Rush Limbaugh, dead this past week at 70, was probably the most influential figure among the men who defined conservatism after Ronald Reagan. He was the presiding genius of a media revolution that still reverberates today — on your favorite podcast as much as the talk radio dial. And his political legacy feels like the result of an unfortunate encounter between a 1980s young Republican and a tempting monkey’s paw.
I wish there was a conservative media infrastructure to compete with the mainstream media! our youthful conservative wished. I wish the right had a bigger footprint in the culture than just George Will columns and National Review! I wish my movement was rich and powerful, a veritable universe unto itself!
Granted! Thanks in no small part to Limbaugh, all of that has come to pass. The price, alas, is that in the world outside the right’s infrastructure, the conservatism of our young Reaganite has suffered a long run of political disasters and cultural defeats.
Correlation isn’t necessarily causation, of course. The United States has moved dramatically leftward since the 1990s, on social issues especially but economic ones as well. But it could be that absent the influence of talk radio and Fox News, the shift would have been even swifter, and we would all be living in the North American Union of Intersectional Allyship by now.
But I’m doubtful, because in the long arc of the Limbaugh era, you can see pretty clearly how success and self-marginalization can be effectively combined. Reaganite conservatism in ’80s America was a 55 percent proposition, popular with younger voters, with only a mild version of today’s yawning gender gap. But you don’t need 55 percent of the country to build a huge talk-radio audience or an incredibly successful cable news network or a vast online ecosystem. You need a passionate audience, a committed audience, a church of Dittoheads.
That was what Limbaugh built for himself, day by day and show by show. By itself, there’s nothing wrong with that: His listeners deserved to feel the thrill of community, the recognition of agreement, as much as any AOC fan or Jon Stewart devotee.
But then everyone else on the right went in the same direction: First, Limbaugh’s talk radio imitators, then Roger Ailes with Fox News, and then — disastrously — a great many Republican politicians, who realized that an intense ideological fan base was enough to win them elections in safe districts and might make them media celebrities in the bargain.
This pattern created problems that compounded one another. As Conservatism Inc. became more of a world unto itself, it sealed out bad news for conservative governance, contributing to debacles that doomed Republican presidents — Iraq for George W. Bush, COVID for Donald Trump. These debacles helped make conservatism less popular, closer to a 45 percent than a 55 percent proposition in presidential races, a blocking coalition but not a governing one. And this in turn made the right’s passionate core feel more culturally besieged, more desperate for “safe spaces” where liberal perfidy was taken for granted and the most important reasons for conservative defeats were never entertained.
Such a system, predictably, was terrible at generating the kind of outward-facing, evangelistic conservatives who had made the Reagan revolution possible. There are threads linking Reagan to Donald Trump or William F. Buckley Jr. to Sean Hannity, as the right’s liberal critics often note. But to go back and watch Reagan and Buckley is to see an entirely different approach to politics — missionary and confident, with a gentlemanly comportment that has altogether vanished.
In its place today is a fantasy politics, a dreampolitik, that’s fed by a deep feeling of grievance and dispossession. Part of this feeling is justified, insofar as liberalism really has consolidated cultural power everywhere outside Conservatism Inc. But the right’s infotainment complex is itself a major reason for that consolidation. Conservatives have lost real-world territory by building dream palaces, and ceded votes by talking primarily to themselves.
And they have often succumbed, in the process, to a strange kind of petrification. Dan McLaughlin, in an instructive piece for National Review, counts Limbaugh as one of the right’s five most important 1990s-era figures, along with Ailes, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and Antonin Scalia. A diverse group of politicos and media innovators, this — but as they grew old within the right’s infrastructure, Limbaugh and Ailes and Newt and Rudy all seemed to cede their individuality and converge into a single character, a single noisy voice. Which were the media impresarios and which were the political leaders? Which one was married four times, which ones only three, which was the office predator? Which one was most likely to say something indefensible in defense of Donald Trump?
Only Scalia, secure from certain temptations in his lifetime judicial appointment, retained both his individuality and his outward-facing influence to the end. And in the court of Amy Coney Barrett, his legacy as a conservative looks significant and secure.
For the rest, for Limbaugh especially, we can say that their gifts were ample, their ascent remarkable, their influence enduring — and yet their most important legacy has been ashes and defeat.