Radio giant Rush Limbaugh’s death on February 17th after a battle with lung cancer has occasioned a moment of bittersweet reflection for free speech advocates and for those who share Limbaugh’s reverence for the values embedded in the American creed. Limbaugh’s wildly successful run touched off the ascendance of post-Reagan conservative political power, but its end comes within weeks of events that have left conservatives thunderstruck by their powerlessness over the flow and content of political information. This tumultuous arc of conservative free speech tracks closely with Limbaugh’s career, and deserves close scrutiny.
The broad outlines of Limbaugh’s talk radio career are well known. It began in earnest in 1988 when Limbaugh signed with EFM Media Management, which syndicated him nationally from his first flagship station, WABC in New York. By 1994, Limbaugh was reaching 20 million listeners over more than 600 stations. While Limbaugh dominated talk radio throughout his career (only Howard Stern made more money) there were lulls in his popularity (usually when Republicans were in power) and peaks (coinciding with Democrats in power). The right credits Limbaugh with playing a leading—even a decisive—role in the 1994 Republican capture of the House of Representatives, the Bush era’s “War on Terror,” a series of Republican income tax cuts, the Tea Party opposition to Obamacare, and, perhaps after some hesitation, the Republican transition to Trumpist populism.
For the left, Limbaugh played a central role in what they see as the anti-intellectualism and general “dumbing-down” of the conservative movement. If John K. Wilson, the author of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Rush Limbaugh’s Assault on Reason (2011) is any indication, the left believes that, “Limbaugh was a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, and an anti-intellectual force who transformed the media, the conservative movement, the Republican Party, and ultimately America.”
But anyone who listened to Limbaugh with any regularity knew him as an exceedingly empathetic figure. He mostly soft-pedaled social issues and race, stressing economic and foreign policy, and, according to Jesse Walker of Reason, showed signs of being a “closet tolerant.”
Like most comedians—and he was first an entertainer—Limbaugh nosed up to the line, and occasionally crossed over, saying (or, more likely, singing) things that were insensitive or tasteless, a virtually unavoidable occurrence over thirty-three years and an estimated 20,000 hours of air-time.
Sometimes Limbaugh apologized for mistakes, as after he ran a spoof on the AIDS crisis in 1990 called “AIDS Update.” Limbaugh killed the segment after two weeks, he said, “because it ended up making fun of people who were dying long, painful and excruciating deaths, when they were not the target.” Even such a denizen of the outrage mob as Al Sharpton could see that the racist moniker didn’t quite fit, telling the New York Times Magazine, “Limbaugh puts things in a way that he can’t be blamed for easy bigotry. Some of the songs he does about me just make me laugh.”
Limbaugh challenged politically correct orthodoxies in ways that highlighted liberal hypocrisy. He caught hell for a week or two after he introduced a 2008 musical parody entitled “Barack the Magic Negro.” But Limbaugh soon explained that he got the idea from a (half) black writer who published a 2007 op-ed titled “Obama the Magic Negro” in the Los Angeles Times, which gushed over Obama’s redemptive qualities.
Much of the left’s outrage at Limbaugh stemmed from his knack for hovering directly over the target, playing the left’s descent into caricature for laughs. He would call the opposition “commies,” “wackos,” and “feminazis” in order to trigger the left’s famous hypersensitivity. One could almost hear the gnashing of teeth over the air waves when he called the National Organization for Women, “NAG,” for the “National Association for Gals,” or when he referred to female newspaper reporters as “reporterettes” and television broadcasters as “info-babes.”
Throughout his career, Limbaugh personified free speech, resisting the politically correct straightjacket into which the left was stuffing America. And he was dependable. At every crisis point, one could sink into the car seat, turn on the radio, and listen to Limbaugh’s sunny optimism radiate through the speakers, his fervent brand of American exceptionalism inviting conservatives to feel part of a community of the like-minded.
But here lies the irony of Limbaugh’s career that admirers have always to keep in mind: his individual success was a direct consequence of media homelessness among conservatives, which created a critical mass of listeners who felt shut out of America’s most powerful venues. Limbaugh was powerful, in other words, because conservatives otherwise were not.
