At his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, whose past recipients include Rosa Parks, Edward R. Murrow, Jonas Salk, and Nelson Mandela, to radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Limbaugh did that in three important ways. First, he spread to an enormous national audience many of the ideas and tropes that would later become key to Trump’s rhetoric. Second, he brought naked and relentless race-baiting to that audience, making sure whiteness stayed at the core of conservative identity. And third, long before Trump ran for president, he was telling conservatives that there is no such thing as truth and any news source that might report something you don’t like should be ignored.
Limbaugh was hardly the first angry radio host, but when his show exploded across the country in the early 1990s, it gave millions of listeners hours every day of the same message that Newt Gingrich was promoting in Washington: Both Democratic leaders and the people they represented were irredeemable enemies toward whom the only appropriate feeling was a burning hatred, because they are literally trying to destroy you and everything you stand for.
Limbaugh was also one of the key purveyors of the idea that Trump would later take up, that liberals use “political correctness” to silence conservatives. In between the complaints about everything you’re not allowed to say, Limbaugh would be as offensive as possible, whether it was talking about “feminazis,” or making a cruel joke about a 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton being ugly.
And perhaps more than any other conservative media figure, Limbaugh took Barack Obama’s election as an opportunity for a ceaseless campaign of race-baiting. Again and again, Limbaugh told his audience that any given Obama policy was actually “reparations,” an effort to punish white people for sins in which they had no part.
When some kids had a fight on a school bus in St. Louis not long after Obama took office, Limbaugh railed, “in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering ‘yeah, right on, right on, right on.’" Limbaugh would sometimes speak in an exaggerated “black” accent to make his point.
Limbaugh’s rhetoric about race has always been about convincing his largely white audience that they are under threat from racial minorities who are both criminal and lazy on one hand and seeking to take power from whites on the other. The effect is to increase the salience of whiteness as an identity and locus of oppression, an idea that came to fruition in Trump’s presidential candidacy.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, Trump is “the first white president,” in that he is the first president who elevated white identity to such a central place in his political project.
That brings us to the final way Limbaugh helped sow the seeds that would grow into the Trump presidency: The emphatic rejection of the very idea of objective truth.
There may be no more characteristic feature of Trumpism than his unrelenting assault on reality, not only in the shamelessness and sheer volume of his lies, but in his insistence that his supporters can and should reject any information that does not come from him or approved sources like Fox News.
But Limbaugh was telling people to do just that years before. In 2009, he described what he called “The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media." Those institutions, he said, "are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit.” Nothing that any of those institutions said could be believed; the only people you should listen to were Rush and those like him.
Without the large conservative media universe Limbaugh helped build — the most important nodes of which are his show and Fox News — it wouldn’t be possible to give the Republican rank-and-file that instruction. That was always the goal: Not just to give conservatives an alternative to the mainstream media, but to base conservative news and talk on the idea that you should only get information from conservative media, because everything else is a lie.
When Trump came along and said that he and the news outlets that support him are the only source of truth and everything else you might encounter — even the evidence of your own eyes — is a lie that must be rejected, Republicans were ready and eager to agree.
So Trump has every reason to be thankful to Limbaugh.
Limbaugh recently announced that he has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. There are some who say that when a public figure is ill or die, one should refrain from criticizing them. I emphatically reject this idea and always have.
The most important and influential people in our society must be understood in full, for both the good and bad they do. One cannot consider Limbaugh without an accounting of the poison he has gleefully poured into our national bloodstream for so long — and the way he created the conditions that allowed Trump to become president.
To do otherwise is to close our eyes to the awful truth of who he has been and what he has done.