Political talk radio didn’t really exist before Limbaugh. That was in part due to the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present all sides of opinion when discussing public issues. The doctrine’s repeal in 1987 opened the door for shows that presented only one side of an issue, which Limbaugh sprinted through.
Limbaugh’s first innovation was to make the host, not the guests or the listeners, the show’s star. Television talk shows at the time had star hosts, such as Phil Donahue or Mike Douglas, but people watched to see who they interviewed, not hear them pontificate. Even the reigning late-night king, Johnny Carson of “The Tonight Show,” was primarily an interviewer rather than a performer. Limbaugh’s nationally syndicated show rejected this tested model in favor of extended monologues. He might have guests or take calls, but people tune in to hear what Limbaugh has to say about whatever is in the headlines.
Limbaugh’s second innovation was far more important: His monologues are always, relentlessly, conservative. Regardless of the topic, the right is always right and the left is always wrong. In Limbaugh’s world, there are white hats and black hats, good guys and bad guys, and he is on the side of the conservative good guys.
It’s a massive understatement to say this model found an audience. In 1987, there was no other mass media show where conservatives could regularly hear their world views validated. Limbaugh spread like wildfire as millions found solace and got fired up each day by listening.
Like any good innovator, Limbaugh’s success spawned imitators. Conservative talk radio exploded. While each host had their own distinct flair, all copied Limbaugh’s core elements: They were the stars, and they were always vehemently conservative. These imitators also jumped across mediums. Fox News’s evening opinion programs are essentially television versions of Limbaugh’s radio shows. Bloggers such as Michelle Malkin and authors such as Ann Coulter took his innovations into the print and online worlds. Modern media-driven conservatism was born.
Limbaugh’s entrepreneurship changed politics, too. Conservative politicians learned what a large and vocal part of their constituency liked and started to imitate him as well. The modern conservative movement had always divided the world into right and left, good guys and bad guys. Early leaders such as William F. Buckley Jr., however, insisted that conservatives make arguments rather than assertions. His innovation, the opinion magazine National Review, published serious essays by serious people. The magazine’s pages would also include a wide range of conservative views and encouraged intra-movement dissent and argument. Ronald Reagan, a well-read and thoughtful man no matter what his opponents thought, was a perfect leader for Buckley-ite conservatism.
The new conservative world Limbaugh spawned has been decidedly more confrontational and dogmatic. It gave rise to such leaders as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who often based their public appeals in a Manichaean, apocalyptic framework. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is perhaps the post-Limbaugh politician par excellence. In less than two years, his confrontational, take-no-prisoners approach to the Senate — and other Republicans — catapulted him from obscurity to a national conservative leader and serious presidential candidate. He, too, simply adapted Limbaugh’s lessons to a new field.
This new conservatism, however, has political challenges. Conservatives can only win by building coalitions, and that means appealing to people who don’t listen to conservative talk radio or watch Fox News every night. That’s true even within the Republican Party. It was no coincidence that former Republican House speaker John A. Boehner, a man Cruz and conservative talkers had branded as the enemy, broke his post-speakership silence the week before the crucial Indiana primary to say the Texas senator was “Lucifer in the flesh” and to tell a Stanford University audience that he and Trump were “texting buddies.” Trump smashed Cruz by nearly 17 points in Indiana even while losing among very conservative voters.
Trump is, in one sense, Limbaugh’s best pupil but also shows Limbaughism’s limits. Like Limbaugh, Trump attacks the left and rallies the right. His populist policies also give him an appeal to nonconservatives that people such as Cruz lack. Trump’s angry demeanor and non-intellectualism, however, drive away many college-educated voters across the political spectrum. It seems the Reagan-Buckley approach has its advantages even in a post-Limbaugh world.
Conservatives owe Limbaugh a debt of gratitude for breaking down the walls that had kept them fenced off from the mass media. I also hope, however, that the next generation of conservative innovators builds on Limbaugh’s success and tempers some of his excess, injecting some of the old, more magnanimous spirit into post-Trump conservatism. That faith communicated through Limbaugh-inspired media can move mountains.