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Rush Limbaugh's true legacy is how he persuaded people to embrace their worst selves

The conservative radio host will be remembered for a few enduring insults, a shameful history of bullying and making it OK to hate your neighbor.
Image: Rush Limbaugh
Rush Limbaugh looks on before introducing President Donald Trump at a Make America Great Again rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Nov. 5, 2018.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images file

Rush Limbaugh, who entertained conservative Americans for more than 30 years on his highly rated syndicated radio show, died of lung cancer Wednesday at age 70. He had been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Donald Trump — his friend and, in many ways, the avatar of his brand of politics, which were especially derogatory of women, Black people and LGBTQ people. And in his rise to vast fame and immense fortune through his unique brand of right-wing insult comedy — he had hundreds of millions of dollars to his name by the time he died — Limbaugh all but invented the conservative convention of "owning the libs," which, of course, really just means "bullying."

If you were a Rush fan, even if your gay or Black or immigrant friends and relatives weren't especially liberal, an affection for Rush's program was a jarring demonstration of divided loyalty to them — a little asterisk next to "I love you" that was often hard for those friends and relatives to ignore.

My grandfather used to say of an especially cheap gun that the only safe place to stand was behind it; that was how Rush attracted people to stand with him, because it meant they were out of the line of fire. His college dropout street cred and constant declarations of his audience's tremendous intelligence were the bait; his elitist hatreds, which he skillfully imbued with the gloss of working-class Christian common sense, were the threat.

Cloaked in traditionalism, he trafficked in the furthest reaches of rumor and conspiracy, often attracting major media companies with his broadcasting acumen — his career was spent perfecting his radio broadcasts, which he could maintain for hours without Howard Stern-style sidekicks or musical guests — and then quickly repelling them by loudly degrading women, minorities and people dying of AIDS, always supposedly only in the name of getting a rise out of humorless scolds. That women who needed reproductive health care and gay people who needed AZT might prefer not to expend their energy on getting angry at Limbaugh's abuses never seemed to occur to him. (Perhaps it encouraged him.)

Limbaugh's brand of bullying has permeated our culture.

Limbaugh had a kind of genius for the unforgivable. In 1990, in the wake of high-profile ACT UP protests, Limbaugh ran a monthlong segment called "AIDS Update," in which he would read the names of people who had died of the disease and play comedy sound effects — as well as lend his enormous platform to baroque urban legends about gay sexual practices.

For the segment, he used as intro music the songs "Back in the Saddle Again" by Gene Autry or "I'll Never Love This Way Again" by Dionne Warwick — an outspoken AIDS activist at a crucial moment, who forced President Ronald Reagan to say the name of the disease for the first time in 1987. More recently, Limbaugh's segments degrading LGBTQ people were "Gay Community Updates," using the music of Klaus Nomi, who died of AIDS in 1983.

All this was hardly by chance. Limbaugh seemed to take special pleasure in denigrating Black modes of speech, often with racist impressions of celebrities like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Magic Johnson. He even commissioned a parody song about former President Barack Obama called "Barack the Magic Negro," which he played regularly on his program.

He also told his overwhelmingly male audience that when it came to rape, "no means yes if you know how to spot it," and he spent days in the late aughts calling women's rights activist Sandra Fluke a "slut" for advocating for access to contraception.

Limbaugh had a kind of genius for the unforgivable.

A few of his slights cost him dearly. In March 1990, while he was guest-hosting "The Pat Sajak Show" on CBS — one way the network auditioned talent — he discovered that the audience wasn't on his side. Several activists in attendance shouted him down until security cleared the studio. "We are going to be wherever you are, and we are going to denounce and expose you!" a man in an ACT UP shirt shouted at him from the audience. "If CBS wants to make money off of you, we'll boycott them, as well!" Limbaugh ended up apologizing and donating $10,000 to pediatric AIDS research — a fitting penance for Limbaugh, who loved to repeat the lie that AIDS affected only gay people.

Limbaugh's brand of bullying has permeated our culture. He popularized bons mots that conservative commentators still use today, like "feminazi"; he may not be patient zero for rumors about the fictional "gerbiling" craze among gay men, but he is probably behind the rumors' proliferation in the 1990s. His excuses were that he was saying what everyone else was supposedly thinking "in the majority," as he put it on Sajak's show, addressing the camera over the boos of the audience — that he was only kidding and that some people can't take a joke or that his words didn't mean anything.

For all his protestations, Limbaugh's words meant a great deal to the people he mentioned insultingly on his show. Since his retirement, lawyers, scientists, journalists and others have recounted how they reliably received death threats after having been singled out by Limbaugh. His conspiracy-addled listenership hung on his every word.

The uncomfortable fact that he was able to sustain a presence in the public eye as a political commentator to be reckoned with — rather than be dismissed as a crank — was a considerable factor in the acceptance of Trump's presidential candidacy, his platform of race hate over policy prescriptions and the subsequent moral and structural disasters of his presidency, all of which we will probably have to reckon with for a generation. The two men shared a rhetorical style, down to the tactic of suggesting an obvious, risible lie and then attributing it to forgotten (but supposedly credible) sources.

"He was a fantastic man, a fantastic talent," Trump said of Limbaugh on Wednesday. "People, whether they loved him or not, they respected him. They really did." This is not nearly the worst of Trump's exhausting lies, but it is one I feel qualified to repudiate: I did not respect Rush Limbaugh. He was not a "critic of Barack Obama" or a "conservative provocateur." He was a demagogue — a Father Coughlin-insult comic hybrid who spent his career deceiving an audience who might otherwise have thought better of or behaved better toward neighbors who happened to prefer romantic partners of the same sex or had darker skin than theirs or spoke a different language before learning English. He poured poison into the ears of millions of white men and women in the privacy of their cars and trucks for a full generation, and we have barely begun to feel his legacy.