by Levi Dayan
[originally posted February 2021]
One of the most bizarre and irritating quirks about social media is the cycle of bullshit that repeats itself every time an evil person dies. Each time, like clockwork, excitement at the demise of some stain on humanity is met with scolding, or sometimes even blatant revisionist history to make these people look more human. I myself wouldn’t necessarily jump at the chance to take pleasure in someone else’s death, but at the same time, the “don’t speak ill of the dead” rule becomes fundamentally dishonest when applied to the powerful, especially those who dedicated their entire lives to making everyone else’s life worse. Obviously, the distinction between evil and complicated people is blurry, which sometimes warrants more nuance than schadenfreude, but everyone should be able to agree that there’s a point when someone crosses the line into the former
Rush Limbaugh, the most recent subject of this cycle, has absolutely pole-vaulted over this line. Perhaps no one other than Donald Trump himself has contributed less good to humanity to balance out the egregious bad than Rush. It’s also worth noting that he frequently took the opportunity to mock other people’s deaths himself—most often victims of AIDS or substance abuse that he had no relation with beyond having their names and cause of death—making him perhaps more deserving of post-death schadenfreude than anyone on the planet. I personally did not see any take from any supposedly liberal-minded person scolding people for speaking ill of the dead, in relation to Limbaugh, but I did see people talk about others doing so, and that alone is a travesty. But for the sake of understanding why Limbaugh was such a waste of space and how much he set humanity backwards in his much-too-long life, let me use this opportunity to take a more in-depth look at his legacy in context of the history of talk radio.
Before going any further, I want to make clear that I don’t think Rush Limbaugh was in any way what created Trump, or even set the stage for him. Limbaugh’s shtick was that he berated and insulted his perceived enemies, whether it be Black people, women, gay people, liberals, people with Parkinson’s syndrome, and pretty much every other group whom mocking could be considered “punching down”. Looking at him through the lens of the GOP, and its rightward shift over the years, it’s hard to see much of an impact on policy; the racism was always there in the party, and it’s not like Limbaugh was going crazy every night talking about the threat to private health insurance companies. For all of the noise he loved to make, he was a blind follower of whichever right-winger was in power, and it makes sense that he probably got the most attention during the Obama and Clinton administrations. But one thing he did have in common with Trump — beyond, you know, being terrible — is that the forces that put him in power are far more interesting than Limbaugh himself.
The history of radio could be tied in with the entire history of post-roaring-20s America. It was radio drama and storytelling that provided Americans with an escape from the Great Depression, it was FDR’s usage of the radio that helped spread the word of new programs to combat said depression - and later on, inform them of the incoming war - and the development of the transistor radio in the 50s ties in with the marketing boom of the era, and the ensuing cultural revolution. So in a way it makes sense that the beginning of America’s descent into full fascism also ties in with the radio, in a sense. Going back a bit, however, it’s helpful to understand what happened in between the development of the transistor radio and the right-wing talk radio boom of the 90s. A good place to start is the 70s. At this point, the transistor radio and rock n’ roll are pretty much normalized. Rock music could still provoke a fair amount of controversy, but as the two most successful bands of the decade - Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles - show, rock music had become pretty submerged into the mainstream. In an environment where simply playing rock music alone wasn’t always enough to get people’s attention, radio DJs had to pick up more of the slack. This is where the “shock jocks” start to come into play, specifically DJs who make offensive, outrageous, often over-the-top statements to rile people up.
A key thing to identify here before moving forward, speaking as a radio DJ myself: radio. DJs. are. not. funny. people. There’s certainly some exceptions, but as a whole, radio is where comedy goes to die, and this was especially true in the early days of talk radio. Make whatever jokes you want about stand-up comedy — they’re well warranted — but radio proves that the power the audience has to keep comics in check is necessary. The radio host has all of the power, and all of the space (within FCC guidelines) to spew whatever unfunny garbage comes to mind; all the listener can do is change the channel or call in angrily, which the host can easily just drop. But those who do find talk radio funny can listen as long as they want, without the peer pressure of an angry audience.
These are the circumstances that helped make shock-jocks such as Howard Stern and Steve Dahl, the guy responsible for Disco Demolition Night, popular. But that wasn’t enough for Limbaugh, who spent most of the 70s and early 80s getting fired from various radio stations. The game-changer for him was the FCC’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in the late 80s, under fellow right wing demon Ronald Reagan. The most basic summary of the Fairness Doctrine, introduced by the FCC in 1949, is that it made it so that radio broadcasters had to dedicate a certain amount of airtime to important, divisive issues, and present different viewpoints on those issues. The greater details, the opinions for and against it, the various alternatives, and a number of other aspects of the Fairness Doctrine could inspire multiple articles. But what’s indisputable is that it was revoked in bad faith, and that it opened up the right-wing radio shitstorm. The fact that Limbaugh’s career took off immediately after is no coincidence.
A tweet that got particularly dunked on in the aftermath of Limbaugh’s death was from National Review editor Rich Lowry, who tweeted that “Liberals who didn’t listen to Rush, and just read the Media Matters accounts, never understood how *funny* he was. What set him off from his many imitators was how wildly entertaining he was, and the absolutely unbreakable bond he formed with his listeners.” As many have pointed out, this is horseshit, beyond the fact that many, many people were forced to listen to Limbaugh’s radio show by their family members. Limbaugh wasn’t just unfunny, he couldn’t even tell a joke. If you were to pick any soundbite from Limbaugh’s show at random, play it for someone like Lowry, and ask them to identify the joke, they wouldn’t have an answer. There wasn’t any humor in his schtick because there ultimately wasn’t supposed to be any —that would distract from the point of the show. Any moment of levity would take away the sheer anger, hatred, and frustration at the fact that America was changing. That was the real point of the show, and the main other thing he had in common with Trump was giving his fans the emotional freedom to give in to their most sociopathic, hateful impulses.
In Limbaugh’s last four years, he continued to be reasonably successful, but became largely irrelevant compared to his previous position in the public sphere. Limbaugh always got more attention as a voice of the opposition, as he was during the Clinton and Obama administrations, than he did with a Republican in office. But it felt different in the Trump era. Talk radio still has its millions of listeners, but it’s much less of an entity in the podcasting age. The GOP base is becoming less and less amped up by talk radio rants and more so by conspiracy theories, nuking whatever branch of reality conservatism was hanging onto. Limbaugh lived to witness the entire political system of this country rewritten in his image, from the courts to the executive branch. But I doubt he ever got what he wanted. Even getting Trump elected wasn’t enough to keep America from changing and becoming more diverse. It’s that same fundamental truth — that a white America is one without any shred of identity — that has pushed so much of the GOP into satanic panic conspiracies. And it’s the same reason I’d like to imagine Limbaugh, who died on his fourth marriage with no children, lived an unfulfilled life, and died sitting on that discontent.