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Rush Limbaugh, influential rightwing talk radio host, dies aged 70

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Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host whose nastily personal and bigoted riffs on the daily news won millions of devoted fans and altered the landscape of American media and politics, has died, according to his wife, Kathryn.

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Limbaugh, 70, had been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer a year ago.

“Losing a loved one is terribly difficult, even more so when that loved one is larger than life,” Kathryn Limbaugh said on his eponymous radio show, now in its fourth decade. “Rush will forever be the greatest of all time.”

At the height of his influence in the mid-1990s, Limbaugh commanded a daily radio audience of millions, known as “dittoheads”, who tuned in to hear him dissect the sins of the Bill Clinton administration and wage battle against the “commie libs” he accused of plotting to destroy the country.

Rush Limbaugh, controversial conservative radio personality, dead at 70 – video obituary
Rush Limbaugh, controversial conservative radio personality, dead at 70 – video obituary

In a 1995 Mother Jones cover story, the late columnist Molly Ivins singled Limbaugh out as a bully and called him a “major carrier” of “plain old nastiness in our political discussion”, describing the typical Limbaugh listener as a young white male without a college degree but with a firm sense that the world had done him wrong.

“Limbaugh offers him scapegoats,” Ivins wrote. “It’s the ‘feminazis’. It’s the minorities. It’s the limousine liberals. It’s all these people with all these wacky social programs to help some silly, self-proclaimed bunch of victims.”

The formula was wildly successful, and pointed the way for media organizations such as Fox News to satisfy the demand for opinion content that seemed devilishly honest if you identified with it – and hate speech if you did not.

Limbaugh may have created something much bigger by contributing to a style of politics that, three decades after the Rush Limbaugh show was first syndicated, produced the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Trump, who awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, midway through a State of the Union address a year ago, called into Fox on Wednesday to praise Limbaugh and mark his death.

Limbaugh with Trump at a rally in Missouri in November 2018.
Limbaugh with Trump at a rally in Missouri in November 2018. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

He was a “fantastic man” and a “fantastic talent”, the former president said. “Whether [people] loved him or not, they respected him.”

The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, hailed Limbaugh as a “generational media trailblazer”. Former vice-president Mike Pence said “he made conservatism fun”. Senator Ted Cruz called him “a tireless voice for freedom and the conservative movement”.

But not every elegy was as fond. “Rush Limbaugh helped create today’s polarized America by normalizing racism, bigotry, misogyny and mockery,” tweeted the gun safety advocate Shannon Watts. “He was a demagogue who got rich off of hate speech, division, lies and toxicity. That is his legacy.”

Limbaugh was born and raised in Missouri, his father a former pilot and mother a homemaker. He worked as a disk jockey in high school and hosted radio programs in increasingly large markets in Pennsylvania, Missouri and California before landing a national gig at WABC.

Limbaugh did not find his brand as a conservative lightning rod and iconoclast until 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission repealed a 1940s-era rule mandating that radio stations allot equal airtime to both sides of any controversial issue.

That meant Limbaugh could go on at indefinite length, and even critics conceded his extraordinary ability to do so, hosting a three-hour radio show filled with breathless ranting, daily. In a televised spinoff, Limbaugh did what he usually did – sit in front of a microphone, smoke cigars and rant – but with the added thrill for viewers of watching the spittle fly.

Limbaugh is credited with helping to invent a new style of communication, the modern talk radio format – and, as critics would have it, a new means of amplifying hatred, laying the groundwork for a conservative media sphere that would culminate 30 years later in Pizzagate and QAnon.

Limbaugh was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame and National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

In 2003, he entered treatment after becoming addicted to the painkiller OxyContin following back surgery.

He spent time off air and his career appeared to be idling before a comeback in the Obama years and then his full rehabilitation in the eyes of Trump and his supporters.

Like Trump, Limbaugh offered listeners a blend of grievance politics, cruel humor, arrogant showmanship and privileged smugness that Trump showed could win much more than ratings wars.

The style and the political pose established Limbaugh as godfather of generations of angry white men in the media, many of them on Fox News: Bill Reilly, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and their descendants, not to mention the conspiracy-minded networks that are challenging Fox for supremacy.

Limbaugh insisted that racism was dead. He compared Chelsea Clinton, then 13, to a dog, and made fun of the labor secretary Robert Reich, who suffered bone disease as a child, for being short. He launched effusively sexist tirades, like this one quoted in a 1990 New York times piece:

 

We know that women in groups – same office, same dormitory, same barracks – eventually have synchronized menstrual cycles. We also know that there is this thing called PMS, and we know that it turns a woman into a hellion. We know that PMS has been used as a defense against a charge of murder.”

Ivins faulted Limbaugh as a bully in her Mother Jones profile.

“He consistently targets dead people, little girls, and the homeless – none of whom are in a particularly good position to answer back,” she wrote.

“Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, as Limbaugh does, it is not only cruel, it’s profoundly vulgar.”

 

 

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