A witticism attributed to Mark Twain has always resonated with me. (I tend to be bitchy.) Twain is quoted as saying “I’ve never wished for a man’s death, but I’ve read several obituaries with pleasure.”
Precisely my reaction when I learned of Rush Limbaugh’s demise.
There has been no dearth of columns/obituaries marking the death of this truly horrible man, and ordinarily I wouldn’t bother to add to their number–had I not been in the middle of The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, and had I not come across this article from Vox.
I referred to The Sum of Us a few days ago, reporting on Michelle Goldberg’s column describing the book. I can now attest to its importance; McGhee paints an absolutely devastating–and overwhelmingly documented–picture of the ways in which racial animus has hurt not just the Black and brown objects of that animus, but everyone else. Racism, as she amply illustrates, is why Americans “can’t have nice things,” the none-too-veiled reason for the country’s disinvestment in public goods and refusal to construct an adequate social safety net.
Limbaugh, of course, was one of the loudest and most effective purveyors of that racism–along with generous amounts of misogyny, homophobia and Christian Nationalism.
Which brings me to the Vox article, which traces the considerable role played by “Christian” radio stations in abetting Limbaugh’s rise. The article reminds readers that Limbaugh “didn’t emerge from a vacuum.” He and his toxic message were part of a “Christian-based radio ecosystem” that promoted his message and allowed it to thrive.
The late Rush Limbaugh’s far-reaching and toxic impact on conservative America and the Republican party is well-known and well-documented. Still, there’s one aspect of his legacy, specifically his cultural dominance in the 1990s, that’s difficult to convey in the post-internet era: Limbaugh’s pivotal role in the ascension of conservative talk radio and the pivotal role that conservative radio played in emboldening modern conservative populism.
For many years throughout the Clinton era, Limbaugh’s daily radio program, The Rush Limbaugh Show, was synonymous with conservative political media and part of a larger burgeoning conservative radio ecosystem. The show, which aired for three hours each afternoon across America, began syndicating nationally in 1988 — incidentally the same year that famed evangelist minister Billy Graham delivered the benediction for both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. If you can’t imagine that happening today, it’s due in large part to the political polarization Limbaugh himself helped engender. In fact, Graham’s brand of evangelical Christianity spread across many of the same airwaves that also aired Limbaugh’s brand of toxic conservative bigotry.
That radio ecosystem also featured Dr. James Dobson’s daily Focus on the Family spots, promoting “pro-life,” creationist, and anti-gay political opinions. Dobson was then the head of the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as an extremist group.
It was within this pervasive atmosphere of pumped-up, aggressively combative evangelism and overtly polarizing political messages that Rush Limbaugh gained popularity. His show was another piece of the rapidly coalescing image of America’s new conservative — one in which Limbaugh’s lack of Christian empathy somehow became a feature, not a bug, of the modern conservative movement.
For at least three decades, Limbaugh and his ilk have been the public face of conservative “Christianity.” It took a long time for those I consider to be authentic Christians to speak out–to publicly reject the hateful and aggressive politicized version of the religion that was repelling young people and Americans of good will. Those dissenting voices have become stronger, but whether they can counter the appeal of the White supremacy/Trumpian version of Christianity remains to be seen.
As the Vox article makes clear, the effect of Christian conservative radio on America’s political discourse has been profound– well before the 2016 election, the format played a huge role in shifting the views of once-centrist Republicans toward the far right. As the author notes, “Many of us haven’t listened to Rush Limbaugh in decades, but we’re all still feeling his influence daily, like it or not.”
His voice will most definitely not be missed.