Today the GOP is a far-right party shaped by conservative broadcasters and provocateurs with little to no interest in the realities of governance. They see politics as warfare, a conflict in which only total victory is acceptable regardless of the circumstances. Business imperatives drive the media figures at the root of this phenomenon, not any real sense of responsibility for the country, or even the GOP’s future. This simple calculation explains why they so freely pump out misinformation — which in 2021 has now proved to have deadly consequences.
This Republican Party is the party Limbaugh — not Trump — made. The party’s values and its approach are those that Limbaugh espoused and put into practice on his pathbreaking radio program. His ascent explains why the most visible figures in the GOP are focused far less on policy than “triggering the libs.”
Like Limbaugh, the party’s elected officials mostly hold that compromise equals surrender. As he insisted that they must, they contend that Democrats are the enemy out to destroy the American way of life. Any Republican who doesn’t support extreme positions with absolute consistency, and isn’t willing to fight for them to the hilt, is, of course, a RINO or Republican in Name Only — a term that Limbaugh wielded with savage effectiveness to purge heretics from the party. Over time, this ever expanding category became as much about ethos as ideology. Thanks in large part to this Republican orientation — and thanks, therefore, to Limbaugh — American politics today are defined by polarization that makes addressing national challenges difficult to impossible.
Crucially Limbaugh was a shock jock, not a journalist, politician or traditional party leader. That meant the style he deployed each day to millions of listeners was designed to grab the audience and keep them glued in cars wondering what the host might say next. He took the shtick he had honed as a disc jockey in the 1970s under names like Rusty Sharpe and Jeff Christie and applied it to the politics he had heard around the family dinner table growing up.
Limbaugh’s show was full of incendiary rhetoric — in December he caused a stir by musing, “I actually think that we’re trending toward secession” — zany themed updates, caustic nicknames and the occasional conspiracy theory. Over 32 plus years on air, plenty of this rhetoric crossed into outright bigotry, whether it was asserting, “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society,” mocking those dying of AIDS or the 2008 parody, “Barack, the Magic Negro.” Limbaugh’s program painted politics as a soap opera, with heroes arrayed against villains.
As copycat hosts arose in Limbaugh’s wake, listeners bonded with them, treating their analysis and assessments as they would the take of friends or family. But that dining room table quality belied the real influence of these hosts, since their audience overlapped precisely with the small slice of Americans who voted in Republican primaries. Especially as the country polarized into red states and blue states and red districts and blue districts, alienating talk radio hosts could be politically deadly.
While Limbaugh displayed a pragmatic streak when it came to getting the GOP into power and keeping it there, he also never hesitated to criticize Republicans. In 1992, for example, he urged listeners to express their disappointment in President George H.W. Bush by voting for Pat Buchanan in the New Hampshire Republican Primary. Limbaugh’s allegiance with the party came on his terms; if a party stalwart didn’t meet his standards, there was always another contender waiting in the wings. Over time, many of those rising in the GOP ranks sounded like Limbaugh himself. They understood that this had become the key to the heart of Republican voters.
Even as he pushed the party rightward, Limbaugh remained practical throughout his early years, acknowledging that “politics is dealmaking.” He provided a platform for prominent Republicans that helped ingratiate them with their most ardent voters, regularly hosting House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and assisting the party come election time. But he never fully accepted the trade-offs demanded by governance. After all, as Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.), a member of the Republican leadership in the 1990s, observed, there was nothing “very entertaining about nuance,” and the stock and trade of Limbaugh and his progeny was entertaining listeners with a “very sharp,” unambiguous message. Freed from any responsibility for governance, hosts could focus on putting on a good show even if it raised unrealistic expectations that then trapped Republican elected officials or made governing impossible.
