The far-reaching and toxic effects of the late Rush Limbaugh on Conservative America and the Republican Party are known and well documented. Still, there is one aspect of its legacy, particularly its cultural dominance in the 1990s, that is difficult to convey in the post-internet era: Limbaugh's central role in the rise of conservative talk radio and the central role conservative radio played in encouraging the modern conservatives played populism.
Throughout the Clinton era, Limbaugh's daily radio program The Rush Limbaugh Show has been synonymous with conservative political media and part of a larger burgeoning conservative radio ecosystem for many years. The show, which aired three hours each afternoon across America, began syndicating nationally in 1988 – the same year, by the way, that the famous evangelistic minister Billy Graham delivered the blessing on both the Republican and Democratic national conventions . If you can't imagine that today, it is in large part due to the political polarization that Limbaugh himself helped create. In fact, Graham's trademark of evangelical Christianity spread over many of the same waves of air that Limbaugh's trademark of toxic conservative bigotry exuded.
Rush Limbaugh didn't come out of a vacuum. He was part of a Christian radio ecosystem in which his message could thrive.
The most important detail that is often lost when discussing Rush Limbaugh and its influence is that Limbaugh did not come out of nowhere. By the time he became known, he was part of a conservative radio ecosystem that prepared its listeners for the exact kind of content that it was serving. Christian evangelism became a major media force, particularly in the late 1980s and early 90s. The popularity of televangelists and mega-churches during this period fueled the idea of modern Christians as identifiable audiences that could be addressed as a group, paving the way for the Christian radio phenomenon.
Imagine the typical radio diet for the average conservative Christian in the 1990s: A typical Central American Protestant would likely have his dial tuned to a radio station that was either owned or worked with one of the many Christian radio stations that have gained a foothold over the decade – like Salem Media, which was founded in 1986 and is now one of the largest Radio networks in the USA. Or the American Family Radio network, which was founded in 1991 and has quickly grown to include more than 200 radio stations across the country. As part of the American Family Association, the network often broadcast anti-gay propaganda and helped promote the concept of the "homosexual agenda".
That same listener might, on any given day, receive one of Dr. Listen to James Dobson on his “Focus on the Family” network, which broadcasts daily guides on Christian life and strongly promotes life, creationism and anti-gay politics. (Network founder Dobson was also head of the bigoted family research council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has since classified as an extremist anti-LGBTQ group.)
In its heyday, Dobson's flagship Focus on the Family spots were broadcast daily on 7,000 radio stations worldwide to 220 million people. These short sections have often been combined with Focus on the Family & # 39; s Adventures in Odyssey, the network's Christian children's radio that began in 1987 and became a major part of the Christian fantasy boom of the era. The Christian fantasy boom itself was sustained by the satanic panic and ubiquitous evangelical theme of the time when not only angels and demons were real, but Christianity itself was a process of daily “spiritual warfare” that often involved the “spiritual armor of "God was created" and figuratively fighting with external forces.
This was a theme that was underpinned by many of the songs played on contemporary Christian radio stations in the late 80s and 90s, which were simultaneously seeing a massive surge in popularity. Contemporary Christian music artists or "CCM" artists such as Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay and DC Talk have often received airplay on contemporary mainstream radio in addition to secular music.
As a genre, CCM often combined all of these elements – evangelism, the adrenaline pumping mentality of "spiritual warfare" and the politicization of contemporary Christianity – into one irresistible package. Take, for example, the greatest successes of CCM artist Carman, who peaked in the 1990s with a popular tour that doubled as a music concert and evangelical revival conference. His best-known hit, "The Champion," contained an extravagant music video that showed Jesus and Satan in a boxing match that saw Jesus emerge victorious. (Carman died this week at the age of 65.)
In this ubiquitous atmosphere of inflated, aggressively combative evangelism and openly polarizing political messages, Rush Limbaugh gained popularity. His show was just another piece of the fast-blending image of America's new conservative – one in which Limbaugh's lack of Christian empathy somehow became a feature, not a flaw, of the modern conservative movement.
