Listening to the crude, discursive monologues on Rush Limbaugh’s daily three-hour radio program, which I have had occasion to do for a living, is a test of endurance for a person with minimum standards of decency. It’s a bit like being blown out of an airlock into the vacuum of space without a spacesuit. You can hold out for only so long before your lungs rupture and air bubbles perforate your brain. You lose consciousness just as your saliva starts to boil.
This is by design. Since Limbaugh’s program began airing nationally 24 years ago, the goal of every episode has been to create an environment in which liberalism can’t but die. The show and its host came along at a time when the Willie Horton-ized politics favored bomb-throwing. The medium of political talk radio was just beginning its ascendance from regional media backwater to primary driver of national Republican politics.
But here we are today, newly embarked upon the second half of the Obama epoch. The conservative movement is fissured, and Barack Obama’s re-election brought a round of recriminations against the conservative media for poisoning Republican politics. For all of 2012, right-wing media gave its audience Obama-bashing and unfounded assurances of a Romney victory. As The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf argued, this ended up putting conservatives at a disadvantage. “On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media. And movement conservatives, who believe the MSM is more biased and less rigorous than their alternatives, have no way to explain how their trusted outlets got it wrong, while The New York Times got it right.”
GOP strategist Mike Murphy laid further blame at Limbaugh’s feet. “The biggest problem Mitt Romney had was the Republican primary,” Murphy said on Meet the Press. “That’s what’s driving the Republican brand right now to a disaster, and we need kind of a party view of America that’s not right out of Rush Limbaugh’s dream journal.” (This is as good a place as any to point out that my employer, Media Matters, makes it our business to highlight just how disastrous Limbaugh’s view of America is. Following Limbaugh’s misogynistic attacks on Sandra Fluke last spring, we initiated a successful campaign to educate Limbaugh’s sponsors on his deplorable views toward women; many of those sponsors subsequently opted to withdraw their ad dollars from his program.)
Limbaugh, of course, has his own theory of who’s to blame for the GOP’s predicament: everyone but him. “How many of our core beliefs are we going to throw away?” he practically screamed into the microphone at the start of this year, after Congress and the White House struck the “fiscal cliff” deal. “When I listen to people and conservatives, Republicans, inside the Beltway, when I listen to them talk and the things that they say and the things that they think about this deal, I don’t have anything in common with them anymore.” Limbaugh’s displeasure with the Republican leadership in 2013 reflects the failure of the objective he shared with it in 2009. The day of Obama’s first inauguration, House and Senate GOP bigwigs convened a strategy session on how to make Obama a one-termer. Just days earlier, Limbaugh had installed himself as the voice of the Obama opposition, saying with calculated dramatic effect, “I. Hope. He. Fails.” Now that the dream is dead, he is fighting a war on two fronts, siding with the Tea Party against the president and against a weakened Republican establishment typified by Karl Rove, whose Conservative Victory Project aims to keep unelectable candidates from winning GOP primaries. “It is energizing the Tea Party in ways that it hasn’t been,” Limbaugh said of Rove’s group. “After the election, everybody on our side faced a bit of demoralization, and this has ratcheted it back up.”
Yet there have recently been signs that some broadcasters share Murphy’s viewpoint and want to bring up conservative radio’s pH. It’s unclear whether the changes we are seeing are the beginnings of a shift in conservative talk-radio culture or just posturing and half measures. But even if the changes are superficial, they at least represent a tacit acknowledgement that the existing model for conservative radio has lost some of its effectiveness. Cumulus Media Networks CEO Lew Dickey recently told Bloomberg News, for instance, that the industry may be seeing a slight shift away from political talk and toward sports talk radio—perhaps because “people may be tired of all the partisan bickering.”
Last April, Cumulus launched former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s national radio program, promising “more conversation, less confrontation.” Huckabee has the velveteen drawl and hard-right social agenda of a Southern preacher—he was, in fact, a Baptist pastor in his pre-politics life. His folksier style differs from the rough-and-tumble talk-radio standard, but he’s still capable of stirring up controversy. In December on the day of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, Huckabee said on Fox News that such tragedies happen because “we have systematically removed God from our schools.”
Just before the election, Talk Radio Network (TRN) completed an acrimonious breakup with host Michael Savage, the toxic homeopathic doctor who thinks “liberalism is a mental disorder” and autism is a “racket.” Savage’s hostility toward Muslims, minorities, and gays (in 2003 he told a “sodomite” caller to his show on MSNBC, of all places, to “get AIDS and die,” thus precipitating his departure from the network) had earned him a series of high-profile advertiser boycotts and an entry ban to the United Kingdom.
