Pioneering right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh's death on Wednesday has sparked a number of conversations about his legacy and his impact on American culture. Both his fans and his detractors agree that he had a massive influence — estimates have suggested that he had an audience of over 15 million listeners a week. And that success was enough to make him a very rich man, pulling in $85 million a year and living in a beachfront mansion in Florida with a private jet on standby.
But on Thursday, columnist Conor Friedersdorf, writing for The Atlantic, argued that for all his success, the net effect of Limbaugh's incendiary talk-radio empire was to "hurt the conservative movement" — and that towards the end of his life, even Limbaugh himself abandoned conservatism, at least as a matter of policy.
"As a proponent of conservatism in America, Limbaugh was a failure who in his later years abandoned the project of advancing a positive agenda, culminating in his alignment with the vulgar style and populist anti-leftism of Donald Trump," wrote Friedersdorf. "Character no longer mattered. Budget deficits no longer mattered. Free trade no longer mattered. Nepotism no longer mattered. Lavishing praise on foreign dictators no longer mattered. All that mattered was owning the libs in the culture war, in part to avenge a deeply felt sense of aggrievement."
"Limbaugh isn't solely or mostly responsible for conservatism's decline, but he is partly responsible. He spent several decades running interference for whoever was leading the Republican Party, only to complain later that those same Republicans were corrupt swamp creatures," wrote Friedersdorf. "Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Trump differed greatly in their worldviews and policy agendas, but Limbaugh, always more a partisan warrior than an intellectual leader with independent convictions, aligned with each just at the height of his or her power in the GOP, even in years when fiscal profligacy under Republican leadership meant ballooning budget deficits and debt."
And this had practical impacts, wrote Friedersdorf — the conservative base itself hollowed out over the time Limbaugh dominated the airwaves.
"For my entire life, Limbaugh, as much as any leftist, was a hypocritical force for identity politics. More than that, he personified bigotry," wrote Friedersdorf. "In the end, Limbaugh was aligned with a Republican standard-bearer who openly bashed Mexicans and Muslims to win the White House. Trump lost the popular vote twice and served one term, accomplishing the confirmation of many conservative judges but little else of lasting consequence for conservatives. By the end of Trump's time in office, conservative self-identification was falling overall."
"Many on the right will still feel like Limbaugh did a lot for conservatism, but facts don't care about feelings," wrote Friedersdorf. "He will likely be remembered more for the worst things he said than the best things he said, because unlike Buckley, who said his share of awful things, no Limbaugh quote stands out as especially witty or brilliant. Given his talents as a broadcaster, his shortcomings were a tragedy."
You can read more here.