Let’s be honest about who Rush Limbaugh really was

Obit Rush Limbaugh (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Obit Rush Limbaugh (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
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Rush Limbaugh, a popular conservative radio host and right-wing provocateur, has died at the age of 70 after a battle with lung cancer. His wife, Kathryn Limbaugh, announced his death on his talk radio program.

As in the aftermath of any public death, there were immediate calls for “respect” and “civility” as people urged others to consider the thoughts, feelings, and grief of his family. Needless to say, celebrating anyone’s death — including his — would be wildly inappropriate, and his family’s privacy should be recognized.

But it’s also important to talk about who Limbaugh really was. Because the only way to truly pay our respects to the radio host, who reached more than 15 million listeners during his 30-year talk radio career, is to remember exactly who he was and the legacy he left behind— one of divisiveness, cruelty, racism, homophobia, bigotry, and sexism. This was prejudice and callousness that he not only encouraged but reveled in.

On January 16, 2013, a little more than a month after the deadly Sandy Hook murders of 20 six- and seven-year-old children and six adults, Limbaugh said, “You know how to stop abortion? Require that each one occur with a gun.” At a time when the nation was still reeling from one of the most horrific school shootings to date, Limbaugh advocated for the government-sanctioned murder of pregnant people seeking abortion services. For context, that’s hoping one in four women — the majority of whom have at least one child at home — are executed for choosing not to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

In 2012, Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” for arguing that birth control should be covered by health insurance during a congressional hearing. After public outrage, Limbaugh issued what often passes as an apology these days, saying, “My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms Fluke for the insulting word choices.”

His attacks on women were a near-constant component of his radio show. He claimed feminism was “established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society.” He claimed women live longer than men because their “lives are easier” and said, “I love the women’s movement, especially when walking behind it.” He also referred to then 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton as the “White House dog.”

Limbaugh frequently attacked the LGBTQ+ community, at one point saying, “When a gay person turns his back on you, it is anything but an insult; it’s an invitation.” In 2020, he turned his sights on then-presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, claiming then-president Donald Trump could “have fun” debating “a gay guy kissing his husband on stage.” He referred to a trans caller during his show as a slur and asked how trans people have sex without revealing their “real gender.” He gave “AIDS updates” on his show with the Dionne Warwick song “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” as accompaniment.

But perhaps nothing embodies Limbaugh’s legacy more than his shameless racism. From his near-constant attacks on former president Barack Obama (during the 2008 election, he called Obama “a veritable rookie whose only chance of winning is that he’s Black” and hosted an entire segment speculating on Obama’s US citizenship) to his attacks on his own listeners (he once told a Black woman caller to “take that bone out of your nose and call me back”), it was Limbaugh’s open embrace of full-blown white supremacy that worked to shape the right-wing media as it is known today.

During one segment, he asked his listeners, “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?” And during his short-lived tenure as a commentator on ESPN, Limbaugh said of then-quarterback Donovan McNabb, “I think the media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well. They’re interested in Black coaches and Black quarterbacks doing well,” going on to add that McNabb “got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn’t deserve.”

And as recently as last month, Limbaugh endorsed the violence that occurred during the deadly January 6 insurrection on the nation’s Capitol building, saying, “We’re supposed to be horrified by the protesters” with derision, before denouncing calls to end the violence and spreading conspiracy theories about Antifa and so-called “Democrat-sponsored instigators.”

The harm Limbaugh caused during his career is vast and difficult to quantify, but it can be seen in nearly every facet of our current political climate. He intentionally harmed marginalized communities. He sowed division with cold-hearted precision. He upheld the tenets of white supremacy, bigotry, and sexism. To pretend otherwise would be cowardly and morally wrong.