I listened to a lot of Rush Limbaugh growing up in the 90s in Ohio. Talk radio was the de facto station when my dad was driving the car, and 610 WTVN syndicated Rush, followed by John Corby, a local guy who basically had the same schtick but with more Ohio State sports incorporated (or at least from what I remember). What’s interesting to me is that I had trouble recalling any of the specific content of Rush’s many, many remarks. I vaguely remembered some stuff about “feminazis” but that might have been from reading about the controversy in papers and magazines, not listening to the show itself. The day Limbaugh died I watched some old clips that jogged my memory about how much he discussed the television character Murphy Brown. But my memories of Rush were more of his ambiance than his arguments.
Part of the difficulty in remembering the ostensible content of Rush’s politics is that they weren’t present in my household. My parents were typical midwestern moderates, meaning they didn’t want politicians who shouted or thumped the Bible, they just wanted quiet respectable-looking guys in boring suits to stay out of the picture, maybe shave a bit off their property taxes. I think they usually voted for Republicans, but I couldn’t really tell the difference between the two parties, even though I had a budding interest in politics as a kid and read the Columbus Dispatch every day. It was the ‘90s. History had supposedly just ended, and even though there was a culture war raging, my family stayed neutral. My parents weren’t religious, didn’t care about abortion or teen moms, didn’t hate feminism, and we watched Murphy Brown, like every other network sitcom, regularly.
So what I remember more than any specific positions is his overall tone. Or maybe a “vibe,” to use a more contemporary expression. Proust had madeleines; we who live in more vulgar times and places have the odor of stale tobacco soaked into an aging Buick Skylark and the voice of Rush Limbaugh. On a purely formal level, Rush had an undeniable talent for broadcasting and a mellifluous radio voice. It was like listening to a skilled trombonist doing solos: it seemed like he could riff endlessly, refracting back into his own deep well of rhetorical devices. His voice would wash over me, the soundtrack to gazing out the car window at strip malls and stop lights on the way to a Scout meeting.
This mastery of form was supplemented with a brassy smugness, a kind of unearned confidence with a sting of casual cruelty that was crucial to the Rush aesthetic. You never got a lot of facts or concrete analysis from Rush, never numbers or much in the way of actual policy being debated in Washington. And even though most of what was discussed was conservative culture war tropes of “family values,” he wasn’t religious, or at least he wouldn’t cite chapter and verse (we would never have listened if he did that).
What was more important than facts was portraying the other side — liberals — as obviously ridiculous, over-the-top, and not to be taken seriously. Being a “feminazi” didn’t mean you were a dangerous threat, like the actual Nazis — it meant you were a clown. You had too much passion for dispassionate times. Liberal positions were worthy of little more than a snide chuckle — in fact, if a caller ever disagreed or pushed Rush on his positions, he could simply retreat into this kind of dismissive joke, as if to say, what, you thought we were talking serious politics, this is cocktail banter, we are blowing off steam after the back 9, fella! Of course he could always cut people off, and did.
I really think that this baseless disdainfulness was key to Rush’s whole appeal: the demonstration that you could be this haughty and dismissive of other people, this superior, without any kind of factual argument, without anything to back it up. It was important that this superiority was unearned. It simply wouldn’t have worked so well otherwise. The draw of the show is that you didn’t have to try, you wouldn’t be challenged, you wouldn’t have to change at all. Even if you were stupid or ignorant, even if you hadn’t really read much about politics, or understood much about an issue, you could still lord it over everyone. You didn’t have to know anything about what it was like to be a teacher to demand that they do more with less so you paid a bit less in taxes. You didn’t have to know anything about poverty. You could be clever — knowing the language games to play, when to arch your eyebrow — without being smart or informed.
This also explains why Rush’s visual aesthetic was a caricature of 1990s middle management, leaning in to being an overweight balding guy in a gross navy suit: this was a kind of ideal type that many of his listeners, if not inhabited themselves, aspired to. People whose jobs mean they don’t have to know how to do anything besides direct the flow of administrative bullshit towards some other poor sap while trying to glad-hand their way up the food chain. It’s a world where it’s stupid to be anything but a selfish prick.
It makes sense to me that he loved living in Florida (another state I grew up in): a place that asks for little in taxes and promises people nothing but sun, the land of escape without escapism. It makes sense that he was an addict: his show was about enjoyment, the kind that only comes with at least some element of transgression — though always one that can be walked back and disavowed if necessary. He played rock and R&B between segments: Brothers Johnson, Pat Benatar, The Police’s mocking “De Doo Doo Doo, De Da Da Da” a natural choice. The track that opened his show for years, “My City Was Gone” by The Pretenders, which lamented the suburbanization of Ohio, was a particularly resonant cut for me, and utterly ironic.
Rush was the purest embodiment of American middle-class suburban complacency, and the meanness that lurked behind the boring facade. Generically ugly, paunchy, and unfashionable, he was an avatar of “the boomer.” But rather than a generation, Rush represented a class fragment that lazily grew fat off its outsized share of the global social product claimed by American empire, defending it with a diffident snort, like a pantomime of the scoffing of the actual rich. His show was an exercise in aesthetic cadre formation, pulling together relatively privileged people who were overconfident and underinformed — just in time for their pastel polo shirt retirement dreams to be demolished by the financial crisis. No one gets as mad as someone in the catbird seat who never saw it coming, so Rush’s dittoheads were perfectly primed to become the MAGA hordes, which Trump himself recognized with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. I never heard a word of Limbaugh’s after I left home, but deep in my bones I knew the last 20 years played out precisely to his beat.
Gavin Mueller teaches at the University of Amsterdam.