Limbaugh's radio show encouraged a new era of conservative populism
While each of these radio stations were supposedly Christian-orientated from the start, they played an important role in bringing conservative talk radio to the forefront of American cultural conversation. All of them increasingly added the format to their lineups, which were distributed among their other programs. They broadcast conservative talk radio shows among other content, advertised conservative talk radio stations on their sibling CCM radio stations, and sometimes completely converted Christian radio stations with mixed content to political talk radio. (That fate happened several times over the decades on my own hometown radio station as it switched back and forth between CCM and talk radio.) Salem Media then expanded to dozens of conservative talk stations, and Dobson eventually left Focus on the Family to launch its even more open political radio station, Family Talk, which focuses on talk radio.
All of these networks promoted the party-political discussions of the talk radio alongside their Christian “family-oriented” news and fused the Christian idea of waging war with spiritual “outsiders” with a conservative political theme that still dominates today: painting left-of-center as democratic politics immoral.
This framework was often explicit. When 1990s evangelicals urged their fellow Christians to engage in spiritual warfare, they often meant that they should all work against democrats and democratic politics. For example, in the Christian fantasy bestseller of the time, Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness series, a variety of left-wing concepts and strategies, from globalization to the welfare system, were presented as part of an overarching satanic influence. The books depicted demons as physically attached to left-wing political enemies of the church, while New Age occult conspirators controlled democratic politicians. (Sounds familiar?)
In other words, Clinton-era Democrats weren't just the political enemies of Christian Conservatives. You were the enemy.
When Rush Limbaugh went on the air – with his boastful mockery of his political antagonisms, and the confident assertion of his own righteous authority over any subject submitted to him – Conservative Americans reacted much like him for three hours a day, five days a week they would respond to Donald Trump decades later: They praised him as a much-needed, truthful slide for godless liberals.
A built-in assumption of Limbaugh's justice allowed him to go unchallenged for years when it came to expressing bigotry, including outright racism and homophobia. He constantly asserted the moral void of the Democrats while formulating his own arguments in populist appeals that played for laughter so they could more easily be overlooked as jokes. As with Trump, it didn't matter that he himself wasn't particularly moral or spiritual or good – what mattered to his audience was that he put the seemingly immoral and unholy before a lens of public scrutiny and collective ridicule.
For a case study of this approach in action, please contact Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the country's first female surgeon general, with Bill Clinton's Cabinet Commissioner. At the time the elders were appointed, the Americans really weren't upset with them, and the Republican senators had no real reason to block their nomination. But then Limbaugh viciously and relentlessly attacked the elders in the 1990s and beyond, calling them the "condom queen" and mocking their stance on abortion rights and sex education with a heavy racist accent. Limbaugh's radio show arguably played a major role in sparking negative public opinion against Elders until Clinton finally fired her in 1994. "Goodbye to the condom queen," was a Newsweek headline at the time.
I couldn't find any generally available audio from the time Limbaugh was mocking Elders, but I remember it vividly: as a teenager listening to Limbaugh with family members for years, I remember his gross mockery of them – like their perfectly reasonable suggestion "I want every child born in America to be a planned and wanted child." In Limbaugh's racist, exaggerated accent, this became a catchphrase he kept repeating – "ever a planned and wanted child" – until Elders became one of his favorite examples of liberal madness.
Limbaugh's audience tolerated his bigotry not because it was hideous – I remember so well how much it bothered me at the time – but because they viewed liberalism as worse. Aspects of his "comedy" that appear terrible to modern listeners were often considered acceptable, as he described the liberal lifestyle as so immoral that it was ridiculous to show empathy for it. This includes his now infamous "AIDS Updates," a recurring segment in which he mocked dying gay AIDS patients. Limbaugh eventually expressed regret for the segment, finishing it by 1990 – but by then the damage was fixed, and his pattern of greeting liberal excesses with savage ridicule was both well established and welcomed by his fans.
