Rush Limbaugh is a demagogue, an incendiary and malevolent media figure who traffics in the worst of racism and misogyny, coarsens the civic discourse and mainstreams baseless conspiracy theories. Borrowing the playbook of a 1930s Catholic priest whose radio show reveled in anti-Semitism and fascism, Limbaugh is the Father Coughlin of our age. His radio show is vile.
On Tuesday, President Donald J. Trump awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which had previously been reserved for people whose lives and work lifted the nation — people such as Rosa Parks, Jonas Salk and Walter Cronkite. By awarding it to Limbaugh, the president has saluted a bigot and enshrined his ideology as a national treasure.
Many political scientists and news media pundits would still like to believe that the Trump presidency rests largely on economic upheaval, on the sense of dislocation and alienation in working-class regions that have seen well-paying jobs lost to globalization and automation. And there is, no doubt, a despair in those regions that can be traced to the loss of financial security. But those workers are too easily persuaded that their plight is the fault of Mexicans and Muslims, that their jobs went to unqualified black or brown laborers.
And Limbaugh is their media hero, a man whose decades on the radio moved his dedicated followers to call themselves “Dittoheads.” And what inspired commentary sends them into such rapturous agreement? Here’s one Limbaugh nugget: “I think it’s time to get rid of this whole National Basketball Association. Call it the TBA, the Thug Basketball Association, and stop calling them teams. Call ’em gangs.” Here’s another: “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?”
The presidency of Barack Obama sent Limbaugh into reactionary overdrive; he was a committed birther, and he derided any Obama policy that expanded government benefits — even when most of the beneficiaries were white — as “reparations.” In one rant during Obama’s first term, Limbaugh claimed that Obama’s presidency represented the opportunity for people of color to “use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about. … He’s angry, he’s gon’ cut this country down to size, he’s gon’ make it pay for … its mistreatment of minorities.”
Limbaugh also has full reservoirs of misogyny with which to drench women who dare seek equal treatment under the law. When a Georgetown University student named Sandra Fluke testified before Congress, seeking to have health insurance cover contraceptives, Limbaugh went on a vicious tear, denouncing her as a “slut” and a “prostitute.” He made the term “feminazi” a mainstream slur describing any woman who believes that she should have full citizenship. “Feminism,” he once declared, “was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.”
To round out his repertoire of abhorrent and baseless attacks, he once mocked the actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, on the air, accusing him of exaggerating his symptoms. Fox had made a political ad in support of stem cell research, which scientists said might lead to a cure for Parkinson’s, and viewers could see his pronounced tremors. “He is moving all around and shaking, and it’s purely an act,” Limbaugh insisted.
Of course, all that bigotry and bullying made him the perfect recipient of an award from Trump, who has channeled the same base impulses to power his way to the presidency. Indeed, Limbaugh helped pave the way for Trump. The talk radio meister made insults, cheap provocations and racist assaults on people of color commonplace — even entertaining — for a certain voting bloc. They were ready to welcome the bombastic reality TV host.
When Trump entered the political arena as a birther — insisting that Obama was not born in the United States and was therefore illegitimate — his base was already primed for it. When Trump was caught on audio tape bragging that he had sexually assaulted women, Limbaugh had already laid the groundwork for a presidency dismissive of common decency.
By awarding Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Trump has not succeeded in cheapening the award. Its distinctions will endure. But he has elevated Limbaugh’s racism, misogyny and free-floating malevolence, enshrining them as centerpieces of his presidency.