When President Donald Trump bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on ailing right-wing, talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh at the State of the Union, it wasn’t just a feel-good moment for his conservative base. It was also a gesture of thanks to a (fellow) media personality who helped set the stage for Trump’s astonishing political success. Limbaugh’s brash and boorish persona, and his belief that white, male cultural centrality is, to quote the title of Limbaugh's first book, “the way things ought to be," paved the way for the political rise of the bombastic media performer currently sitting in the Oval Office.
Limbaugh’s entire career can be seen as an extended prelude to Trump’s climb to the pinnacle of power.
In fact, Limbaugh’s entire career can be seen as an extended prelude to Trump’s climb to the pinnacle of power. Limbaugh was initially skeptical of Trump’s candidacy in 2015. But when he saw the electricity and excitement of Trump’s rallies, Limbaugh quickly climbed on board. No wonder: The radio personality saw something very familiar in the way Trump connected with supporters. In 2016, then-presumptive Republican nominee Trump vociferously attacked Hillary Clinton, earning a knowing wink from Limbaugh. “Trump can say this as an outsider,” the radio host said. “He can say this stuff as a nonmember of the elite or the establishment.”
Any critical Limbaugh listener could hear the gushing self-congratulation of the compliment. Limbaugh has long positioned himself as an outsider — a cleverly constructed persona the college drop-out from Cape Girardeau, Missouri parlayed into a long and amazingly lucrative career in conservative talk radio. Limbaugh’s unparalleled popularity owes a great deal to his willingness to say things — especially misogynist, racist and homophobic things — that more respectable Republicans would never utter in public. Especially those who have to face voters. And for more than 30 years, his legions of fans have loved him for it. In this sense, Limbaugh’s affection for Trump was about more than his recognition of a kindred spirit; it was actually a manifestation of his narcissism.
Consider the many similarities between the two men. They’re both aging heterosexuals of German-American descent born five years apart. They both grew up as the sons of authoritarian, deeply patriarchal and professionally successful fathers. They both have reaped rich rewards in life despite — or is it because of? — levels of narcissistic toxicity that are notable even in the puffed-up precincts of real estate and conservative media. They are both frequent supporters of aggressive military action, including torture, but each deftly avoided military service during the Vietnam War era: Trump avoided serving through a series of deferments common to members of his social class, Limbaugh through a draft eligibility reclassification stemming either from an anal cyst or an old knee injury.
They are also both members of the one percent who inhabit worlds of almost unimaginable wealth and privilege, living in luxury dwellings in New York City and mansions in south Florida and flying around the world on private jets. They both love to golf. They both repeatedly make misogynistic comments and refuse to apologize for them. They both have had multiple wives. And they are both fake populists who have used aggressive rhetoric and bullying to claw their way to cultural and political influence.
They are both fake populists who have used aggressive rhetoric and bullying to claw their way to cultural and political influence.
But Trump’s climb was made easier, arguably, by the path already blazed by the pioneering Limbaugh. For almost three decades, Limbaugh fashioned himself a champion of the people, a man with the guts to defend average (white) folks from an ongoing assault waged by liberal politicians and cultural elites. Many progressives see Limbaugh as a pompous and bigoted blowhard, but Limbaugh is revered on the right as a protector of the little white guy (and gal) who have been persecuted for a generation by multiculturalism, feminism, the LGBTQ movement and myriad other cultural transformations. Where progressives see a bloated bully who routinely targets individuals and groups with less power, his fans see a man armed only with a very large microphone and the confidence and courage to shovel sand against the rising tides of social change.
Perhaps the most concise way to explain these radically different perceptions is that while the left sees many of Limbaugh’s pronouncements as offensive, the right sees them as defensive. And because he’s defending them, they’re willing to overlook or excuse his more intemperate outbursts. It’s quite similar to how millions of Trump supporters see the reality TV star.
Like Limbaugh, Trump is a man of privilege whose class sympathies lie with the rich, but who nonetheless has been able to market himself as a supporter of average (white) Americans. A crucial part of Trump’s appeal to downwardly mobile white men is his image as the “blue-collar billionaire” who will do what it takes to bring back good jobs for the working class. He has managed to maintain this illusion despite the reality that, as Matt Taibbi wrote in 2015,“Trump had spent his entire career lending his name to luxury properties that promised exclusivity and separation from exactly the sort of struggling Joes who turned out for his speeches." And despite Trump's enthusiasm for the failed belief that cutting taxes on the wealthy creates jobs for the working class.
But in Trumpworld, you’re a “populist” not because you advocate for economic policies that actually benefit working people, but because you’re dismissive of “politically correct” elites. Trump learned during his campaign what Rush Limbaugh has known for decades: On the right, the way to build an audience — or a voter base — is to convince people you’re willing to fight back against the forces that are holding “real” Americans down. For Limbaugh, those forces are, generally speaking, the enemy within: snobby “libs,” the “drive-by media,” “feminazis” or “environmentalist wackos” and Black Lives Matter activists. The objects of Trump’s rhetorical aggression are more likely to be “outsiders,” although outsiders in Trumpworld can be close to home (see: immigrants).
What Trump's and Limbaugh's rhetorical appeals have in common is the way they identify and target specific enemies that (allegedly) are making it harder for blue collar Americans to prosper. It’s much easier to direct people’s anger downward (or sideways) than it is to describe and try to address systemic problems like the impersonal forces of global capitalism. It’s much easier to bash Democrats or Mexicans than it is to critique decades of conservative economic and social policy — promulgated by class peers and ideological fellow-travelers of the real estate mogul and radio star — that have gutted the middle class and dramatically exacerbated income inequality.
Convince enough people that you’re truly on their side, and you can end up president — or with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.