Well-known conservative columnist Joseph Sobran wrote in 1994 that there was no liberal equivalent of Limbaugh because "normalism's shrill derision of the normal is essentially humorless":
The key to Limbaugh's humor is his strong sense of the normal. Humor could almost be defined as the revenge of the normal on the official. Liberalism, which has been official for many years, has tried to ban many traditional sources of humor nicknamed "bigoted" and (heaven helps us) "homophobic".
Sobran's mockery shows how typical Limbaugh's humor was for the audience at the time. And Limbaugh's "normal", casually bigoted view of the world coincided with conservative Christianity's view of the principles of liberal democracy as sinful. The fact that these worldviews were advertised side by side by the same radio stations on the same radio stations made it increasingly difficult to separate them.
While Limbaugh was seldom punished for his bigotry because of the conservative sentiment that liberalism was worse, many of his listeners were encouraged and encouraged. His followers called themselves "Dittoheads" to emphasize that Limbaugh's view of America was one that any sane listener would agree with – and that view inevitably included Limbaugh's prejudices. As the Orlando Sentinel noted in 1993, with unintentionally chilling foresight, "some laugh at Limbaugh's extreme remarks – for example, his" Femi-Nazi "tirades – while others take him very, very seriously."
Again, there are clear parallels between support for Limbaugh and the justifications many Trump voters have found for their support for Trump in 2016, despite his outspoken and persistent racism and bigotry. Trump attracted voters with high levels of racist resentment, although other proponents and much of the media tried to classify the main concerns of Trump voters as predominantly economic.
Like Trump, Limbaugh managed to elicit extreme levels of patriotic, populist zeal from his audience. As a teenager growing up in a conservative Christian household, politics felt like a fun national sport that my team won as my family adjusted to Limbaugh and its daily torrent of avid callers across the country. And I was prepared to see the stakes in terms of winning and losing because in contemporary Christian culture I had to see everything related to epic spiritual warfare, battles won and lost for the "good" team.
When Newt Gingrich unveiled his "Treaty with America" in 1994, a litany of proposed GOP initiatives for the upcoming midterm elections, Limbaugh talked about it on his show – by then the most popular radio show in the country, with an audience of between 14 and 20 million weekly . Though experts have since downplayed its political significance, the “treaty” felt like a great historical movement to me at the time: an actual, concrete victory campaign with Limbaugh leading the cavalry. When the 1994 treaty helped deliver the House to the Republicans for the first time in four decades, the new members of Republican Congress thanked Limbaugh for helping them win.
"Talk Radio, with you at the helm, turned the tide, Rush, and we know it," Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-WY) told Limbaugh at the time. "You were the voice that everyone else could follow."
Speaking to Fox News' The Story after Limbaugh's death on Wednesday, Gingrich said, "Without Rush, I doubt we would have taken control of the house in 1994 … its impact was over 20 million listeners a week it was all the people they would talk to. I suspect the ripple effect from Rush was 80 to 90 million people every week because people went out and said, "Did you hear what Rush said today?"
Gingrich's assessment is correct: The Limbaugh Show had a watercooler effect – at least in my own family, where, alongside the news, we ourselves discussed what Rush was saying and pondered the topics of the day. Before the social media bubbles, Limbaugh's fandom was a bubble in its own right. And the sense of collectivity and community it evoked allowed a certain type of untested, improper, self-cultivated conservative talk radio to flourish, paving the way for today's polarized and highly partisan landscape of politicized commentary, everything from Joe Rogan to Infowars includes.
In the 25 years since Limbaugh's peak, the massive surge in conservative talk radio that followed has helped further divide an already divided country. While Fox News and its ties to Donald Trump have been in the spotlight much more often lately, the impact of conservative radio on America's political discourse cannot be dismissed. Long before the 2016 election, the format played a big role in shifting the views of once centrist Republicans – a shift I witnessed in my own family – to the far right.
Many of us haven't heard Rush Limbaugh in decades, but we all still feel its influence on a daily basis, whether we like it or not.