Does Rush Limbaugh Matter Anymore?

The shock jock still commands a huge audience, but he's not standing out in the era of Donald Trump.
05/31/2018 02:26 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2018

In early March, Rush Limbaugh, the progenitor of conservative shock talk radio, took a call from Gary, a listener concerned that the veteran pundit was losing his edge.

Had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election and behaved in a manner similar to President Donald Trump, Gary alleged, “you would be fricasseeing her every moment of your show.”

Limbaugh, 67, responded with characteristic bluster, mock surprise and a healthy dose of self-pity. Admitting that Trump is “by no means an ideological conservative,” Limbaugh, as is his wont, reframed one of the most powerful men in the world and himself, still the most popular talk radio host in the country, as Davids battling a liberal Goliath.

Limbaugh insisted, without much elaboration, that though the president isn’t an ideologue, he is “the only thing standing in the way of the forces of the left ruining this country.” For good measure, the host sprinkled in some “anti-globalist” language about the United Nations as a nod to Trump’s base. And, in a moment of thinly veiled ass-kissery, cited his criticism of Gary Cohn, a Trump bete noire who had announced his resignation that week as head of the National Economic Council, as the example of his fearless ideological independence.

It was the quintessential Limbaugh moment in the Trump era: full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. He was not a Trump lackey, his argument went, but he just happens to believe the guy is the greatest hope for the Republican Party and conservatism in general. Oh, and he’s definitely worried about all that shady international cabal stuff that Steve Bannon and his ilk always warn about. Go ahead, ask him about that “Goldman Sachs Democrat” ― Limbaugh’s description of Cohn ― that the president hates.

Limbaugh quickly pivoted to a bout of liberal bashing, which ended, naturally, with an allusion to former President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Such behavior from Limbaugh is as assured as the sun rising in the east, but in the context of President Trump, it had an air of wistfulness to it.

After all, Limbaugh is in the middle of a four-year contract with his distributor, Premiere Networks (a subsidiary of iHeartMedia, formerly Clear Channel Communications). When Limbaugh inked the deal in August 2016, the prevailing expectation was that it would cover the first term of Hillary Clinton’s presidency. In a news release following the agreement, Limbaugh said he wanted “to be on the air if the Russians find Hillary’s emails.” It was Limbaugh’s constant lambasting of the Clintons in the 1990s that helped propel him into mega-stardom and already his 2016 ratings had spiked 25 percent, according to Nielsen. The band, it seemed, might be getting back together.

Of course, it wasn’t to be. Instead of having two Presidents Clinton to lob bombs at, Limbaugh instead has a commander in chief who is, arguably, a far better shock jock than he is. Let’s not forget that the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has ridiculed the disabled, immigrants and prisoners of war and also boasted about sexual assault and his ability to execute people in public.

And where once Limbaugh was America’s lodestar of political shock, many of his pronouncements now seem tame when compared with some of his peers in the conservative movement.

Rush Limbaugh infamously attacked reproductive rights activist Sandra Fluke in 2012 because of her stances on birth control.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Rush Limbaugh infamously attacked reproductive rights activist Sandra Fluke in 2012 because of her stances on birth control.

Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog organization that has been highly critical of Limbaugh, sees the radio host as blending in with the crowd somewhat.

“What has this guy done to adapt? Nothing,” Carusone said. “[Conservative punditry] is like a drug: In order to get your fix, you have to keep escalating a little bit.”

Take Limbaugh’s response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the ensuing gun control activism by a number of the survivors. The student activists, Limbaugh insisted, were mere puppets of the Democratic Party.

“Everything they’re doing is right out of the Democrat Party’s various playbooks. It has the same enemies: the NRA and guns,” he fumed.

As distasteful as such comments may be, they were pretty standard lines among the conservative green room set ― Bill O’Reilly, for example, made similar remarks.

Compared with other prominent conservatives, however, Limbaugh’s comments were downright tepid. Conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, tweeting news about students being distraught over the Florida Legislature voting down new gun control laws, joked that the development was the “worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs.” David Clarke, a far-right pundit and former Milwaukee sheriff, said his father would have “backhanded” Parkland student activist Emma Gonzalez.

Most interesting was conservative radio host Laura Ingraham’s taunting of shooting survivor and activist David Hogg, because it was such a Limbaugh thing to do. After all, Limbaugh’s earliest national controversy, arguably, involved picking a fight with a teenager, namely when he compared President-elect Clinton’s 12-year-old daughter, Chelsea, to a dog in 1992. It’s more than 25 years later and El Rushbo and his merry band of “dittoheads” ― his affectionate name for his listeners and supporters ― are both id and ego of the conservative movement.

Put another way, if Limbaugh’s role in American conservatism has been to stand athwart history yelling “slut,” then it’s pretty safe to say: mission accomplished. Limbaugh’s brand of boorish, headline-grabbing conservatism has intertwined itself with the right-wing firmament as intricately as trickle-down economics and Vineyard Vines ties.

The question, now that Limbaugh’s schtick is indistinguishable from contemporary conservative punditry, is whether he can survive in a world of his own making.