That tendency toward divisiveness — and a consequent shift away from pragmatism — intensified as Limbaugh’s listeners became frustrated at the lack of conservative victories. By the end of the 2000s, he was advocating for a pure party, one that battled full throatedly against Democrats even when it was futile or unwise, all while eschewing compromise at all costs. A special election in Upstate New York exhibited how Limbaugh had changed. President Barack Obama had won the district with 52 percent of the vote in 2008, and the race pitted a Democrat against both liberal Republican Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava and Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. The Republican apparatus, including the National Republican Congressional Committee threw its weight behind Scozzafava. This enraged Limbaugh, who declared, “we actually have two liberal Obama Democrats, one calling herself a Republican” opposing Hoffman, who Limbaugh called a “Reagan conservative.” When the Republican Party ran ads against Hoffman, Limbaugh railed that the party had a “death wish” and as it was then constituted was “as dangerous to this country as the Democrat Party is.”
Scozzafava ended up withdrawing from the race and endorsing her Democratic opponent. While this might have cost the GOP a seat, it thrilled Limbaugh. He saw it as a “teachable moment for those who lack a keen sense of the obvious.” Scozzafava had demonstrated that “RINOs cannot be trusted. … They aren’t principled. You vote ‘em into office and you’re going to get cap and tax, you’re going to get some version of Obamacare, you’re going to get tax increases, you’re going to get TARP bailouts, you’re gonna get amnesty.” During a Senate primary the next year, the host articulated the new Limbaugh rule of primaries: “In an election year when voters are fed up with liberalism and socialism … vote for the most conservative Republican in the primary. Period.” To him, the greater risk wasn’t losing an individual election, it was RINOS tarnishing “the conservative brand” and confusing the electorate into thinking “Well they’re all alike.”
Republicans understood that simply ignoring Limbaugh’s warnings could be perilous; within weeks of each other in 2009, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele were both forced to apologize for lightly criticizing the host. He was more popular with their base than they were. They couldn't afford the most powerful force in conservative politics questioning their dedication to the cause, producing the abrupt about faces — a trend later often witnessed with Trump as well. This political reality drove the rise of what was derisively dubbed the “hope yes, vote no” caucus — Republicans who wanted to see legislation pass, but wouldn’t vote for it for fear of a conservative media boosted primary challenge.
Neither losing nor potential policy consequences mattered much to Limbaugh — after all he wasn’t charged with getting Republican elected; he merely had to put on a good show and maintain his bond with his audience. As conservative media proliferated, he also had to guard against being outflanked by the competitors he had helped inspire. In response, he largely abandoned his onetime pragmatism in favor of something spikier and more exclusionary. After Obama got reelected, and with the country hurtling toward the “fiscal cliff,” Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) made his initial proposal to the president for a deal to avert the crisis. Even that was too much for Limbaugh who dubbed Boehner’s news conference and offer a “seminar in surrender.”
This brand of politics paved the way for Trump. While some might have questioned his conservative bona fides, Republican base voters craved politicians who sounded like Limbaugh. And Trump’s style is precisely that — never dull, always in your face, rife with nicknames and assaults on the mainstream media. That he proved largely incompetent at his supposed art form — deal making — was largely irrelevant to his allies, which was surely another effect of the way Limbaugh had shaped the GOP. Trump obsessed over not alienating his base, which for decades had heard Limbaugh’s warnings and laments about Republican politicians siding with their liberal enemies in Washington. The key was crushing them, not cutting deals. This view of politics as warfare, and those trying to govern as heretics, underpins the burgeoning Republican civil war.
During Trump’s presidency, Limbaugh maintained his outsized influence to the point that when Trump wanted to reboot his 2020 campaign after a bout with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, he held a radio rally for hours on Limbaugh’s show despite an audience that was, presumably, already committed to the candidate. That broadcast spoke to the ethos that Limbaugh brought to the GOP, one that will linger long after his final broadcast. As he held — and as Trump holds — the only people who really matter are those who are tuning in. It’s a formulation in which the audience is the party and the party is the audience, whether it’s big enough to win or not. That premise goes beyond the mere rejection of bipartisanship, instead leading to the conclusion that even occasional dissent or bowing to basic political reality is unacceptable. The stakes are too high. This is the GOP that Limbaugh made. Trump only inherited it.