that those same Republicans were corrupt swamp creatures. Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Trump differed greatly in their worldviews and policy agendas, but Limbaugh, always more a partisan warrior than an intellectual leader with independent convictions, aligned with each just at the height of his or her power in the GOP, even in years when fiscal profligacy under Republican leadership meant ballooning budget deficits and debt. Nor is fiscal conservatism the only core belief Limbaugh jettisoned.
In the 1990s, no one spent more time than Limbaugh insisting on the importance of character in a president. “This, ultimately, is why the issue of character is so important,” he wrote in his 1992 best seller, The Way Things Ought to Be. “Liberals wig out when character becomes an issue, because many of their candidates are of dubious character.” In the aughts, no one spent more time deflecting Democratic attacks against President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. But when Trump, a former Democrat and serial adulterer who lied constantly, became a Republican and ran for president characterizing Bush’s foreign policy as an unmitigated disaster, Limbaugh got on board as people with deeper commitments to conservatism went Never Trump. While never a RINO, he became a conservative in name only.
For Limbaugh, most standards mattered only as long as they were useful weapons in a given moment. “Without question there is a rising clamor for change, not only in our political institutions and establishment, but in the policies and directions which emanate from them,” Limbaugh wrote in 1992, when he was aligned with the establishment Bush family against the insurgent Ross Perot. “The key to change, though, will be found inside, not outside the system among politically experienced people who are ethical, honest, and moral—characteristics that do matter, despite how loudly they are pooh-poohed by the liberal elite. Outsiders, and those who present themselves as such, will ultimately end up as carcasses strewn across the countryside, false prophets of a false premise.” When aligning with Trump, he contravened all those ideas.
Limbaugh’s shiftiness applied beyond partisan politics to the culture war, in which he took glee in skewering what he saw as frivolous accusations of racism perpetrated by frequent foils such as Al Sharpton, even as the perennially color-conscious talk-radio host established himself as a race-baiter as promiscuous as any. Hired as an NFL commentator in 2003, Limbaugh immediately fixated on the race of a Black quarterback. In 2009, I wrote about how often he accused others of racism:*
Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates? “He’s a racist,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “He's an angry racist.” Sonja Sotomayor? “She's a bigot. She’s a racist,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “How can a president nominate such a candidate? And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That’s what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive.” President Obama? He’s “the biggest reverse racist in history.”
Democrats generally? “The racism that everybody thinks exists on our side of the aisle has been on full display throughout their primary campaign.” Liberals? “You know, racism in this country is the exclusive province of the left.” The media? “We’re witnessing racism all this week that led up to the inauguration. We’re being told that we have to hope he succeeds. That we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father’s black, because this is the first black president.”
“The days of them not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang. He’s angry, he’s gonna cut this country down to size, he’s gonna make it pay for all the multicultural mistakes that it has made, it’s mistreatment of minorities. I know exactly what’s going on.”
In one particularly odious example of fueling divisive racial paranoia, Limbaugh told his audience, “It’s Obama’s America, is it not? Obama’s America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, ‘Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,’ and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white.”
Remarks like that alienated principled conservatives such as Rod Dreher, who said at the time, “Good grief, Limbaugh is up to something wicked. He’s plainly trying to rally white conservatives into thinking that now that we have a Black president, Blacks are rising up to attack white kids! Christ have mercy, what is wrong with these people? I won’t have anything to do with it, not even tangentially.”
For my entire life, Limbaugh, as much as any leftist, was a hypocritical force for identity politics. More than that, he personified bigotry. Bull Connor and Lee Atwater were gone, George W. Bush was reaching out to Latino voters, but Limbaugh could still be relied upon to question Obama’s place of birth or call Sandra Fluke a slut.
In the end, Limbaugh was aligned with a Republican standard-bearer who openly bashed Mexicans and Muslims to win the White House. Trump lost the popular vote twice and served one term, accomplishing the confirmation of many conservative judges but little else of lasting consequence for conservatives. By the end of Trump’s time in office, conservative self-identification was falling overall.
Many on the right will still feel like Limbaugh did a lot for conservatism, but facts don’t care about feelings. William F. Buckley Jr. advanced conservatism. Milton Friedman advanced conservatism. Limbaugh advanced the smug hatred of liberals and feminists, took pleasure in mocking the left, fueled the ugliest impulses of his audience more often than he sought to elevate national discourse, boosted Republican politicians (whatever their policy preferences) until the end, and died an identitarian populist who betrayed the philosophy he long extolled. He will likely be remembered more for the worst things he said than the best things he said, because unlike Buckley, who said his share of awful things, no Limbaugh quote stands out as especially witty or brilliant. Given his talents as a broadcaster, his shortcomings were a tragedy. At least he gave generously to charity.
May he rest in peace.
* A previous version of this article misstated the year that Limbaugh was hired as an NFL commentator. It was 2003, not 2009.