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Politics

Point/Counterpoint: Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh, who has since died, celebrates after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Rush Limbaugh, the legendary broadcaster whose popular and long-running radio talk show helped define American conservatism, passed away on Wednesday morning at the age of 70. His body of work and his influence are large and complex, so Defector presents two perspectives on his life and legacy.

POINT: Rush Limbaugh Was A Vile Motherfucker, By David Roth

While Rush Limbaugh III made his name—which was ridiculous and absolutely perfect, just an absolute parody of what a rich asshole blowhard might be named in a too-overt satirical novel about a country made untenable by its proud aversion to both empathy and accountability—as a conservative political commentator, he also spent much of his professional life around sports. Alongside vilifying and degrading his most vulnerable fellow citizens for money, Limbaugh’s sports fandom was a lifelong passion—he was a longtime supporter of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and every dehumanizing social force in American life.

After struggling early in his radio career under the name “Bachelor Jeff” Christie, Limbaugh returned home to Missouri and took a sales job with the Kansas City Royals in 1979, eventually rising to the role of Director of Group Sales and Special Events as the Royals became a perennial power in the American League. A long career in slavish service to power and pretend royalty followed, broadcasting under his (ridiculous, like the name of a dimwitted plantation owner who is repeatedly swindled out of his pants in a lesser Mark Twain short story) real name for the first time at Kansas City’s KMBZ. His name would in time become synonymous with conservative media and Republican politics, which is the sort of thing that would look like a compliment to someone unfamiliar with either of those things.

By the time ESPN brought Limbaugh in as a studio commentator in 2003, he was arguably a bigger cultural presence than the NFL itself, and the voice of a fan community—loathsome white men with money living in gaudy suburban homes—that the league desperately wanted to reach and retain, which again is one of those things that looks impressive just as a collection of words but is depressing pretty much however you look at it. Limbaugh lasted just a few weeks on the job, because an objectively idiotic comment about Donovan McNabb—Limbaugh, bringing his signature perspective to bear on the sport he loved, thought McNabb was getting too much credit because “the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well”—led to a predictable and deserved backlash.

It was, in its way, all perfectly Limbaugh, both in terms of how he Invited Controversy and Sparked Conversation without actually saying or doing anything interesting or insightful or remotely new himself, and also because the combination of his bottomless carny cynicism and sincere personal reprehensibility made it impossible to parse just how much of a calculated work it really was. In his later career, Limbaugh pretty much did the same shit he always did, for a tremendous audience but far from the mainstream success that he simultaneously sought and reviled as part of his broader gambit. He spent his last years sucking up to Donald Trump, one of the few men alive to match Limbaugh’s own passions for getting divorced and listening to himself talk, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.

It was a fitting final moment in a distinctly American life—two men, born rich and with deep love for themselves and without any redeeming qualities, who recognized that pushing the worst and most destructive lies in the nation’s history could win them the stupid gilded glory they sought, honoring each other for how much each honored the other. Two people who lived to laugh at the wreckage they made, who never learned anything or loved anything, whose wealth and personal damage ensured that they were somehow never told to shut the fuck up over the course of their long and brutal lives, who would sooner die than be held accountable for anything or indeed acknowledge that any power on earth or in heaven could hold them to that account, recognizing in the other the only thing they could appreciate, which was their own reflection.


COUNTERPOINT: I Agree, He Was A Piss Man And The World Is Better For His Death, By Albert Burneko

Rush Limbaugh worked for pretty much every day of his adult life to make the world worse. Not different, just worse, just meaner and dumber in precisely every way it was already mean and dumb. He did not have some well-intentioned vision of a better world that just differed from yours or mine; he had no real politics, in the particular (and, for everyone else, intensely political) way that a certain class of white man can aggressively have no real politics to speak of, and he certainly had no moral or ethical base that is worth you thinking about or taking seriously. He was inchoate and stupid and unexamined spite transubstantiated into pork. Maybe, maybe he authentically hated people who were different from him. Maybe he hated the idea that those people might want their circumstances improved, and that someday regarding them as human might become a baseline norm of American life. He certainly portrayed himself that way; so what. That is the absolute most you can grant him by way of thoughts or ideas that may have remained with him even when there was not a microphone or camera in his face. More centrally, more to the point and the bottomlessly bleak meaning of him: He discovered that he could get rewarded by the people he did regard as human for lashing out, as viciously and with as much sneering, undisguised dishonesty as he could muster, at those he did not regard as human, and he did that for as long as anybody knew his name. Now he’s dead, not one moment too soon and many decades too late. He lives on in innumerable interchangeable worthless smirking morons and hustlers. The world will never miss him; he’s everywhere you look.