Rush Limbaugh and the Right’s Generational Despair

When ideology is malleable and confrontation is mandatory.

If you’re reading this and you’re younger than I am (I was born in 1969 and came of age politically during the Reagan era), it’s almost impossible to conceive of the pre-Rush Limbaugh media environment. It was as if we lived on a different planet. You read your morning paper, you watched the evening news, and if you were really a political hobbyist (I was!), you subscribed to Time, Newsweek, or both. The smallest micro-slice of Americans was exposed to intellectual journals like National Review or The New Republic.

My exposure to conservative commentary was the library’s copy of NR, combined with a few syndicated conservative columnists. In those days, George Will was a lifeline. And even if you were a political hobbyist, it was virtually impossible to marinate in politics. The content just wasn’t available—even when CNN debuted. Hardly anyone watched.

Rush blew up this world. He nuked it from orbit. It wasn’t just that his show was popular (and it was phenomenally popular): He created an industry, and that industry created a lifestyle. It’s the lifestyle we see now, where a person comes home from work, turns on Fox News, and doesn’t turn it off until they sleep, or where a person never flips the dial from their favorite talk radio station, or rolls from podcast to podcast, all while the phone is in their hands, scrolling through Facebook and Twitter.

Is there a Roger Ailes and Fox News without Rush? Perhaps. Is it the same? Absolutely not. 

But many of the obituaries and analyses of Rush’s undeniable impact miss that he didn’t just lead and shape a generation of political commentary—he also in many ways reflected and followed his own audience. Rush’s trajectory both shaped and mirrored the trajectory of tens of millions of Americans. It’s the path from Dan’s Bake Sale in 1993 to conspiracy, deep paranoia, and musings about secession in 2020.

I experienced Rush in two distinct snapshots: his beginning and his end. And the differences are disturbing. I first listened to Rush in the early 1990s, when friends told me I “had” to hear him. There was no Google then. You couldn’t immediately research anyone. There was no catalogue of outrageous statements online. To find out what somebody was about, you just listened to what they had to say.

When I listened to Rush, I thought I was hearing a happy warrior. Imagine a Ronald Reagan/William F. Buckley ideology in the hands of a bombastic, WWE-style entertainer. He built a bond with his audience, and if you liked him, even when he was mean, you were tempted to excuse him. You thought he was “trying to be funny.”

(Jonah’s comparison of Rush to Jon Stewart is fascinating. I’d never thought of it before, but the partisan reaction to Stewart does mirror the reaction to Rush. Progressives thought Stewart was funny, not mean. Conservatives thought he was mean, not funny.)

The peak moment of early Rush—the Rush Limbaugh who I liked and listened to—happened in May 1993. A listener named Dan Kay had called in and complained that his wife wouldn’t let him pay for a subscription to the Limbaugh Letter. Rush suggested that he hold a bake sale to raise the money, and thus “Dan’s Bake Sale” was born.

It personified the substance and fun of listening to Rush. He advocated self-reliance. Don’t whine, Dan, use the free enterprise system to make the money. He built a community. Once people knew that Dan’s Bake Sale was a thing, they drove from miles around to meet and greet fellow “dittoheads.” And there was always this sense of over-the-top absurdity. A bake sale? Really? But thousands showed up for “Rushstock,” and a great time was had by all.

I largely stopped listening to Rush after law school. When you’re trying to make your way in large firm litigation, you don’t have much spare time in the middle of the day. Besides, in the new world that Rush built, there was no lack of immediately available conservative infotainment.

To the extent I still followed Rush, he frustrated me. I’m not going to catalogue all his controversies, but I felt that something was changing—he seemed to be losing the “happy” aspect of the happy warrior.

In 2016, I tuned in again. I wanted to hear what Rush was saying about Donald Trump. Rush, after all, had been an advocate for Reaganism and a guardian of “true conservatism.” He was bombastic in service of a particular, coherent ideology. What would he think of Trump?

What I heard surprised me. Rush seemed slightly afraid of his own audience. He was offering a very mild critique of a Trump primary debate performance, and it was obvious he was worried about pushback. He wasn’t in command. He seemed defensive. This isn’t the Rush I remember, I thought.

