Speaker 1: Rush Limbaugh died today. He was a Titan of right-wing talk radio. Arguably the savior of AM radio in this country. He was among the most influential Americans of his generation. He was the chief agitator for the grievance-fueled politics that reached their apotheosis or nadir in the January 6th siege on the US Capitol. He called himself an entertainer, which is true as far as it goes. He was also an oracle, a kingpin, a demagogue, and a louse. A year ago, just as he revealed his lung cancer diagnosis, Limbaugh was honored in Donald Trump's final State of the Union address.
Trump: He is the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet. Rush Limbaugh, thank you for your decades of tireless devotion to our country. I am proud to announce tonight that you will be receiving our country's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Speaker 1: Yes, to stand alongside Norman Rockwell and Alexander Calder, Carl Sandburg, Maya Angelou and Elie Wiesel, Aaron Copeland and Ella Fitzgerald, Warren Buffet and John Kenneth Galbraith, Newton Minow and Will and Ariel Durant, Felix Frankfurter and Thurgood Marshall, Carol Burnett, Chuck Yeager, Colin Powell, Lek Valencia and Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson and Mother Theresa, Trump awarded this guy.
Limbaugh: She's having so much sex, she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make? Plus. We're the pimps.
Speaker 1: That's Limbaugh talking about Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who wanted insurance coverage for contraceptives. This was, shall we say, the tip of the iceberg, but not even nearly the bottom of the barrel for an AM radio provocateur who traded in hate, conspiracy theories and sometimes, just plain cruelty for decades. But that doesn't mean he's not a historic figure. When we spoke the next day with Matt Gertz of Media Matters, he said that Limbaugh was just receiving a return favor for 30 years of laying the groundwork for the Trump presidency.
Matthew: Limbaugh's entire career is built on stringing together bigotry against women, against people of color, against gay people and lesbians, and basically anyone different from himself, bringing along a wide range of conspiracy theories and smears and right-wing talking points and combining it all together into a toxic slurry that he's been feeding to his audience for 30 years or so.
Bob: He's often defended himself by saying that he's not a journalist for sure, nor even a pundit in the ordinary sense, but an entertainer, and his entertainment is to whip the audience up into a frenzy of ridicule and loathing.
Matthew: At times though, it's also true that he is so powerful a figure in Republican politics that at one point, back in 2009, when Michael Steele, the theoretical head of the Republican party at the time, the RNC chair, suggested that comments that Limbaugh had made were not such a big deal because he was such an entertainer and that's it. He was forced to apologize, basically to grovel before Limbaugh, because Limbaugh was more powerful than he was, because the Republican base followed people like him and not the party's established leaders.
Bob: In addition to being a powerful figure in conservative politics, he is also the most listened to person in radio and maybe the most listened to person in broadcast ever. How big is the audience?
Matthew: It's tens of millions and these are not casual listeners. He builds an extremely loyal audience, such that his audience terms themselves and he terms them ditto heads because of their willingness to follow along with whatever it is he says.
Bob: His shtick mainly is to ridicule and to rage against anyone or anything associated with the political left. Even if that thing is worry over small children who, out of school for the summer, have no access to their free lunches.
Limbaugh: None of these options work. There's always the neighborhood dumpster. Now, you might find a competition with homeless people there, but there are videos that have been produced to show you how to healthfully dine, and how to dumpster dive and survive until school.
Matthew: I've been listening to Limbaugh's show on and off now for 12 years now. Media Matters has been following him since the organization was founded back in 2004. These are the types of comments that I find most distasteful. There is a real jaw dropping cruelty that is embedded in the language he uses, the way he talks about people who are different from himself and from his listeners. He trains his audience not to sympathize with people who are different from themselves.
Bob: This was in February of 2010, reacting to a story about a woman in such financial extremis, that she was forced to wear her dead sister's dentures. She couldn't afford a new set. This was Limbaugh's reaction to that.
Limbaugh: Well, what's wrong with using a dead person's teeth. Aren't the Democrats big into recycling? Save the planet. So what, so if you don't have any teeth, so what's applesauce for? Isn't that why they make applesauce?
Bob: What is the psychology? Even if you think that the liberal do-gooders are just throwing money around to freeloaders. How could you possibly respond to this with anything but horror?
Matthew: I don't know, but the demand out there for content like this is real. As we've been saying, Limbaugh has attracted an audience of tens of millions of people. If they don't all come to this show because they want to hear him say things like that, they are willing to continue on and accept that.
Bob: Also in 2010, is him meditating on the rights that disadvantaged people should have most particularly, people on public assistance.
