Nine months later, Rush Limbaugh broadcast his first nationally syndicated radio show.
The two men’s careers moved in parallel over the next three-plus decades, with both becoming national (and international) celebrities — hated by some, loved by others, but always able to do that most American of things: Create a strong reaction.
Limbaugh’s effect on Trump — as the billionaire businessman honed a political persona built around American exceptionalism, sticking it to the elites and weaponizing racial animus — is profound. Trump was a devotee of Limbaugh’s radio show and an unapologetic supporter of the deeply controversial conservative talking head.
It’s not too much to say that without Rush Limbaugh, there might never been a President Donald Trump. Limbaugh didn’t create Trump. But he provided as sort of broad ideological framework for Trump to fit his own ideas into. And even more importantly, Limbaugh spent decades sowing distrust with the media and savaging Democrats in deeply personal terms — moves that provided fertile ground for the appeals Trump eventually rode to the White House.
“Let me tell you who we conservatives are: We love people. When we look out over the United States of America, when we are anywhere, when we see a group of people, such as this or anywhere, we see Americans. We see human beings. We don’t see groups. We don’t see victims. We don’t see people we want to exploit. What we see — what we see is potential. … We do not see that person with contempt. We don’t think that person doesn’t have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government.”
Those words could easily have come out of the mouth of Donald Trump. As could so many other lines from Limbaugh just in that one speech:
* On race: “We don’t hate anybody. We don’t — I mean, the racism in this country, if you ask me, I know many people in this audience — let me deal with this head on. You know what the cliche is, a conservative: racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe. Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen of America, if you were paying attention, I know you were, the racism in our culture was exclusively and fully on display in the Democrat primary last year.”
* On Democratic interest groups: “Take a look at all the constituency groups that for 50 years have been depending on the Democrat Party to improve their lives. And you tell me if you find any. They’re still complaining, still griping about the same problems.”
* On the media: “Also, for those of you in the Drive-By Media watching, I have not needed a teleprompter for anything I’ve said. And nor do any of us need a teleprompter, because our beliefs are not the result of calculations and contrivances.”
It’s as though Trump took this speech and turned it into a presidential campaign.
But there was more to Limbaugh’s influence on Trump — and the Republican Party that would eventually choose him as its presidential nominee in 2016 — than just words and policies. There was also a seething resentment and anger, often expressed in Limbaugh’s case via biting sarcasm, aimed at the elites, be they in politics, media or anything else.
Limbaugh cast himself as the voice of the everyman, the guy who said what everyone — or at least some people — was thinking. The guy unafraid of being shamed or shunned. The guy who charged directly at the elites time and time again to show them that they didn’t represent the real America.
What Limbaugh understood was that his power rested in his loyal followers. That as long as he could command them, politicians would fear him. And that would make him powerful.
Perhaps the best example of how Trump and Trumpism borrowed from the Limbaugh playbook came during the presidency of Barack Obama, when both men became leading lights in the “birther” movement — the repeatedly debunked notion that Obama was not actually born in the United States and, therefore, was not eligible to be president.
The point here is a simple one: Donald Trump was the living, breathing embodiment of the politics of grievance that Limbaugh spent decades peddling. Whereas Limbaugh weaponized race and misogyny for ratings, Trump did it for votes. Where Limbaugh talked about the need to excise the Republican Party of moderates and “squishes,” Trump used his office and power within the party to cleanse it of anyone who wouldn’t fall in line with him. Limbaugh talked. Trump did.
Trump was Limbaugh’s Frankenstein monster. And he proudly stood by him until the very end.