Soon enough, he was all-in with Trump and all-out with Never Trump. He embraced Michael Anton’s famous “Flight 93” essay with both arms. His rhetoric grew increasingly catastrophic. He minimized the coronavirus. He spread election conspiracies. His anger was palpable. As for his ideology? He moved. The one-time tenacious guardian of the Reagan/Buckley ideological legacy had become extremely flexible. It was clear what he was fighting against—elitists, the Republican establishment, the left—and much less apparent what he was fighting for, aside from Trump.  

My friend Rod Dreher has written about the right and left’s inverse generational problem. On the left, there’s a rise in grassroots demands for censorship and cancel culture, coming often from students and young employees, that has deeply influenced a number of leading center-left cultural institutions. This Bari Weiss thread describes her perception of the culture at the New York Times, and it’s worth your time:

On the right, however, the intolerance and anger tends to come from older voters—from Rush’s generation, from my parents’ generation. As the 2020 election approached, there was a palpable sense of panic that America itself was at stake. Yes, there are the young Charlie Kirk-style firebrands. But the audience and energy for Trump was much older, and many of them attacked dissenters with every bit as much energy as the most enraged campus progressive.

I don’t put all or most of this in Rush’s lap. He broke open American media, but soon enough he was but one (admittedly important) voice of many. He was both an architect and product of his political generation, and like so many millions of his fellow citizens, he lost his political way.

The conservative side of the internet is full of stories of Rush’s personal kindness and his generosity to his friends. I did not know Rush, and I didn’t see that side of him. But in that way he also mirrors his generation. I know countless good and kind older Americans—folks who would give you the shirt off their back and show up first to help you in a personal emergency—who switch almost immediately to a posture of bitterness and anger the instant they face a political challenge.

It’s sad to see this rage. It’s sad to see this fear. After all, Rush’s conservative generation did much to leave America a better place than they found it. This is the generation that brought America back from defeat in Vietnam and corruption at Watergate. It’s the generation that gave us “Morning in America” in 1984 and helped defeat a communist superpower without the catastrophe of world war.

America is more prosperous than it was when Rush launched his career. It’s more free. Crime is down from its highs. Abortion is down. Divorce is down. Protections for individual liberty are more robust than they’ve been in decades. But tribalism is worse. Polarization is more profound.

In such a circumstance, the ideas that helped improve our republic have taken a back seat to the attitudes that help us confront our opponents. The ideology is malleable. The confrontation is mandatory. That’s the migration Rush made. That’s a migration millions made. Rush was a symbol of a generation’s despair.

One more thing …

I’m not a UFO conspiracy theorist. I promise I’m not. But I had great fun reading this story in the New Yorker about Harvard Avi Loeb and his theory about a recent interstellar visitor. It begins:

On October 19, 2017, a Canadian astronomer named Robert Weryk was reviewing images captured by a telescope known as Pan-starrs1 when he noticed something strange. The telescope is situated atop Haleakalā, a ten-thousand-foot volcanic peak on the island of Maui, and it scans the sky each night, recording the results with the world’s highest-definition camera. It’s designed to hunt for “near-Earth objects,” which are mostly asteroids whose paths bring them into our planet’s astronomical neighborhood and which travel at an average velocity of some forty thousand miles an hour. The dot of light that caught Weryk’s attention was moving more than four times that speed, at almost two hundred thousand miles per hour.

More:

As astronomers pored over the data, they excluded one theory after another. ‘Oumuamua’s weird motion couldn’t be accounted for by a collision with another object, or by interactions with the solar wind, or by a phenomenon that’s known, after a nineteenth-century Polish engineer, as the Yarkovsky effect. One group of researchers decided that the best explanation was that 1I/2017 U1 was a “miniature comet” whose tail had gone undetected because of its “unusual chemical composition.” Another group argued that ‘Oumuamua was composed mostly of frozen hydrogen. This hypothesis—a variation on the mini-comet idea—had the advantage of explaining the object’s peculiar shape. By the time it reached our solar system, it had mostly melted away, like an ice cube on the sidewalk.

By far the most spectacular account of 1I/2017 U1 came from Avi Loeb, a Harvard astrophysicist. ‘Oumuamua didn’t behave as an interstellar object would be expected to, Loeb argued, because it wasn’t one. It was the handiwork of an alien civilization.

Read the whole thing. It’s fascinating.

One last thing …

Ok, I freely admit to being obsessed with the PBS Space Time YouTube channel. I just discovered it, I can’t stop watching it, and it finally answered my questions about warp drive—questions we should all be asking. Watch and learn: