Shortly after news broke that Rush Limbaugh had died on Wednesday, 2020 election loser and former President Donald Trump held a phone interview on Fox News, where he praised Limbaugh as “irreplaceable” and as “a fantastic man, a fantastic talent.”
It was Limbaugh’s open embrace of racism, bigotry and sexism that laid the groundwork for Trump to win the White House.
Limbaugh more than earned those words from Trump; even the one-term president likely gets that it was Limbaugh’s open embrace of racism, bigotry and sexism that laid the groundwork for Trump to win the White House in the first place. Perhaps more than any other one person, Limbaugh employed his media platform to weaponize America’s far-right into a political force that helped many conservative Republicans — including, of course, Trump — win elections.
Barack Obama's former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel once called the conservative radio commentator "the voice and intellectual force of the Republican Party.” He showed Trump that you could be as vile and hateful as you want — and there was still a mass audience on the right who loved it.
Before Trump slithered down the escalator of Trump Tower in 2015 to smear Mexicans as “rapists,” there was Limbaugh in 2013 praising Cuban immigrants (who tend to vote Republican) as hard-working, while suggesting Mexicans were lazy. Even before then, in 1993, Limbaugh “joked” on his show that the U.S. should let Mexicans into America to do the “stupid and unskilled” work.
Trump himself made despicable comments about Black and brown members of Congress, like Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, saying they should to “go back” to their countries. He repeatedly called Black American celebrities “low IQ,” a common white supremacist trope.
In doing so, Trump was conjuring up Limbaugh’s own racist playbook. Years before, Limbaugh had told a Black caller on his radio show, “Take that bone out of your nose and call me back.” He also once said, “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?"
He showed Trump that you could be as vile and hateful as you want — and there was still a mass audience on the right who loved it.
When it comes to sexist comments about women, it’s hard to tell where Trump begins and Limbaugh ends — but again, Limbaugh did it first. In 2005, he stated, "Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society."
Another one of Limbaugh’s most vile comments about women came in 2012, after law student Sandra Fluke testified before Congress in support of birth control being covered by health insurance. In response, Limbaugh infamously declared, “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. … She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception.”
While those sexist comments may have caused a backlash, Limbaugh stayed popular with his base and consistently garnered a great deal of media coverage — both things that Trump craves and has aspired to in his own political career. It’s therefore no surprise that during the 2016 campaign, Trump ridiculed GOP presidential opponent Carly Fiorina for her looks, saying: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Later during the campaign, Trump denied that women who accused him of sexual assault were telling the truth; in one case he said an accuser wasn’t good looking enough to merit him assaulting her.
Limbaugh and Trump also both defended former Fox News head Roger Ailes after at least two dozen women accused him of sexual harassment. There was Limbaugh on July 13, 2016, stating on his show that given how well he knows Ailes, the claims were just not believable.
What happened a little over a week later? Trump also publicly defended Ailes as a “very good person” and then demeaned the women who had courageously come forward with comments like, "I can tell you that some of the women that are complaining, I know how much he's helped them.”
And way before Trump made besmirching Muslims a visible part of his 2016 campaign with comments like “Islam hates us” and lies about Muslims in New Jersey cheering on the 9/11 attacks, Limbaugh had already been ginning up hate of Muslims. In 2010, he falsely stated that the terrorists who attacked the World Trade towers on 9/11 wanted to be build a mosque at ground zero. He continually fueled the conspiracy theory — which Trump later played on — that Obama was Muslim.
He continually fueled the conspiracy theory — which Trump later played on — that Obama was Muslim.
And finally, there’s Limbaugh in 2006, cruelly mocking Michael J. Fox, who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, by claiming the actor — who had appeared in an ad for a Democratic candidate for the Senate — was “exaggerating the effects of the disease” for political purposes. Limbaugh added that Fox was “shameless” in that “he is moving all around and shaking — and this is purely an act.”
Trump again took a page from Limbaugh during the 2016 presidential campaign, when he was upset with the journalist Serge Kovaleski for refusing to back up his lie that Muslims in New Jersey cheered on the 9/11 attacks. At a campaign rally, Trump sought revenge by mocking the reporter’s physical condition, called arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, by imitating his movements for laughs.
Now you see why Trump bestowed upon Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2020. Thanks to Limbaugh, Trump saw, along with much of America, that he could be just as bigoted, sexist and cruel as he wanted without fear of losing supporters — even when you lose a presidential election. In fact, Trump knew from Limbaugh’s success that, to the contrary, it would delight millions.
In short, Limbaugh was Trump way before Trump. And it was Limbaugh who peeled away the curtain to show people that bigotry, cruelty and sexism could be very, very profitable. Trump simply used that model to trade in financial gains for political ones.