Rush Limbaugh, who deployed comic bombast and relentless bashing of liberals, feminists and environmentalists to become the nation’s most popular radio talk-show host and lead the Republican Party into a politics of anger and obstruction, died Wednesday at 70.
The cause was complications from lung cancer, his wife, Kathryn Limbaugh, said at the start of his Wednesday radio show.
In February 2020, Limbaugh, a cigar aficionado who long defended tobacco use, told his audience that he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. One night later, President Donald Trump broke with tradition and bestowed on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, during the State of the Union address.
“He is the greatest fighter that you will ever meet,” Trump said.
For more than two decades, starting in the late 1980s, Limbaugh dominated the airwaves, inspiring a generation of conservative talk show hosts and politicians. He parlayed his popularity on the radio into stints as a TV commentator, football analyst on ESPN and best-selling author of incendiary political books.
He saw himself as a teacher, polemicist, media critic and GOP strategist, but above all as an entertainer and salesman. Limbaugh mocked Democrats and liberals, touted a traditional Midwestern, moralistic patriotism and presented himself on the air as a biting but jovial know-it-all who pontificated “with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair,” as he often said.
Especially during the Democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Limbaugh played a leading role in demonizing liberals and pushing conservative elected officials to hard lines on issues such as immigration, government spending and denial of climate change.
During Republican presidencies, Limbaugh became a leading defender of the faith, even when that meant veering away from long-standing principles. A lifelong deficit hawk who supported Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Limbaugh often criticized businessman Donald Trump, saying, “Trump is not a conservative.”
But in the general election, Limbaugh embraced Trump. The radio host and the new president became dinner and golf friends, and Limbaugh emerged as a staunch supporter of Trump’s battles against the news media and the Republican establishment. He railed against Trump’s impeachments in 2019 and 2021 and allied himself with Trump during the coronavirus pandemic, insisting that the disease was no worse than the common cold.
After Trump lost the 2020 election, Limbaugh echoed the president’s baseless allegations of voting fraud and suggested that pro-Trump states consider seceding from the union.
Trump, Limbaugh said on his show this month, “represents an uprising of the people of this country against Washington, against the establishment, and it had been building for a long time . . . since Perot in 1992. . . . Trump was just the first guy to come along and actually weaponize it.”
Like Trump, Limbaugh mastered the art of portraying himself as a man of the people who fought the elites even as he relished a luxe life in which he collected $5,000 bottles of wine, owned a $54 million private jet, outfitted the vast salon of his Florida manse in the manner of Versailles, and socialized with top corporate and political leaders. Limbaugh often praised Trump for succeeding despite never having won over the kind of people who ran large media organizations, Wall Street firms and political parties.
And like Trump, Limbaugh craved the respect of those he criticized most vociferously. His commentaries about Trump became notably more favorable as he became a frequent golf partner with the president, just as his on-air attitude toward President George W. Bush became more supportive after the chief executive invited the radio host to dinner, a show and an overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom.
For decades, Limbaugh had been a powerful voice in Republican politics. In 1994, he reached beyond his radio show and lectures in large arenas to join Republican candidates at fundraisers – helping the party regain the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives with its signature Contract With America, a populist agenda that would define GOP aims for many years to come. Limbaugh dubbed himself “the most dangerous man in America.”
“His effect as an enforcer, keeping Republican politicians in line, was greater than that of a president or the party’s national organization,” said Zev Chafets, author of the biography “Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One” (2010), in a 2017 interview with The Washington Post.
Or, as Limbaugh once put it, “Things only take off when I mention them.”
At the peak of his popularity, restaurants across the nation re-christened their empty overflow space “Rush Rooms” and piped in the show, filling seats at lunchtime with fans who called one another “Dittoheads” because they agreed with every pearl of Limbaughian wisdom.
“He was the Elvis of broadcast radio,” Chafets said. “He knew politics very well and he was extremely successful as a businessman, but the thing he’ll be remembered for is he was a genius at broadcasting, at performing on the radio.”
Although critics of the show spent decades decrying it as offensive, even cruel, his fans defended Limbaugh’s insults as more funny than slashing. He won attention from far beyond his radio audience with barbs aimed at gays; Blacks; liberals; feminists, whom he sometimes called “feminazis”; and environmentalists, whom he derided as “tree-huggers.”
He was the first national radio host to focus almost exclusively on politics while entertaining his mostly White and male audience with song parodies, wacky imitations (his Bill Clinton was uncanny), and phony commercials, such as one for “Feminazi Trading Cards” – all antics he had practiced for years as a Top 40 radio DJ.
He won gleeful “dittos” from listeners who believed that American culture had become too politically correct. He spawned a mini-industry of anti-Limbaugh books and radio hosts who pronounced themselves appalled by his comedy bits, such as an “AIDS Update” that presented nasty nuggets about gays to the strains of Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” For a time, he dispatched hostile callers on his show with “caller abortions,” in which he played the sound of a vacuum pump before hanging up on the listener.
Although his Democratic critics derided Limbaugh listeners as uneducated and easily led, a study by the Pew Research Center found that Dittoheads were on average better informed than listeners of NPR and were more likely than public radio or C-SPAN audiences to have a college degree.
His first book, “The Way Things Ought to Be” (1992), sat atop The New York Times bestseller list for six months; it spelled out his political philosophy, a blend of nostalgic yearnings for a more united and homogeneous America and energetic embrace of individual rights. “I believe in the individual, in less government,” he wrote, “that God placed man in a position of having dominion over nature . . . [and] that racial relations will not be enhanced or prejudice eliminated by governmental edict.”
He worked for a time as a football commentator on ESPN but lost that gig in 2003 after saying on “Sunday NFL Countdown” that Donovan McNabb, a Black quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, got more credit than he deserved because “the media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback can do well.”
Limbaugh’s fame and influence survived his hearing loss in 2001 (he suffered from an autoimmune disease but was able to restore some hearing through cochlear implants), his admission in 2003 that he was addicted to prescription painkillers, and an arrest in 2006 for doctor-shopping in his quest for more oxycodone pills. The charges were dropped when he agreed to go into rehab. His addiction resulted from “immaturity and my childhood desire for acceptance,” he said after taking six weeks off for treatment.
His career began to wane as the populist nationalism that Trump espoused shouldered out more-traditional Reagan conservatism and as podcasts and satellite radio eroded broadcast radio’s hold on Americans’ attention.
By the time Trump took office as president in 2017, the talk host who called himself “America’s Anchorman” had been nudged off center stage. In the end, he was overshadowed by Fox News Channel and more-extreme right-wing outlets such as Breitbart News and Infowars, which owed their existence to Limbaugh’s pioneering of conservative talk as an alternative to the “drive-by media” – his derisive term for what he saw as a scandal-hungry, liberal-dominated national press corps.
Limbaugh’s influence could be heard in Trump’s denunciations of “fake news.” Decades before Trump entered politics, Limbaugh gave the news media prominent billing in his catalogue of villains, casting doubt on verified accounts.
Even as his audience declined, Limbaugh made about $40 million a year for spending three hours a day broadcasting from a studio near his Palm Beach estate, reaching more than 13 million weekly listeners on about 600 stations – down from a peak audience of more than 20 million listeners in the 1990s. A month before announcing his cancer diagnosis, Limbaugh had signed a four-year extension of his radio show.
He lost some advertisers after an incident in 2012 in which he called a Georgetown University law school student, Sandra Fluke, a “slut” because she had testified in Congress on behalf of mandating coverage for contraception in health insurance policies. A boycott launched by his liberal critics to protest Limbaugh’s comments about women and minorities resulted in the loss of several prominent sponsors.