The most obvious answer is yes. Despite declining listenership, Limbaugh still attracts some 14 million listeners every day, the most in talk radio. There is simply no world where having that much of an audience doesn’t guarantee a person a significant amount of clout.

Yet from a historical standpoint, Limbaugh’s stature is diminished. In the 1990s, he helped pave the way for a brash form of conservative media that mirrored what figures like Pat Buchanan were doing with activism and Newt Gingrich with the government. Limbaugh accomplished this first as an attack dog for President George H.W. Bush ― who was about as saucy as a Dixie cup of Vaseline ― and then as a foil to President Clinton ― whose somewhat saucier private life provided the perfect fodder for Limbaugh. In his 1996 book, Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time, media columnist Howard Kurtz described Limbaugh as “talker-in-chief of the opposition party.”

By the George W. Bush administration, Limbaugh was a fixture of Republican politics and a conservative thought leader ― like some kind of belligerent Heritage Foundation. While articles about Limbaugh in the early 1990s tended to portray him as a political showman, by the 2000s he was being regarded as a veritable political force. Limbaugh interviewed Vice President Dick Cheney on several occasions, with Cheney saying in 2009 that the Republican Party needed to be more like Limbaugh and less like Colin Powell, the former secretary of state to George W. Bush who later endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Limbaugh’s decline began during the Obama administration. Indeed, his 2016 contract helped stanch the bleeding of a not-so-great eight years, in which he saw his listenership decline and sponsors flee after he called reproductive rights activist Sandra Fluke a “slut” in 2012. Notably, Limbaugh’s new salary wasn’t disclosed after his 2016 contract was signed, either officially by iHeartMedia or via leaks to the press, suggesting that it had declined since his whopping eight-year, $400 million deal in 2008.

Now, with Trump in office, Limbaugh’s political clout isn’t what it was, and a number of operators in Trump world worry the president is leaving a lot of political capital on the table.

“I love your show, and whenever I can, I listen a lot,” Trump told Limbaugh in a mostly amiable April 2011 interview when he was mulling a presidential bid. (Notably, the interview began with Trump pledging $100,000 to a charity Limbaugh supports, an interesting move from a future candidate who would make so much of the Clinton Foundation’s ethical propriety.)

Yet Limbaugh’s status isn’t near as robust as that interview may have predicted. Advertisers remain wary of his program. (The ones that remain are your standard conservative smorgasbord of gold products, various security systems and other things to make you very, very afraid.)

Moreover, conversations with officials in and around the White House suggest that Limbaugh doesn’t factor seriously into Trump’s voracious media diet (outside of Limbaugh’s occasional hits on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program) or into the comparatively meager media strategy that originates in this notoriously impulsive president’s White House. Vice President Mike Pence has appeared on Limbaugh’s show, but Trump has yet to as president.

“Unfortunately, conservative talk radio is generally ignored by most operatives in Trump world and in the larger Republican Party that I know,” one Trump operative with close ties to the White House and Trump’s re-election campaign told HuffPost on the condition of anonymity so as to not alienate political allies. “It’s a shame, because conservative talk is in many ways a larger and more powerful platform than even Fox News.”

[Conservative punditry] is like a drug: In order to get your fix, you have to keep escalating a little bit. Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America

Jane Hall ― a former media reporter for the Los Angeles Times, erstwhile contributor to Fox News and currently a professor of journalism and media studies at American University’s School of Communication ― sees Fox News, which in many ways Limbaugh presaged, as elbowing him out of the way a bit.

“I think Hannity has got the juice because everyone thinks Trump talks to him 12 times a day,” Hall said of the Fox News host, pointedly asking whether “Trump feels the need to call in to Rush Limbaugh.”  

Though Limbaugh leads the nation among talk show hosts in daily listeners, the close No. 2 on that list, tellingly, is Sean Hannity, whose daily program attracts only half a million fewer people.

WJNO, the Palm Beach station from which Limbaugh broadcasts, referred HuffPost to Premiere Networks, which declined to comment on the record. The White House did not respond to a HuffPost request for comment. However, given Limbaugh’s mostly rosy treatment of the 45th president, there’s little reason for it to give him much thought.

Limbaugh has prodded the president here and there. His aforementioned critique of Cohn being one example, his response to Trump signing an omnibus spending bill earlier this year another. Yet his treatment of the divisive commander in chief has been overwhelmingly supportive, if not downright obsequious. A search through Limbaugh’s archives dating back to Trump’s inauguration yields transcripts with headlines like “The Swamp’s Original Mission (Get Rid of Trump) Has Failed,” “The Trump Investigation Hoax Unravels” and “Don’t Believe a Thing the Media Says About Trump. ”

It’s all very … boring, and one wonders whether Limbaugh ― who described himself as an “entertainer first and a conservative second” in 1989 ― would offer his kingdom for a President Clinton, or at least a Democratic commander in chief. One suspects he will when contract negotiations come around in 2020.

“In a weird way, I don’t think he can keep up anymore,” said Carusone, who led a movement to have sponsors boycott Limbaugh’s show after his comments on Fluke. “How do you keep up with [misogynistic pundit and conspiracy theorist] Mike Cernovich, who is reading conspiracies off of 4Chan? I don’t think you can.”

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