In November 1987, Donald Trump published “The Art of the Deal,” his business (and life) manifesto that is widely cited as his official entry into the cultural zeitgeist.
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.
“He was a fantastic man, a fantastic talent, and people, whether they loved him or not, they respected him, they really did,” Trump said in appearance Wednesday on Fox News following Limbaugh’s death.
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.
To listen to Limbaugh in the 1990s and 2000s is to hear clear indicators of themes that Trump picked up on in his presidential candidacy. In a 2009 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Limbaugh laid out his vision of what it meant to be a conservative. Here’s the key bit:
“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.
Yes, Limbaugh would have politicians on his show from time to time, including the first family of the Republican establishment: The Bushes. But Limbaugh’s bread and butter wasn’t interviews with members of elected leadership. It was his largely one-way jeremiads launched into the ears of his voracious “Dittoheads” – brutal attacks on politicians (of both parties) who he believed were too cowardly to stand up and do what was right.
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.
He also understood that he could make controversy work for him. That the most important thing wasn’t being right, it was being relevant. And so, while Limbaugh took hits for racist comments about African American quarterback Donovan McNabb in the early 2000s and sexist comments about a Georgetown law student named Sandra Fluke in 2012, those incidents never destroyed him. And in some circles, they made him even more 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.
As far back as the summer of 2009, Limbaugh was telling his listeners that Obama “has yet to have to prove that he’s a citizen.” Trump, who had been looking for a way into politics for the better part of the previous decade, picked up on the birther nonsense as a way to build credibility with just the people that Limbaugh spoke to. By 2011, Trump was telling “The View” that “there is something on that birth certificate that [Obama] doesn’t like.” The next year, Trump tweeted this: “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud.” And, once Obama produced documentation showing he was, in fact, born in the United States, Trump claimed victory; “I was the one who got Obama to release his birth certificate, or whatever that was,” he tweeted in 2014.
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.