From Limbaugh to Trump: Rick Perlstein Explains Rush’s Real Legacy

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tags: conservatism, Rush Limbaugh, Talk Radio

Rush Limbaugh, the pioneer of conservative talk radio, passed away on Wednesday morning of lung cancer at 70 years old. It’s hard to overstate the enormity of the impact that Limbaugh had on the course of the conservative movement and our politics.

Indeed, in many ways, it’s hard to envision the Trump era unfolding as it has without Limbaugh’s influence. Trump himself understood this very well: After Limbaugh announced his illness in February of 2020, Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, declaring: “He is the greatest fighter that you will ever meet.”

To understand Limbaugh’s true legacy, I talked to Rick Perlstein, the author of a series of books about modern conservatism. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Greg Sargent: Where do you situate Rush Limbaugh in the history of the modern conservative movement?

Rick Perlstein: Enormously influential. Enormously efficacious. Beginning in 1989, I was listening to Limbaugh when he was just starting as a national figure. I watched his evolution.

What was evident to me right away was his ability to give people a sense that they were part of a community, part of a movement. In the case of politically alienated reactionary white males, they had an ally who would watch their back.

Sargent: Why was this very large white male reactionary audience out there looking for someone to speak to their anger?

Perlstein: It’s the basic story I tell in my books, starting with “Nixonland”: The rise of reactionary populism. People accustomed to being on top — culturally, socially, economically — were facing an onslaught of liberation movements that were all about giving other people a fair shot at the pie.

This is the guy offering a supposedly forbidden discourse, against the tide, to guys who wanted to drive giant cars and smoke cigars and maybe pat a fanny here and there.

Sargent: Limbaugh is part of the third generation of the “New Right.” The first generation is the reaction to Eisenhower and the battle over McCarthy. The second is the rise of Goldwater and into the 1970s. We tend to associate Limbaugh with the third wave — the 1980s into the 1990s.

Perlstein: Goldwater loses because he’s offering pure ideological nostrums — weakening unions and getting rid of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It’s not an ideology — as was seen in the results in 1964 — to build a majority.

The brilliance of the Nixonian new right of the 1970s was that they were able to prospect for grievances on the ground that came out of reaction to the insurgent movements of the 1960s — civil rights, abortion, gay rights.

That was a very psychologically based politics, in which you find the things that make people most angry, and you lead with that. You are actively creating this idea that the people in power are forcing things on you that are taking away your prerogatives, that are weakening your family.

Limbaugh inherited that 1970s mentality on the right: There’s nothing he would say that was abstract or intellectual in any way. It was all extremely visceral: There was this transcendent evil behind the scenes that wanted to destroy you.

It just shows the viciousness of this person, and how badly he deranged our public life: People were literally being taught that nothing liberals could do, nothing Democrats could do, could be anything but a diabolical conspiracy to destroy them.

Read entire article at Washington Post

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