By the time Limbaugh came on the scene in the late 1980s, conservative voices in print and television media were effectively squelched. This left Limbaugh virtually by himself to exploit an enormous, pent-up demand for conservative viewpoints. As Tom Nicholls explained in his book The Death of Expertise (2017), Limbaugh built a loyal national base by telling listeners what many already felt: that the press and the national television networks effectively operated in a liberal “echo chamber.”
Many on the left believe Rush’s success is attributable solely to a ruinous deregulation campaign under Reagan, whose FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, removing the requirement to present more than one viewpoint on political topics, and opening the AM airspace to a “demagogue” like Limbaugh. But in reality, the right succeeded in dominating talk radio primarily because liberals dominated everything else.
Limbaugh’s unique talent, however, cannot be overlooked. He not only blazed a trail for conservative talk radio but encouraged conservative television news and book publishing as well. Limbaugh’s syndicated late-night television show from 1992-1996 convinced Roger Ailes, his TV producer, to start Fox News. Limbaugh’s 1992 runaway best-seller The Way Things Ought to Be convinced major publishing houses to start conservative imprints (e.g., Crown, Sentinel, and Threshold). Harry Stein of City Journal described the optimism in 2008: “One by one, the media bastions were falling: first talk radio, thanks largely to Rush Limbaugh; then TV, with FOX’s dominance of cable . . . Now mainstream publishers had at last realized . . . that there were millions of conservative readers out there.”
While conservative publishing has foundered somewhat, right-wing radio is still influential, as is Fox News and the conservative blogosphere. But from the standpoint of 2021, it is hard to look back on this early 2000s optimism with anything other than deep despair. The 2020 elections made stunningly clear that monopolistic social media companies now sway political outcomes, and that conservatives are heavily censored on these platforms.
Thus, conservatives and free speech advocates, including Limbaugh himself, were mostly helpless as an American president and many of his most widely followed supporters were suspended from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube in 2020—actions that were criticized by even reliably anti-Trump foreign leaders like Emmanuel Macron of France and Angela Merkel of Germany. In its most brazen act of autocratic speech control, damaging and verified information about presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son was squashed by Twitter and Facebook, which froze the accounts of media outlets that reported on it.
The irony is that, in some ways, the brand of conservatism Limbaugh espoused, which did so much to promote free speech at the time, has also played a role in its present state of decline. Limbaugh-style conservatism enshrined the inviolability of private enterprise and a deep suspicion of federal power in the body politic, giving little thought to the problems of market monopolization. In the mid-2000s, when Limbaugh called himself a “defender of corporate America,” and identified a 17 percent flat tax, privatizing social security, and drilling in Alaska as his primary concerns, he may have been advancing principals of liberty and prosperity, but he also revealed a serious blind spot in conservative discourse: the failure to notice the convergence of forces—the consolidation of major industries, especially in information technology, and the evolution of civil rights laws effectively into weapons of blackmail against large organizations—that would cultivate the transfer of censorship power to large, privately run institutions.
Limbaugh heroically inveighed against the abuses of the Fairness Doctrine. But the argument that privately owned businesses have no First Amendment obligations that he and others used to defeat the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 are similar to the ones being used to defend section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which provides tech monopolies protection from “civil liability based on third-party content,” even as they use their platforms to silence elected Republican presidents and right-leaning dissent.
Limbaugh-driven post-Reagan conservatism did not see the possibility of “woke” capital, and it was beyond Limbaugh’s (or Reagan’s, for that matter) wildest dreams that, given the right circumstances, corporate power could be used to stifle free speech, and used, moreover, against them.
Perhaps a talented successor to Limbaugh will point out that, with the left now dominant in our economic, cultural, and educational institutions, government is the only power center in which conservatives have any real voice at all. In a post-Limbaugh world, a doctrinaire refusal to see that government might play a positive role in ensuring the free circulation of ideas may no longer be the right hand to play, and federal anti-trust enforcement against tech monopolies might be a legitimate use of state power. Limbaugh was no libertarian, and he likely would have figured this out over time, as he would say with “half my brain tied behind my back, just to keep it fair.”