Rush Limbaugh Was America's Abusive Father and the Right's Secret Psychological Weapon
To cultivate a poisonous environment to serve their whims, the Right relied on weaponized abuse and a hatchet man who reinforced Americans' worst impulses
You’re a sniveling little nothing and I hope you fucking die soon.
The voicemail dropped in and out with bad reception, but that much was clear. It was one of roughly ten messages and two dozen emails. I knew I’d gotten the attention of the Right Wing ecosystem immediately as this targeted harassment came in waves, most of it following a similar pattern wherein a tweet or an article or one of my books blips up on the radar of Fox News or one of the other sites in the fear-mongering constellation.
Whenever it has happened in the past, I can usually tell pretty quickly whether it’ll be serious. My initial reporting on the ugliness at Trump rallies in 2016 led to sustained intimidation, people showing up at my house, far-right extremists stalking my movements, pictures of my home being sent alongside glimpses of homemade gas chambers in someone’s barn. This wave was going to pass, but there was something incredibly familiar about the tone.
I listened again to the clipped voicemail. The caller was angry that I had criticized Rush Limbaugh after his death on February 17th, 2021, that much was clear, but what held my attention was how he was using Limbaugh’s cadence, his trademark hiss whenever the person he spoke of disgusted him. That hiss made him millions of dollars and changed elections. It was nasty and brutal and uncaring.
It was the voice of an abusive father.
Before Rush Limbaugh became a constant drone in our cars, a disgusting sound that would often pop out of our speakers out of nowhere as a radio signal wavered and gave way to another station, a telltale sound that would send most of our hands racing for the dial to just find something else, ANYTHING ELSE, the Right was very different from what we know it today.
The roots of this modern iteration of the Republican Party are back in the 1960’s when free-market, pro-business, WASPy intellectuals who attended Yale and Harvard and were scions of vast family fortunes recognized an opportunity. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of Civil Rights following the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy meant a shift in the American political spectrum. Since the Civil War, the Democratic Party had largely been a regional power in the South that protected segregationists and the racist status quo. Supposedly LBJ was to have celebrated the achievement on its merits, but lamented that the South would belong to the GOP for a generation.
The Right was quick to recognize the opening and snatch it. The wealthy elites in the GOP gave cover to racists by masking white supremacy in concern over the rights of businesses, debate over taxes, and cultural divides where the prejudice festered just under the surface. That worked in the South, and in white pockets of America, but there was a divide between elites like George H.W. Bush and William F. Buckley, who were not only well-educated but stewards of a staid and dusty tradition that valued the markers of high-society and an America operated like one of their family’s cutthroat businesses.
Rush Limbaugh squared the circle in the 1990’s as Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of the media industry made way for conglomerates to eat up the airspace and eradicated the Fairness Doctrine that might cut Limbaugh’s toxins. What made Limbaugh different, and so depressingly effective, was his lack of discipline. His shows constantly went off the rails as Limbaugh locked onto his targets the moment he smelled blood. He trafficked in racial slurs, cruel comedic bits comparing women and people of color to animals, deeply misogynistic rants, and, if the segment called for it, completely baseless conspiracy theories and appeals to violence.
Limbaugh was the bridge between the crusty GOP of Yale and Middle-America, where listeners recognized his voice as the voice in their own homes. His was the perspective of a racist white father who not only didn’t understand what was happening to the world but actively hated it. To disarm it and disabuse his children of any notion that they might actually find something better, a world that didn’t abuse and use them, Rush employed a sneering, cruel voice and belittling anyone who thought things might get even the slightest bit better until the trauma was so great and the voice so constant that when Rush wasn’t there, when the radio wasn’t on, they could hear it anyways.
How stupid you are for wanting it.
How weak you are for needing it.
The Right has spent the past twenty-four hours lauding Limbaugh as an icon and an innovator, which is both true and wrong. Limbaugh’s main achievement was aping the styles of past radio influencers and fascists like Father Coughlin and generations’ worth of AM/FM talk show hosts and bringing the style and verbiage of sports radio into the realm of politics. That made him a fortune and changed the American political landscape forever.
It is true that Limbaugh laid the foundation for the modern Republican Party. His principles were as loose as the gravel on the edge of the Mississippi River in his birthplace of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. One afternoon he could favor a policy and the next he could turn against it. The details didn’t matter. His listeners didn’t keep score. The only thing that mattered was that when Limbaugh got on the air he was angry at the right people. This weathervane act cemented a Republican Party that doesn’t need a platform beyond opposing whatever their enemies support.
The act was incredibly lucrative and successful. Limbaugh built an army of “Dittoheads” who fawned over his opinions and called in to hear their father figure agree with them and, like any abused child desperate for love, wait hungrily for even a shred of affection. They listened religiously, bought Limbaugh’s books and myriad of products, voted however Rush told them to vote, and took their anger home with them to their own families.
It is a cycle and it has brought the American political machine to its knees. Trauma untreated breeds depression, anger, and a gnawing sense of helplessness. For listeners and Dittoheads, there is no better America to be had and any notion otherwise is weak, pathetic, and, at worst, a malicious scam to match their father figure’s ongoing scam. The question is whether, within that poisoned system, they might manage to carve out a few dollars here and there in order to golf, smoke cigars, or wine and dine in a sad facsimile of the lush lifestyle Limbaugh was able to afford.
Abuse has a way of narrowing the window of reality, of blurring what is happening, what has happened, and what could happen, as well as trapping the abused in an artifically condensed prison which their mind constructs and guards. This space is the necessary operating room for the Republican Party, a no-man’s land of self-doubt, constrained imagination, and simmering, boiling, perpetual rage. It convinces the Republican voter that nothing could possibly be better. The past is the only retreat and violent, teeth-gnashing nostalgia, coupled with a resentful entrapment of future generations to the same suffering they’ve endured. It is the cycle of abuse in our politics and in our society.
Limbaugh built that prison, block by block, stone by stone, and he supplied the trademark voice of doubt and derision that would echo through its halls.
I don’t know who left that voicemail or any of the others, but I think a lot about a man I met on book tour a few years back. It was at a hotel bar and it was late in the evening. He had a few beers sitting in front of him, the labels pulled off, a small pool of condensation soaking into some crumpled up napkins. He was traveling for work and, like so many others who travel for work, desperate for some kind of talk.
I was, too. Life on the road for someone like me means getting in your own head and sometimes letting the voices of men like Rush Limbaugh, of past abusers, grab the microphone of the mind and get back to the hard work of constructing those walls.
A few beers later and the same man who began by telling me about his family and his kids and how proud he was of them got a little glassy-eyed and shook his head. Out of nowhere he told me, “I’m just so angry. I don’t get it. I’m just so angry.” That could’ve gone further, but the momentary slip of the mask of masculinity needed repaired and he knocked his knuckle on the bar and changed the subject to some sports highlights on the nearby TV.
I think about him a lot. Just a lonely man sitting in a bar with his anger. I think about what he spends his time doing while on the road, how he must be looking for someone to talk to and how he probably settles for someone to listen to who speaks the language of the angry men who taught him to be angry in the first place. How in the loneliest of moments he looks for somewhere to put his anger. Anywhere will do.
Jared Yates Sexton, February 18th, 2021