Politics and the media in 2021 exist in the world that Rush Limbaugh created. The polarizing king of talk radio died on Wednesday at age 70 from complications of lung cancer. In 32.5 years on the national airwaves, he managed both to say some genuinely horrible, bigoted things and to be a hero to and the voice of millions of Americans. One thing is certain: just about every part of politics and media bears his imprint.
The often incendiary, in-your-face conservative content broadcast on hundreds of radio stations, three cable news channels, and countless digital sites every day? All Rush. He saved AM radio as it struggled to find unique programming in the late 1980s, and his rise to stardom revealed that there was a massive audience yearning for opinionated conservative broadcast content.
The late night comedy shows that are anything but conservative, but inform between laughs? They’re deploying the unique form of “infotainment” that the host pioneered by fusing information and entertainment, with little regard for journalistic conventions and a focus on putting on a great show and keeping people tuned in.
Podcasts steeped in the host’s opinions and values? Again, credit Rush — before him, executives believed that the best-spoken word content was local, focused on callers, interviews, and rarely involving the host’s takes.
The Republican Party that went from being led by the serious, pragmatic George H.W. Bush to the bombastic, oftentimes racist showman Donald Trump during Limbaugh’s run on the airwaves? Also only imaginable in Rush’s America. He helped excise first liberals, then moderates, and eventually mavericks — who were generally conservative but departed from orthodoxy on a few issues — from the party, while coming to insist that compromise equaled capitulation and Democrats threatened the most basic of American values. Our polarized America is Limbaugh’s America. Even the figures in the conservative movement with real juice today owe their power to Limbaugh — influence is all about the soundbite, not legislative skill, policy knowledge, or getting things done.
So from Donald Trump to Ted Cruz to Matt Gaetz, Joe Rogan to Stephen Colbert to John Oliver, and Tucker Carlson to Sean Hannity to Ben Shapiro, Limbaugh planted the seeds for their influence today.
Whether you loved him or hated him, recognize that no one had more impact in shaping where we are both politically, and in terms of the media we consume, than Rush Hudson Limbaugh III.
Dr. Brian Rosenwald
Dr. Brian Rosenwald is a fellow and instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, Senior Editor of Made by History, and author of Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States. He is a frequent commentator on radio, television, and in print, including pieces for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, CNN, Politico, and has contributed to pieces for media outlets including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.