The Age of Rush

I’m half hoping that the title of this post will draw fans of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart, but I somehow doubt it.

Rush Limbaugh died today at the age of 70. Limbaugh was a radio legend, whether you liked or agreed with him or not. While not the first conservative radio host by a long shot (this great article by Michael J. Socolow on Slate.com goes into that history very well), Limbaugh was the first to really give political radio shows the full shock jock treatment. While Howard Stern can be political at times, Limbaugh wasn’t interviewing Playboy models or deviant tabloid celebrities (though many of the politicians he championed had plenty of deviant, tabloid personal characteristics).

He was probably not too different from his on-air persona; many shock jocks and blue comedians have a natural need to offend, raise eyebrows, and draw attention to themselves. He confided to people close to him that most of his broadcast antics were just that, an act, intended to encourage his supporters and outrage his detractors. This was especially true in the earlier days of his rise as the King of AM Radio (he was often given credit for saving the AM band after FM took over the terrestrial airwaves in the 80s and 90s).

I used to listen to Rush occasionally, at least one or two days a week. While I’ve never considered myself to be particularly conservative (or liberal, for that matter – you are, after all, stuck in the middle with me), I did share Limbaugh’s distain for Bill Clinton. As I’ve mentioned before, there was always something about Clinton that irritated me, and I didn’t vote for him either time (I voted for independent Ross Perot in 1992 and Libertarian Harry Browne in 1996, if you’re curious). So his shtick parodying Clinton amused me.

He was a lot more amusing back then. He certainly had a nasty edge, but a lot of the show was so over-the-top in terms of his boasting and ego that it was impossible to take seriously. Like a good shock jock (he’d started at small stations in his native Missouri), he knew how to put on a performance that would create loyalty among his listeners. Even if you hated him, you had to admire his ability to dominate the AM airwaves at a time when everyone else was abandoning it.

Later, he seemed to forget where the line was between the performer and the performance. His endless, often tasteless, attacks on Barack Obama and his administration began to be unmoored from any connection to facts. Perhaps some of it was connected to his addictions, or maybe it was his diminishing role in Republican circles after several on-air controversies and the failure of right-wing candidates he’d championed to do well in elections, but he seemed to become more strident and even desperate for attention. He was rather late to the Donald Trump show, even criticizing Trump in 2015 for not being a “genuine conservative,” but once he realized how useful Trump could be, Limbaugh was all-in (as were many other Republicans who had been critical during the 2016 presidential race).

At one point, Limbaugh was so popular that ESPN thought it might be a good idea to add him to the Monday Night Football booth. That experiment ended quickly after he, predictably, made offensive comments about Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Rush Limbaugh spawned dozens of imitators, none of whom ever approached his relevance, or even dominance, of American political culture in the same way. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking his place.

Just as well, really.