Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. Rush Limbaugh, who's bigoted and derogatory radio show became one of the highest-rated talk shows on the US airwaves, died on Wednesday at the age of 70.
Limbaugh regularly targeted Americans of color including the nation's first Black presidential couple with racist diatribes and he also attacked members of the LGBTQ community and was well-known for making deeply sexist commentary toward women.
Most recently, he downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and pushed false claims that Democrats stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump. Limbaugh's politics laid the groundwork for decades of growing radicalism in the Republican Party and the emergence of President Donald Trump and forever changed the influence of talk radio in politics. Matt Gertz is a senior fellow at Media Matters and he joins me now to talk about Limbaugh's legacy. Welcome back to the show, Matt.
Matt Gertz: Good to be here.
Tanzina: What did Rush Limbaugh tap into in the late 1980s, early '90s, as his show was beginning to take off?
Matt: He tapped into a rich vein of white grievance and rage. This was a period of time in which the unraveling of the Fairness Doctrine had made it possible for someone like Rush Limbaugh to be broadcast nationally. He took advantage of that wholeheartedly and he was phenomenally effective in building and cultivating and retaining a huge audience for decades. He did it by feeding that audience a toxic slurry of bigotry of conspiracy theories of unhinged vitriol and they loved it and it helped to make the Republican Party what it is today.
Tanzina: I'm wondering, as he did this, this obviously laid the groundwork, as you said, for the Republican Party today, particularly for President Trump's win I would gather. This is something that I think was for some Americans was a piece of the radio world that they never heard and for other Americans, they were totally tuned in to this so much so that his show became the highest-rated show. How do we connect what happened then to this very outward, racially and racist, radicalized movement that it's become?
Matt: I think there's a very direct and straight line from Rush Limbaugh to Donald Trump and the uniting factors that Republican Party. Republicans, of all stripes, really, appreciated what Rush Limbaugh did for the party. He brought his audience into their tent. They catered to him. They sought his advice. They praised him.
George H. W. Bush, who invited Limbaugh into the White House and campaigned with him, through Trump himself. The party found ways to make excuses for his bigotry. They said he was just joking. They said that he had been taken out of context. Limbaugh became too big to fail within the Republican Party.
Tanzina: Was that because he was bringing in money?
Matt: It's because he was bringing in supporters. The 1994 Republican House Majority, they named him an honorary member of that class of 1994 but you'll recall, was the first time Republicans had held the House in decades. He gave them air cover, that he convinced his audience that the media could not be trusted, and only he could be trusted and because of that, they believed him instead of the press at large. He brought them into the Republican Party wrecks.
Tanzina: We've gone really from the 1980s culture wars if you will, to what I'm calling this moment of information wars. Rush Limbaugh was somebody who did say lots of things that were lies, and conspiracy theories and yet that seems to be where we are today with even more misinformation. Was he one of the people who you think laid the groundwork for the conspiracy theories and the openness to those conspiracy theories that we see today in the political circle?
Matt: Absolutely. If you go back to the 1990s, he was suggesting that Vince Foster the Clinton White House aide who committed suicide in the early '90s had actually been murdered by the Clintons. That sort of conspiracy theory is a through-line of his career, going up to the last few years, where he was describing various right-wing terror attacks as false flags, and claiming that the Coronavirus was a hoax perpetrated by the media against Donald Trump. That conspiratorial thinking is very much a part of Rush Limbaugh's show and it, of course, paved the way for the Republican party at large to adopt that thinking.
Tanzina: Matt, folks often talk a lot about Fox News being the juggernaut that got Trump in office and others but we cannot ignore the influence and power that not just Rush Limbaugh had but also talk radio had on what I'm suggesting is really radicalizing folks, to think and believe a lot of these conspiracy theories. Where does conservative media or radical conservative media stand today now that Rush Limbaugh is no longer with us?
Matt: Well, it's really becoming an increasingly fractured and competitive place. For the last 30 years or so it's been dominated as you say, by Rush Limbaugh, by Fox News headed by Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch. They really laid the groundwork for the modern right-wing media. As they passed from the scene, you're seeing Fox News come under attack from New rivals for not being right-wing enough, not being pro-Trump enough, and that is forcing them to move further to the right to compete for viewers.
You see the increasingly fractured social media landscape, the landscape of more extreme conservative streamers on YouTube and other channels who have broken off and are creating audiences and brands unique to themselves rather to a larger network the same way Limbaugh did 30 years before.
Tanzina: We're going to see where and how this all plays out. Matt Gertz is a senior fellow at Media Matters, Matt, thanks so much.
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