Limbaugh: This story raises very un-politically correct question. If people cannot even feed and clothe themselves, should they be allowed to vote? Should they be voting? If people who are receiving government assistance, that is taxpayer assistance, they make liars out of you. What [inaudible 00:07:31], Holocaust, ninety million Indians, only 4 million left? They all have casinos. What's to complain about?
Matthew: He simultaneously wants his audience to turn on the elites. The people that are keeping them down, that are keeping them from the place that they feel that they should have in American society. He wants to focus their attention on people whose poverty and deprivations are shocking and appalling, and he wants them to grind those people into the dirt.
Bob: Is there any other way to describe that kind of speech but hate speech?
Matthew: I don't think there is, but Limbaugh himself comes up with his own excuses. He will say that he didn't really say the comment that he said. He will claim that he's been taken out of context by me and my colleagues, or others on the left. He will laugh off the criticism as some media tweak. He was doing it deliberately, just to provoke a response, and now you can see how the media is out to get people like him. This is all very familiar, I hope.
Bob: One might hasten to say, a template, a template for the president of the United States.
Matthew: I think that's right. Limbaugh's career shows that you can rely on this bigotry and conspiracy theories. You can trumpet it out to the world and that will win you a massive audience of devoted fans who will make you rich, and hang on your every word, and help turn you into a powerful force. It demonstrates that once you achieve that certain level of power in conservative politics, you are immune to any backlash. Once it became clear that that was a pathway to power, it was only a matter of time before a political entrepreneur would test that same mix of bigotry and conspiracy theories in a national political context and it worked.
Bob: If Limbaugh, did in fact, fashion a template that Trump has embraced to consolidate power in the Republican party, how did he go about doing it? What were the incremental steps?
Matthew: Well, the first step is building that audience. It's putting your voice out into the world and discovering that there are lots and lots of people who want to hear it. Once that happens, the power just builds on itself, but he's been a phenomenally powerful actor for more than 30 years.
During the 1992 election, president George HW Bush, who is a staid patrician, he's known for his thank you notes that he sends to people handwritten. He apparently was able to look past all of the controversy that swirled around Rush Limbaugh. He invited him to the White House. Limbaugh stayed overnight in the white house and then went on the campaign trail with President Bush. He introduced him at one of his last rallies of the 1992 presidential campaign.
At once, he became one of the most powerful voices of opposition in the country. By the time the 1994 election was done and Republicans had taken back the house, he had cemented his power. At a ceremony after that election, the members of the incoming Republican class of 1994 had a ceremony where they named Limbaugh an honorary member of their congressional class.
Bob: '94 being the date of the Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution, which also followed the same politics of resentment.
Matthew: That's right. It was the first Republican takeover of the House in decades and achieved, for no small reason, because of Limbaugh, and of the baby Limbaugh's that he spawned across the country. Other people who were inspired by his efforts to start their own radio shows and build their own platforms with a similar mix of vitriol and hate.
Bob: Mark Levin, for example.
Matthew: Sean Hannity, speaks the world of Limbaugh and credits him in part for his success.
Bob: Then of course, there's the biggest little Limbaugh of all, Fox News. Roger Ailes, in creating this juggernaut of a right-wing propaganda himself, used as a template the cult that Rush Limbaugh had coalesced.
Matthew: Yes. In fact, Roger Ailes produced the short-lived television show that Rush Limbaugh attempted in the early '90s. When he founded Fox Bews, a few years later, that template was set.
Bob: If we've learned nothing, load these past three or four years, it is, as the Saturday Night Live sketch had it, nothing matters and that there is no bottom, but if we we're talking about a trajectory, if we're talking about an inevitability, can you even imagine what follows?
Matthew: I can't. It's hard to imagine that the Republican party will turn away at this point. As we speak, the Senate is preparing to acquit President Trump of a host of serious charges of abuse of power. The reason for that is quite similar to the Limbaugh case, I think. You can see the permission structure that gets assembled to protect someone who is powerful, and vicious, and bigoted the way Limbaugh is. You can see that same permission structure come together for President Trump. Once that happens, it's very hard to turn back.
Bob: Thank you Matt.
Matthew: Thank you.
Bob: Matthew Gertz is a senior fellow with Media Matters, a progressive organization dedicated to documenting and uncovering lies and propaganda in right-wing media. Rush Limbaugh died Wednesday at the age of 70. That's it for this week's podcast extra. Tune into the big show this weekend, when we will dive deep into the de-radicalization of right-wing extremists. Meantime, if you do nothing else today, subscribe to our newsletter, which is better than ice cream or sunsets. Find it at onthemedia.org/newsletter. See you this weekend. I'm Bob Garfield.
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