Provocative and polarising United States talk radio luminary Rush Limbaugh, a leading voice on the American political right since the 1980s who boosted, and was honoured by, former President Donald Trump, has died at age 70 after suffering from lung cancer, his wife announced on Wednesday.
Limbaugh, who pioneered the American media phenomenon of conservative talk radio and became an enthusiastic combatant in the US culture wars, had announced in February 2020 that he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.
“I know that I am most certainly not the Limbaugh that you tuned in to listen to today,” Kathryn Limbaugh said on his radio show. “I, like you, very much wish Rush was behind this golden microphone right now.”
“It is with profound sadness I must share with you directly that our beloved Rush, my wonderful husband, passed away this morning due to complications from lung cancer.”
Within an hour of the announcement, Trump, who lost his preferred method of instant communication when Twitter shut down his account last month, telephoned into Fox News with his first public remarks since leaving office on January 20.
Trump called Limbaugh “a fantastic man, a fantastic talent”.
“People whether they loved him or not, they respected him, they really did,” said Trump. “He was a very unique guy, and he had tremendous insight”.
Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, was able to take to Twitter to offer his condolences, calling Limbaugh a “true American legend”.
R.I.P Rush. A true American legend.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) February 17, 2021
Former President George W Bush released a statement saying, “While he was brash, at times controversial, and always opinionated, he spoke his mind as a voice for millions of Americans and approached each day with gusto.”
“Rush Limbaugh was an indomitable spirit with a big heart, and he will be missed,” Bush said.
Decades of success
Limbaugh’s appeal and the success of his top-rated radio show arose from his brash and colourful style, his delight in baiting liberals and Democrats and his promotion of conservative and Republican causes and politicians. His radio show became nationally syndicated in 1988 and quickly built a large and committed following, making him wealthy in the process.
Trump, a former reality TV personality with a showman’s instincts who pursued right-wing populism during four years in the White House, awarded Limbaugh the highest US civilian honour – the Presidential Medal of Freedom – during his 2020 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.
First Lady Melania Trump placed the medal around his neck after her husband lauded Limbaugh as “a special man beloved by millions of Americans” and “the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet”. Illustrating Limbaugh’s divisiveness, some Democratic lawmakers were heard groaning “oh no” while House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi – one of his favourite punching bags – sat in stony silence.
Trump honoured Limbaugh a day after the radio star announced his cancer diagnosis. Limbaugh at the time said he planned to continue to do his programme “as normally and as competently” as he could while he underwent treatment.
Limbaugh had experienced a variety of medical problems over the years, including a loss of hearing reversed by a cochlear implant, as well as an addiction to prescription painkillers that landed him in rehab in 2003.
Limbaugh espoused an unflinchingly populist brand of conservatism during a daily show broadcast on more than 600 radio stations across the US. He railed against left-wing causes from global warming to healthcare reform as he helped shape the Republican Party’s agenda in the media and mobilise its grassroots supporters.
He ridiculed mainstream news outlets and relished the controversies often sparked by his on-air commentary.
He was loathed by liberals. Detractors such as Democratic former Senator Al Franken – a former comedian who wrote a book titled Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations – criticised him as a divisive figure who distorted facts.
Still, Limbaugh’s success helped spawn a new class of right-wing pundits on radio, television and the internet, among them Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Alex Jones.
“He was looking at a forest, not a single tree was cut down,” Hannity said on Fox News on Wednesday. “He single-handedly knocked down all of those trees that made it easier by forging that path for the rest of us to follow. And we’ve all benefitted from that.”
A legacy of controversies
Limbaugh endearingly called his followers “ditto heads”. However, he also leaves a long trail of controversial and polarising statements.
He coined the term “femi-Nazis” to disparage women’s rights activists. He referred to environmentalists as “tree-hugging whackos” and pushed various falsehoods, including Trump’s insistence that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged”, and other radical theories.
This past December, he floated the idea that extreme political polarisation in the US in the wake of Trump’s election loss could lead to states seceding from the union.
“I actually think that we’re trending toward secession,” he said. “I see more and more people asking what in the world do we have in common with the people who live in, say, New York? What is there that makes us believe that there is enough of us there to even have a chance at winning New York? Especially if you’re talking about votes.”
The next day, Limbaugh explained he was not actually “advocating” for secession, he was “simply repeating what I have heard”.
Some of Limbaugh’s controversies wound up affecting his financial bottom line.
Limbaugh in 2012 called a law student who spoke to a congressional hearing about birth control a “slut”, causing some sponsors to pull their advertising from his show.
In 2003, while serving as a US football commentator for ESPN, he was called a racist after saying Donovan McNabb, the Black quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, was getting too much credit for the team’s success.
“The media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback can do well – Black coaches and Black quarterbacks doing well,” Limbaugh said. “There is a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve.”
Amid the firestorm his comments caused, Limbaugh expressed “regret” for his remarks and resigned from ESPN three days later.
In 2007 on his radio show, he weighed in what he said was a “classless” culture in the National Football League. “The NFL all-too-often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it.”
Those comments came back to haunt him two years later when he was reportedly aiming to become part of an ownership group looking to buy the St Louis Rams NFL team.
Players and civil rights leaders protested against the idea of Limbaugh becoming a team owner, prompting the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, to state, “I would not want to see those kind of comments from people who are in a responsible position within the NFL … Absolutely not.”