At the center of most discussions of right-wing media’s role in propping up the Trump presidency, Fox News looms largest. But talk radio played just as big a role. And Limbaugh’s show was the most important of all, not only because he was an ardent Trump supporter, but because, over the course of three decades, his show also laid the groundwork for Trump’s presidency.
In swearing fealty to Limbaugh’s popularity with conservative voters among their base, Republican leaders essentially transformed Limbaugh into the de facto leader of their party — and turned conservative media into a powerful political institution that carried as much weight as the party itself.
From nearly the moment his national radio show debuted in 1988, Limbaugh was a media phenomenon. Having started as a disc jockey and sports commentator, he blended his knowledge of audio entertainment with his conservative politics, creating a new format that wrapped right-wing political talk in humor and satire.
At the end of the Reagan presidency, the GOP had no popular leader. George H.W. Bush, though elected by wide margins and immensely popular during the first Gulf War, soon slumped in the polls. By 1992, he had been rejected by conservatives and was facing a right-wing challenge from Pat Buchanan in the presidential primaries. Casting about the political landscape, Bush landed on Rush Limbaugh as a possible savior: The popular broadcaster had been promoting Buchanan on his show; if he instead threw his weight behind Bush, perhaps his millions of listeners would come along, too.
That kind of just-kidding racism and misogyny, aimed at providing plausible deniability, has become a staple of conservatism today.
Limbaugh’s reliance on insults, nicknames, racism and misogyny didn’t just prefigure the rise of Donald Trump. He created the politics that enabled Trump to rise to power. While much of the rest of the country saw Trump’s campaign announcement speech in 2015 as a bizarre mash-up of conspiracy theories, racism and lies, for Limbaugh’s listeners, it wasn’t so strange: It was, in fact, a manifestation of the hours of radio they listened to each day. And while Limbaugh’s show will now go dark, his pernicious influence — on media, on politics, and on the precarious state of American democracy — will long outlive him.