Here comes a commentary that will make both the Left and Right Cringe.
I didn’t know Rush Limbaugh personally, I was in his company just one night, but he had an enormous impact on my profession and our nation. News of his passing has been met with as divided a reaction as his work while alive. But Rush’s legacy is more complicated than any caricature.
I myself have previously written and spoken extensively about the destructive influence of a polarized media on our national discourse, and how I think an important milestone was his syndication in 1988.
Quite simply, there would never have been a President Donald Trump without talk-show host Rush Limbaugh paving the way. It’s no coincidence that years before he announced his candidacy, Trump had a former aide listen to talk radio to discover what issues Americans cared about most. By 2016, after three decades of priming by Rush, GOP primary voters were ready to vote for a candidate who reminded them of their favorite talk host.
Trump took that baton, and like no one else before him, he resonated with Limbaugh’s listeners.
One need only look at the letter made public this week by The New York Times that a cousin sent to Congressman Adam Kinzinger, one of the few Republicans who had voted to impeach former President Trump.
In castigating Kinzinger, the Trumper cited God, Trump, and talk radio hosts – Limbaugh above all.
“You should be very proud that you have lost the respect of Lou Dobbs, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Greg Kelly, etc., and most importantly in our book Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh and me!”
Think about that. Rush’s sway over this person was such that it overruled her family loyalty and had her literally demonizing her cousin for having a difference of opinion. Such was Ruch’s reach with conservatives.
With Rush’s passing, many others now finally recognize the truth of what I’ve been saying about how Limbaugh led the way to polarization and the coarsening of our national dialogue. But what’s been missing in all the analysis from the Left and Right is an accurate assessment of what made Limbaugh so effective, so impactful – whether you agreed with or hated him.
It was neither his politics nor his ideology. It was his masterful entertainment skills.
I saw it up close on a particular night in October 2007. Back then, I was the morning man at a Philadelphia radio station, a Rush affiliate, when he came to speak at the ornate, historic Academy of Music in Philly, the one-time home of the orchestra.
When invited by station management to introduce him, I passed. It didn’t feel right for me – or him. It was a year before the 2008 election, which would provide a breaking point between me and the GOP. I knew I was about to renounce my Republican registration.
But I did attend the event, taking my father as my guest. Dad was a big rush fan. And beforehand, we met Rush backstage and posed for a photo. Then we settled in to watch the performance.
It was 90 minutes at a podium without notes or PowerPoint. Just his voice, humor, and storytelling. With the strength of his personality, he had an amazing hold over the audience.
I wrote about what I witnessed for The Daily News:
“The maestro onstage at the Academy of Music one week ago wielded a microphone instead of a baton. And while the Philadelphia Orchestra was nowhere in sight, you could say the evening’s selection was a version of ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.’ The conductor? Rush Limbaugh.”
I then wrote about his rise and how he’d filled a void with his syndication when there were not conservative outlets. Rush, I said, built them a clubhouse.
But mostly, what stood out was his command of the spoken word. His raw entertainment skills.
“Rush onstage is more ringleader than Republican; more entertainer than conservative. Unassailable is his status as a headliner. You don’t attract 15 million-plus listeners a week – or 2,000 for a night on Broad Street – by being anything less.”
That was 2007. By 2016, Rush and his imitators had created a climate that facilitated the nomination and election of Donald Trump. When Trump gave Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it brought the story full circle.
No one has explained the connection between talk radio and Trump’s rise like Brian Rosenwald, a University of Pennsylvania professor who actually earned his Ph.D. by studying talk radio. In 2019, when he published a book called “Talk Radio’s America,” I hosted him here to explain the Trump-Limbaugh causation.
Limbaugh was watching… And he thought Rosenwald nailed it.
“THIS GUY KIND OF GETS IT. HIS NAME IS…UH…BRIAN ROSENWALD. HE WAS ON CNN SATURDAY, SO NOBODY SAW THIS BECAUSE I WANT TO SHARE THE SOUNDBYTES WITH YOU, MICHAEL SMERCONISH WAS TALKING TO HIM ABOUT HIS BOOK TALK RADIO’S AMERICA, AND SMERCONISH SAYS “YOU SAY IT WASN’T THE ESCALATOR RIDE THAT BEGAN THE TRUMP CANDIDACY.
IT WAS ACTUALLY AUGUST 1, 1988. HOW COME?
