The conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh is dead at 70 after a battle with lung cancer, his wife Kathryn Adams Limbaugh announced Wednesday.
Limbaugh, one of the most popular broadcasters on the right for decades, played into right-wing culture wars to balloon his audience, eventually becoming a driving force in the rightward shift of the Republican Party electorate that fueled Donald Trump’s grievance-based politics.
Then-President Trump awarded Limbaugh a Presidential Medal of Freedom during the 2020 State of the Union address, in which Trump mentioned Limbaugh’s recent cancer diagnosis and said the award was given “in recognition of all that you have done for our nation.”
Limbaugh worked for decades to create the type of politics that Trump eventually rode to the White House.
In Limbaugh’s view, Barack Obama was not just the nation’s first African American president but “Barack, the Magic Negro.” Sharia Law, he said near the end of Obama’s term, “has already been implemented in this country.” Feminists were “feminazis.” A law student who testified about using birth control was a “slut” and “prostitute.” Black Lives Matter was a “terrorist group.”
One of show’s conceits was that it was a last bastion for white machismo, where cigars were smoked and steak was eaten in defiance of the evolving mores of the time. Listeners might be truckers on the open road or lawyers stuck in rush hour traffic, but they could enter Rush’s clubby enclave via their car radios.
To the extent that offensive and often bigoted name-calling has become commonplace among conservative talking heads, Limbaugh deserves a substantial portion of the credit. He kept the act up for decades as his listenership grew to millions of people across the country. The radio host was still going last year, referring to presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as “booty-judge” and “a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage.”
Through it all, Limbaugh was not simply tolerated by the Republican mainstream but celebrated by it. Trump told the host after the Buttigieg comment to “never apologize,” Limbaugh recalled on air. In October, Trump joined the Limbaugh show for two hours — a “virtual rally,” they called it.
On Wednesday, Trump called into Fox News to discuss Limbaugh’s death, breaking a relative silence since Joe Biden’s inauguration (Trump maintained, falsely, that he had “won” the 2020 election.)
“He was with me right from the beginning, and he liked what I said and he agreed with what I said,” Trump said of the late host. “He had an incredible instinct for politics,” the former president added later.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Trump said Limbaugh had passed away to a better place, “free from physical pain and hostility.”
Limbaugh’s close relationship with the GOP establishment goes back decades.
In the summer of 1992, he met with then-President George H.W. Bush, who was seeking reelection and running against Democrat Bill Clinton while also attempting to fend off an independent bid from Ross Perot.
Bush and Limbaugh, along with Barbara Bush and Roger Ailes, went to dinner and then the Kennedy Center together, followed by a sleepover at the White House. Limbaugh got the Lincoln bedroom. At one point, the Washington Post reported, Bush literally carried the radio host’s overnight bag into the room.
A few months later, after Bush’s loss, former President Ronald Reagan wrote to Limbaugh, saying “Now that I’ve retired from active politics, I don’t mind that you’ve become the number one voice for conservatism in our country.”
“I know the liberals call you the most dangerous man in America, but don’t worry about it,” Reagan added, according to Limbaugh’s on-air reading of the letter. “They used to say the same thing about me. Keep up the good work. America needs to hear the way things ought to be.”
This post has been updated.