Rush Limbaugh’s legacy of ashes

Want to see what Rush built? Look around.
Want to see what Rush built? Look around. Public domain, White House photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

Before Rush Limbaugh's body was cold, Republican officials and thought leaders tripped over themselves to eulogize "an icon, patriot, and [an] American hero" and "a giant of the conservative movement."

One after another, they lamented his passing last Wednesday like he was John Stuart Mill rather than a college dropout who got rich convincing mediocre white men that "commie-libs" and "feminazis" and affirmative action were holding them down. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to order his state's flags flown at half-staff to honor Limbaugh — "an absolute legend" and "friend of mine" — in defiance of the state's flag protocol. Donald Trump emerged from his Mar-a-Lago humiliation hole, making the right-wing cable rounds to praise the race-baiting, misogynistic radio provocateur — whom he'd ostentatiously awarded a Presidential Medal of Honor during the 2020 State of the Union address — and renew his complaints about the "stolen" election.

These tributes acknowledged a simple reality: His influence might have waned over the last few years, but no one in a generation had shaped the Republican Party like Rush.

There was a similar acknowledgment outside the Fox News Cinematic Universe. You could hardly open a browser without hitting a barrage of think pieces about Limbaugh's legacy: How he invented Trump. How he taught Republicans to love bullies. How he led conservatives to disinformation. How he turned dog whistles into bullhorns. How he made it OK to hate your neighbor. How he made America worse.

But after three decades on the national airwaves, Limbaugh's impact doesn't require that much explanation. All you had to do was look around the week he died.

Begin in North Carolina. Less than 48 hours before Limbaugh shuffled off this mortal coil, the state Republican Party convened an "emergency" meeting to censure three-term Sen. Richard Burr for voting to convict Trump at his impeachment trial.

Practically, the censure was meaningless. Burr isn't seeking reelection. But it revealed plenty about the extremists who run the party.

Consider — to cite one example — that while the NCGOP rebuked Burr, it hasn't censured longtime state Rep. Larry Pittman, who has advocated secession, proposed shooting Black Lives Matter "vermin," suggested publicly hanging abortion providers, and blamed a high school massacre on a "communist Democrat" gun control conspiracy.

Burr voted to convict Trump for inciting a deadly insurrection. Pittman said that Abraham Lincoln was a "tyrant" just like Hitler. The NCGOP deemed one of these things worthy of denunciation.

This mentality isn't confined to North Carolina. Except for Sen. Mitt Romney, every Republican senator who voted to convict Trump has been or might soon be censured by their state parties. (A Pennsylvania party official explained, "We did not send [Sen. Pat Toomey] there to do the right thing or whatever.")

This is Limbaugh's legacy. Not just because he amplified Trump's election-fraud bullshit and compared the Jan. 6 rioters to the 1776 revolutionaries. But because he molded a tribal party bound by grievance, convinced that inconvenient facts are Liberal Media misinformation, and so anchored to a demagogue that the second-highest-ranking House Republican won't admit that Joe Biden didn't steal the election.

The day Limbaugh died, millions of Texans were without power following a freak winter storm while the state's politicians — those not jet-setting to Cancun, anyway — blamed renewable energy for the outages, a claim so absurdly disingenuous it's hardly worth debunking, much less pointing out that it's been paid for by the fossil fuel industry.

What happened, of course, is that natural gas pipelines froze because Texas — the only state to maintain its own electric grid so it can keep federal regulators at bay — never bothered to properly insulate its power plants.

This, too, is Limbaugh's legacy: both the unquestioning belief in the unregulated free market that gave rise to this disaster — until, that is, the free market fails and Uncle Sam comes to the rescue — and the knee-jerk reflex to blame the people Limbaugh derided as "environmentalist wackos," whom the political shock jock likened to jihadis.

Limbaugh — no surprise here — was a climate change denier, and from his perch, he arguably did more than anyone to block the U.S. from developing a strategy to combat greenhouse gas emissions. By backing conservatism into an anti-science corner and painting anyone who cared about the planet as a "long-haired, maggot-infested" tree-hugger, he made any admission of climate change's reality, let alone an effort to address it, a career-killer in Republican politics. (Ironically, or sadly, he was — at least in 1994 — a tobacco denier, too: "There is no conclusive proof that nicotine's addictive," he said during a show, "[or with] cigarettes causing emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease.")

There are plenty more examples. To wit: In West Virginia and New Hampshire, Republicans introduced bills to ban the teaching of "divisive concepts" in schools, meaning teachers couldn't talk about the country's history of white supremacy. White kids' feelings might get hurt.

But we'll conclude in Georgia, where Republican lawmakers reacted to Democratic victories in the presidential and U.S. Senate races with a vicious attack on ballot access, particularly for African Americans. They want to severely limit absentee voting — which wasn't a problem until Democrats started using it — and early voting, especially on Sundays, when Black churches organize "Souls to the Polls" events. They want to repeal automatic voter registration, restrict early-voting drop boxes, impose voter ID, and expand "poll watcher" access.

Ostensibly, this will address "the lack of public confidence in election results," the Georgia House Speaker's office told CNN, omitting the circumstances under which that lack of confidence arose. In reality, this is little more than a shameless power grab — and a thinly veiled exercise in white supremacy. Limbaugh would approve.

As his eulogizers said, Rush was indeed "a giant of the conservative movement." But it's hard to look at the state of conservative politics and think of that as a compliment.

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About The Author

Jeffrey C. Billman

North Carolina-based journalist, focusing on politics and policy analysis.
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