I wrote this article for the March 2021 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter. The PP is funded entirely by reader subscription, available only in hard copy for $12/yr. Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244. Click here for archived issues.
Mercifully, Rush Limbaugh is no longer occupying the nation’s publicly owned airwaves. Death was the only thing that could stop him. Iowa’s eight commercial stations that broadcast Rush will most likely fill in with another propagandist to complete their wall of conservative talk programming. Although it wouldn’t surprise me if they just go with Limbaugh best-ofs forever.
But let there be no doubt, the king is dead and this is a positive development on the side of Democracy as it scratches and claws its way back to life after narrowly escaping being killed off by the Trump years. And still could be.
I remember the first time I had a conversation with someone about Rush Limbaugh. I remember it because I found it disturbing although I did not know why at the time. Later I understood that in that moment I had intuitively grasped impending danger, something gone very wrong. A friend told me that while he disagreed with everything Rush said, he enjoyed listening to his program because Rush was so outrageous. He said he found it fascinating that there was always a kernel of “truth” behind the verbiage. He assured me though, that he realized it was all garbage.
Still I was shaken. If an ordinary person could enjoy listening to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, what were the societal implications? This was back in the 90’s and most people who even knew of Limbaugh believed him to be harmless. Like wife beaters in small towns, everyone assumes he’s a good guy who would never do real harm. Until he kills her then everyone is mystified. The parallel to “why didn’t she just leave?” is “just change the channel.” But it’s not that simple.
The postmortem articles I’ve seen on Rush Limbaugh range from glorification on the right to “he had nothing better to do but complain” on the left. At least conservatives are in reality about what Rush actually did for them while the rest of the country naively sees him as merely a hateful radio personality, acting alone, like a lone wolf serial killer or mass shooter.
The idea that Rush was an aberration, that he was successful because of his talent and that the country was hungry for what he had to offer, is absolutely false. As with Fox News, a following had to be created. It took money, time and commitment. It was the beginning of the right-wing media infrastructure.
Noam Chomsky famously said, “Whoever controls the media controls the minds of the public.” Rush was one of the most important players in the right-wing take over of the American mind which is how he came to be the king of talk radio. Politicians began bowing to Rush because constituents were falling prey to the propaganda. Eventually, Rush was the guy Republicans in congress answered to. Rush was widely credited with killing immigration reform in 2007 by tagging the DREAM Act an “amnesty bill for illegal immigrants.”
But Rush didn’t achieve this stunning success on his own and the public was not demanding more hate speech. Far from it. Media mogul and Republican operative Roger Ailes foisted Rush onto the national scene after he had worked in small radio stations for twenty years. Without Ailes’ help Limbaugh would probably never have been a thing. They kept him on the air long enough to effectively brainwash a large swath of listeners. Hate speech started to become profitable. Then corporate ownership had an excuse to develop more conservative talk programs that were imposed on local radio stations particularly in rural areas. In the end, Limbaugh occupied 600 radio stations. It was the medium’s version of McDonalds springing up on every corner, driving out competition. Suddenly, there was nothing but right wing talk on the AM airwaves. All under the guise that it was harmless entertainment.
Much has been exposed about the purposeful rise of right wing media in America. The Lewis Powell Memo of 1971 to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, dubbed “a blueprint for corporate domination of American democracy,” laid out the plan. Movement conservatives needed their own media because they saw regular news as not on the side of the free enterprise system. The demise of the Fairness Doctrine and relaxation of corporate ownership rules followed. The right built a structural imbalance in the media that had everything to do with getting us to the current level of crazy that we are experiencing now.
Today right-wing propaganda dominates every media format. It will have to be dealt with because democracy is unsustainable without an informed citizenry. Rush Limbaugh was a unifying symbol and inspirational leader of the right wing forces that are bent on the destruction of democracy.
Movements need their leaders. Without Rush they are weaker.
“It was a wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be king?”
-Coldplay, Viva la Vida