Image of racist radio host Rush Limbaugh on a green background

Pressing Issues

We Don’t Owe Rush Limbaugh Anything

Death does not absolve the hate-mongering radio blowhard, who set the stage for Trumpism. And the media has to stop recasting the bigot as a “provocateur” and “personality.”

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LIMBAUGH: I found myself in an elevator with Mrs. Clinton once. It was at a wedding, Brooklyn, doors locked, she hits the stop button. She said, Oh Rush, I’ve wanted to see you for so long, and nobody would believe it. Would you, would you make a real woman out of me? I said, Sure, let’s take off our clothes. So I took mine off, and I pointed and I said, Now fold them.

It’s not that I’m happy Rush Limbaugh is dead. It’s that as a liberal, feminist woman I’m sorrier he ever existed in the first place.

I’m angered he was given access to the airwaves, and that he grew so rapidly in audience and power that he was given the keys to the kingdom of Eisenhower and allowed to arbitrate the future of a major political party for four decades.

Most of all, I’m frustrated that so many of my fellow Americans found his message of contempt for them alluring enough to adopt it as a guiding ethos, a personality, and a brand.

Limbaugh’s death from lung cancer yesterday, at age 70, came amid the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s acquittal for his role in the January 6 Capitol riot. And in that failed insurrection’s violently misogynistic rhetoric were the unmistakable echoes of what Rush had nurtured: a racist uprising, yes, but one also grounded in visceral hatred of women.

The whitewashing of Limbaugh’s reputation began during the very hour of his death. The need to say something “nice” about a departed personage, no matter how vile, won out among journalists who prize comity over clarity. Rush was described as conservatism’s incorrigible scoundrel whose wacky hijinks were all in good nature.

The New York Times’ obituary described him as “relentlessly provocative.” CNN said he “generated controversy” but “advanced conservative ideas” even among those who “loved to hate him.” In the Washington Post, he was a “provocateur.” National Public Radio, ever polite, said “his voice entertained millions of listeners” and called him an “influencer” and a “lodestar.”

Let women, as we so often must, set the record straight. Limbaugh was not a celebrity. Limbaugh was not a “personality.” Limbaugh was an incredibly wealthy, powerful political actor with whom the Republican Party saw fit to partner in the hopes of harnessing his aggrieved, racist listeners for money and votes.

He was not a “firebrand.” He was not “controversial.” He was brutal and bigoted. And the people he attacked and demonized—among them women, people of color, LGBTQ people, anyone more liberal than he was—did not “love to hate him.”

Young women did not “love to hate” being called sluts for wanting their insurance to cover birth control pills.

Gay people dying of AIDS did not “love to hate” hearing him celebrate their deaths, refer to AIDS as “Rock Hudson’s Disease,” and claim that HIV never spread to heterosexuals.

Black people didn’t “love to hate” his endless mockery of their families as being dependent on “the welfare state.”

No one hated by him loved to hate him. We hated suffering under the policies his hatred inspired. After Limbaugh’s influence won Pat Buchanan’s unprecedented support in the 1992 New Hampshire GOP primary, Limbaugh was invited to George H.W. Bush’s White House, courted by the very Republican establishment that now would like to disavow violent division.

Limbaugh used that time in the spotlight to champion cuts to nearly every aspect of government spending, punishing public schools, libraries, and any city with more than two stop lights. He prized being belligerent and loud, substituting “making liberals angry” for “improving people’s lives” as a political goal.

The results surround us today. Until a month ago, those results occupied the White House.

Limbaugh’s loathing of powerful, liberal women was his most prominent view. His spite for Hillary Clinton dated from her husband’s first term, when he and Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich drummed up opposition to health-care reform by deriding it as “Hillarycare,” demanding supporters muster their fax machines to oppose it in terms more fearful of liberals than critical of policy.

He took aim at everything from Hillary’s “cankles” to her balking traditional First Lady duties like sharing cookie recipes, attacking her for her husband’s infidelity, and describing her as “the most cheated-on woman in America.” He claimed she castrated men for her “testicle lockbox” and said in 2009 that she didn’t join the military because “they didn’t have uniforms or boots big enough to fit that butt.”

And his targeting of her daughter Chelsea, then 13 years old, was even more personal. He mocked the awkward teenager as the “White House dog” and compared her unfavorably to Amy Carter, who he then slammed as “the most unattractive presidential daughter in the history of the country.”

To young women listening, including myself, at the time, his tone was unmistakable, no matter how much he pretended afterward to be sorry.

He was a bully. And his audience, the men who laughed out loud at his “jokes,” were the crowd you always see around bullies, competing to guffaw the hardest in desperate, pathetic hope that the bully won’t turn around and attack them instead.

Maybe some of us saw our husbands in that crowd. Fathers. Grandfathers. Brothers. Men we admired and cared about, whom we had never witnessed treat anyone in a derogatory manner, cackling along as he described Black NFL players as “the Crips and Bloods without any weapons.”

Some of us saw them laughing along with Trump, when he said the same things. When he encouraged chants of “lock her up” and “Hillary for Prison” and menaced Hillary Clinton on the debate stage.

And some of us saw them with guns and Confederate flags, roaming the marble stairwells, looking for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, yelling “We’re coming for you, bitch.”

The same Nancy Pelosi who Limbaugh described as “on her broom now, lying through her teeth.”

The witch metaphor was an apt one, since so many of Limbaugh’s obituaries described him as a firebrand, as incendiary.

What he loved to do most was burn women. That’s how I’ll remember him.

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