Analysis | A megaphone for Trumpism that preceded Trump’s rise

Limbaugh was a voice of ‘anti-establishment’ conservatism

Rush Limbaugh, a popular radio commentary host who dominated the “conservative airwaves” in the U.S., died at the age of 70 on Wednesday. Limbaugh was a powerful voice for the conservative movement and a strident and rabid critique of liberalism and progressivism. His four-decade-old radio stint took a turn towards hardline political commentary in the late 1980s after the Reagan administration revoked the Fairness Doctrine, a decision that opened the floodgates for unbalanced opinion on controversial issues on broadcast channels. Limbaugh’s no-holds-barred commentary continually pressed for hardline policies on issues such as welfare, promoted slander and diatribe against Democrats, liberal politicians, feminists, LGBT activists and intellectuals, upheld hard-right Republicans and went on to become one of the biggest cheerleaders for Donald Trump and his brand of politics.

The support for Mr. Trump has featured a coalition of eclectic voices — non-college educated white voters, including working class people who bought into his strident talk of trade protectionism, white supremacists across several class segments, social conservatives who were buoyed by his packing of courts with conservative judges, and conspiracy theorists who have traditionally shared a deep distrust of the U.S. state or its “government”. Mr. Trump’s recourse to repeated disinformation and his questionable way of governance have never been an impediment to his core support base for whom “political correctness”, intellectualism, and progressive ideals have been anathema.

One reason for Mr. Trump’s resilience despite his poor governance has been the work of Limbaugh and other conservative voices across radio and powerful TV networks such as Fox News. Limbaugh’s radio programme preceded even the establishment of Fox News, as his railing against the Washington establishment and its Democrat section in particular provided him with considerable fan following.

Even before Mr. Trump became known for it, Limbaugh used racist dog whistles, controversial language and misogyny to build his image as a standard bearer for “anti-establishment” conservatism, which provided him a significant heft and an outsized influence within the Republican Party itself.

Civilian honour

It is no wonder that the Trump administration awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among the highest civilian honours in the U.S.. Limbaugh and later imitators such as Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, etc. had already blazed the path for Trumpism to take over and institutionalise itself. Limbaugh was among the key proponents of Mr. Trump’s unsubstantiated claims about the November elections and he had also compared the rioters on Capitol Hill on January 6 with partisans of the American War of Independence of the 18th century.

Limbaugh’s radio megaphone pushed the establishment wing of the GOP further into the far-right in the U.S. on issues such as immigration and voter suppression. It also ultimately enabled the capture of the Republican Party by fact-free far-right ideologues.

When Mr. Trump was tried in the Senate for incitement of a mob that attacked Capitol Hill on January 6 with protesters seeking out ex-Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi among others as the targets of their ire, only seven Republicans voted along with the 50 Democrats to convict the former President, 10 short of the two-thirds majority needed. The reticence of the bulk of the GOP to convict him was not unexpected — Mr. Trump continues to hold a lot of sway in the party base.

The traditional factions represented by the fiscal conservatives, the social conservatives and the neoconservatives are subsumed under just two wings now — the ones who endorse Mr. Trump and his brand and the others who are uncomfortable with it. The latter includes sections who have thrown their lot with Mr. Trump fearful of alienating the GOP base and only a minority is willing to defy him. Years of radicalisation of the party base, thanks to the stridence of right-wing commentary, made this possible and Limbaugh played a vital role in this.

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