Donald Trump’s connection to the conservative movement to this day remains a subject of acrimonious dispute among the right-wing intelligentsia — some have embraced the 45th president as the movement’s authentic leader, while others regard him warily as an interloper, a New York Democrat who captured the party from the outside.
Nobody on the right ever disowned Rush Limbaugh. Throughout his career, they agreed he was a pure representative of conservative thought. George Bush courted him with an overnight visit to the Lincoln Bedroom and the presidential box at the 1992 Republican National Convention. National Review declared him “Leader of the Opposition” in a 1993 cover story. “Limbaugh is not fringe,” gushed Washington Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti. “His views fit in the conservative mainstream. He idolizes Buckley.”
The Republican Party considered Limbaugh’s influence on their 1994 midterm sweep so profound they made him an honorary member of the incoming congressional class. “I am in Congress today because of Rush Limbaugh,” testified Mike Pence, in 2001. Upon news of his death, George W. Bush called him “an indomitable spirit with a big heart.”
Bush himself may have a big heart. Limbaugh oozed bile. He did not merely characterize his targets as misguided, or stupid, or even selfish. He rendered them for his audience as dehumanized targets of rage. He had special rage for feminist women, who were castrating harpies, and Black people, who were lazy, intellectually unqualified, and inherently criminal. The message he pounded home day after day was that minorities and women were seizing status and resources from white people and men, and that politics was a zero-sum struggle — and the victory would go to whichever side fought more viciously.
Limbaugh’s racism was obsessive, not incidental. Any measures to uplift Black America, in his mind, could only come at white expense and were inherently illegitimate. Any economic reform — even a goal like universal health care, which Democrats had sought for decades and which prevailed throughout the industrialized world — was “reparations.” No episode was too marginal to be conscripted into this message. When in 2011, some schoolkids got into a fight — as they have since schooling existed — he warned, “In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the Black kids cheering.”
His allies have praised his talents as a radio host, and he certainly possessed undeniable talent as a vocal entertainer. Yet his show was curiously devoid of any skill at argument. I am a big believer in listening to opposing arguments and attempting to understand them. I regularly read organs like National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and many others to understand how counterparts on the right see the world (and I do the same for those to my left).
Limbaugh’s program was useless in this regard. He could blather for hours without going from a premise to a conclusion. His only tools for processing opposing points of view were assertion, mockery, and resentment. Limbaugh liked to call himself smart, but he was a lifelong stranger to reason. He hid this weakness with a remarkable ability to gab smoothly and seamlessly.
One of the more telling episodes in his career came nearly 20 years ago when ESPN gave him a stint as an NFL commentator, on the calculation that he could put aside his reactionary goals and use his skills as a communicator on a different subject entirely. The experiment quickly blew up when he proclaimed, absurdly, that star quarterback Donovan McNabb was somehow overrated due to his race. “The media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well,” he claimed. “There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve.” If his willingness to blow up what he had called a “dream job” demonstrated anything, it was that Limbaugh’s racism was not merely a strategy to capture market share but a product of conviction.
Like many conservatives, Limbaugh maintained, and perhaps believed, that the bedrock of his worldview was a set of timeless constitutional principles based on the holy writ of Ronald Reagan, from which no deviation could ever be permitted. Appearing at CPAC in 2009, he delivered a withering rebuke to Republican intellectuals who had proposed revising the party’s Reaganite dogma to suit evolving conditions. Limbaugh thundered:
Sometimes I get livid and angry … We’ve got factions now within our own movement seeking power to dominate it, and, worst of all, to redefine it. Well, the Constitution doesn’t need to be redefined. Conservative intellectuals, the Declaration of Independence does not need to be redefined, and neither does conservatism. Conservatism is what it is, and it is forever. It’s not something you can bend and shape and flake and form …
I cringed—it might have been 2007, late 2007 or sometime during 2008, but a couple of prominent conservative, Beltway, establishment media types began to write on the concept that the era of Reagan is over. And that we needed to adapt our appeal, because, after all, what’s important in politics is winning elections. And so we have to understand that the American people, they want big government. We just have to find a way to tell them we’re no longer opposed to that. We will come up with our own version of it that is wiser and smarter, but we’ve got to go get the Wal-Mart voter, and we’ve got to get the Hispanic voter, and we’ve got to get the recalcitrant independent women. And I’m listening to this and I am just apoplectic: the era of Reagan is over? … We have got to stamp this out.
Yet, by the time Trump appeared on the scene, Limbaugh had realized this was not quite right. Almost every candidate had run to Trump’s right, and all of them had failed. Limbaugh himself no longer cared. In 2016, he explained away the candidate’s many ideological deviations, after having expelled previous Republicans for far smaller transgressions. Buckley-ite dogma could not be the essence of conservative and Republican belief: “If it were, if conservatism — this is the big shock — if conservatism were the glue, the belief and understanding of deep but commonly understood conservative principles, if that’s what defined people as conservative and was the glue that made the conservative movement a big movement, then Trump would have no chance.”
What, then, was the glue? It was simple: “The thing that’s in front of everybody’s face and it’s apparently so hard to believe, it’s this united, virulent opposition to the left and the Democrat Party and Barack Obama.”
Limbaugh, like Trump, understood the party’s id years before its putative leaders grasped it. They had the same feel for the conservative audience and nearly the same message to capture it. They were almost the same person. Perhaps the only only salient difference between the two men’s careers is that Limbaugh found his place sooner than Trump, at a time when a bellicose misogynist could find a valued position in the party but not as its presidential candidate. That had become a possibility by the time Trump found his way to conservatism as a viable exclusive brand.
Why, then, did Trump’s emergence generate open resistance from the party elite (which was then submerged, only to reopen after the January 6 insurrection), while Limbaugh remained a cherished comrade until the end? The answer is that Limbaugh spoke to their voters through channels only they heard: His rants were confined almost exclusively to his audience, with the exception of occasional, short-lived media dustups when he said something especially bigoted. Trump’s rants were front and center, put on bright display every day in the mainstream media. Limbaugh could be hidden away from the mainstream. Trump could not.
It is peculiar that Limbaugh is honored and mourned in a single voice by a party elite that remains split over its descent into violent insurrection. The line from Limbaugh to Trump is about an inch long.