ROSENWALD: THAT’S THE DAY THAT RUSH LIMBAUGH TAKES HIS ACT NATIONAL AND IT’S A GREAT SHOW AND PEOPLE TUNE IN. AND THEY START THIS HABIT — FORMING THIS HABIT OF LISTENING TO TALK RADIO AND THEN LATER CABLE NEWS AND WHAT THEY HEAR EVERY DAY IS CALLS FOR A FIGHTER. YOU KNOW, IT DOESN’T MAKE FOR GOOD RADIO TO SAY, HEY, NUANCE, COMPROMISE. THAT STUFF’S BORING, BUT FIGHTING, THAT’S GOOD RADIO AND DONALD TRUMP CAPTURED THAT ETHOS.
RUSH: SO THIS GUY IS CLAIMING THAT THIS PROGRAM IS EFFECTIVELY WHAT SET THE STAGE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR TRUMP TO COME IN.
SMERCONISH: NOW LEST ANYBODY THINK THE BOOK IS A HIT JOB ON RUSH, YOU GIVE LIMBAUGH PROPS, BEING A MASTER SHOWMAN AND A PERFORMING VIRTUOSO.
ROSENWALD: MICHAEL, HE BLAZED THE PATH. HE CREATED AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT MEDIA FORM FROM ANYTHING THAT EVER EXISTED BEFORE BECAUSE IT’S A GREAT SHOW. YOU KNOW, EARLY IN HIS TIME ON THE AIR, HE WOULD ABORT CALLERS, HE WOULD PLAY A VACUUM CLEANER SOUND EFFECT, YOU’D HEAR SCREAMS IN THE BACKGROUND AS HE’S HANGING UP ON A CALLER. THEY WERE THINGS NOBODY HAD EVER SEEN OR HEARD AND PEOPLE HAD TO TUNE IN EVERY DAY BECAUSE THEY NEVER KNEW WHAT HE WAS GOING TO SAY.
ROSENWALD: HE WAS SIMPLY GIVING VOICE TO THE BEDROCK CONSERVATIVE SENTIMENTS THAT HE HAD GROWN UP WITH AND THAT HIS AUDIENCE HAD.
RUSH: THIS GUY GETS IT. HE GETS IT MORE THAN ANYBODY IVE EVER HEARD WRITING ABOUT TALK RADIO IN GENERAL OR THIS PROGRAM IN PARTICULAR
Limbaugh liked that part, but there was more to my interview that he didn’t air for his dittoheads.
SMERCONISH: THERE’S THIS MINDSET OUT THERE, YOU REFERENCE PUPPET MASTER, THAT THE WHOLE TALK LANDSCAPE WAS CONTROLLED BY INDIVIDUALS EAGER TO SPREAD CONSERVATIVE WISDOM AND IDEOLOGY. IN THE BOOK, THAT’S NOT THE CONCLUSION YOU REACH. WHAT WAS THE MOTIVATION?
ROSENWALD: THE MOTIVATION, AS RUSH ALWAYS SAID, WAS TO CHARGE CONFISCATORY ADVERTISING RATES, WHICH MEANS HOW CAN WE MAKE THE MOST MONEY? WHAT’S THE BEST, MOST ENGAGING SHOW THAT WE CAN PUT ON EVERY SINGLE DAY AND THAT DIDN’T ALWAYS WORK WITH WHAT REPUBLICANS WANTED TO DO. AT TIMES, REPUBLICANS WOULD SAY, HEY, THIS IS THE BEST DEAL WE CAN CUT AND TALK RADIO WOULD SAY, NO, STAND UP AND FIGHT FOR US, YOU KNOW, FIGHT FOR OUR VALUES. THEY’RE ROLLING OVER AGAIN FOR THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA, FOR DEMOCRATS. IT’S ALL THEY DO. THEY JUST ROLL OVER. AND THAT’S THE SENTIMENT THAT HELPS, YOU KNOW, GIVE US DONALD TRUMP.
Rush tended to see things in black and white, not degrees of grey. But his legacy was more nuanced. Limbaugh was a gifted showman who unfortunately used those skills to usher-in an era where entertainment and news reporting became conflated. He enabled those who possessed microphones to supplant traditional political leadership, thereby valuing brand and sound-byte over compromise and legislative achievement.
Rush made “compromise” a dirty word.