TRN replaced Savage with libertarian TV actor Jerry Doyle, a Ron Paul endorser best known for playing Chief Warrant Officer Michael Garibaldi on Babylon 5 whose Brooklynese-tinged free-market evangelism is a world away from Savage’s ravings. According to TRN, Doyle’s show is growing rapidly. Savage, meanwhile, is veering further toward the fringe, using the platform of a new show on Cumulus to urge the Tea Party to coalesce into a right-wing “nationalist” third party.
The most abrupt turnaround came from Sean Hannity. Just two days after a loss in which Romney earned an anemic 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, Hannity announced that he had “evolved” on immigration and now supports a path to citizenship. (His position prior to the election had been that even the relatively moderate Dream Act was tantamount to “amnesty.”) Whether Hannity’s “evolution” is genuine or just a moment of demography-induced panic, it seemed to bear fruit when Hannity lauded Senator Marco Rubio’s immigration proposal, which includes a path to citizenship, as “the most thoughtful bill that I have heard heretofore.”
Laura Ingraham, a Reagan-era conservative who is the most listened-to woman in a medium dominated by men, parted ways with TRN and took her show to Courtside Entertainment Group. She told the conservative website The Daily Caller that her “slightly refocused” program would still be political, but “people are tired of being lectured. They want more laughter even in their politics. … We’re trying to expand the audience and preach not to just the choir.” The show, relaunched in January, does devote airtime to cultural issues like adoption from foreign countries (Ingraham is the mother of three adopted children), though choir-preaching remains its primary focus. The switch between the two modes—Ingraham might be cruising along with sneering jabs at “liberal” Colin Powell or a kid-gloved interview with Republican senators, then downshift into a segment on the importance of elementary-school recess—can be jarring.
These hosts and syndicators owe a considerable debt to Limbaugh, whose own antecedents were a collection of local and national radio hosts who struggled in the late 1960s and 1970s to keep AM radio alive in the face of higher-fidelity, static-free FM. Foremost among those hosts is Bob Grant. On air in New York since 1970 and a hero of Limbaugh’s, Grant was the racist, sexist, pugnacious progenitor of modern shock-jock political radio, best known for berating liberal callers by screaming, “Get off my phone!” But it wasn’t until cheap satellite transmission arrived in the 1980s that political talk radio could launch its biggest talents on a broader scale.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission voted to scuttle the Fairness Doctrine, exempting broadcasters from an obligation to serve the public interest by airing opposing viewpoints on critical issues. This precipitated the birth of the national right-wing media, capturing an audience primed for two decades to mistrust the mainstream “liberal media.” Limbaugh, wooed east from California to WABC in 1988, quickly became the unchallenged leader. Reagan called him “the number one voice for conservatism in the country.” He was named honorary member of Congress after the Republican takeover of 1994, hawked every lunatic conspiracy theory and trumped-up scandal of the Clinton years, and staunchly backed his good friend George W. Bush, who invited him to the White House in the waning days of his presidency for a surprise birthday party.
Boisterous and Manichean, Limbaugh’s brand of conservatism was crucial in helping to popularize the idea of a divide in America between so-called makers and takers. Limbaugh has also taught by his own example the virtues of inflexibility for its own sake. Not only has he not changed in all these years, he has mocked the very notion of ideological modernization, likening it to Coca Cola’s flopped experiment with “New Coke.”
Consider a minor but telling episode from long ago, during Mitt Romney’s failed run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy. It is largely forgotten today that during this era, Limbaugh had a TV show. The show was in the same style as his radio program, though the added visual element allowed him to do things like compare then-preteen Chelsea Clinton’s looks to those of a dog. A typical episode would have Limbaugh exploring the “evidence,” such as it was, that the Clintons had their own deputy White House counsel, Vince Foster, murdered. Roger Ailes was the producer—one of the jobs he held prior to launching Fox News in 1996.
Limbaugh also used the program to whip candidates into shape leading up to the 1994 Republican Revolution. A few days after a debate between Romney and Kennedy—a debate that had not gone well for Romney—Limbaugh, already wary of the Republican’s ideological malleability, wanted to “offer a little advice to Mitt Romney from me, for the final week of his campaign.” Limbaugh felt that the debate audience’s questions for the two candidates reflected an expectation that the proper role of government was to hand out gifts. “If I were Mitt Romney,” said Limbaugh in 1994, “you know what I would have said after one—after three of these questions? After—‘what are you going to give me, and what are you going to give me and what are you going to give me?’ … I would have looked at these people and I would have said, ‘What are you going to do for yourselves?’”
Romney ended up taking Limbaugh’s advice … 19 years later. Days after his loss in November, Romney explained to his supporters that Obama had only won re-election by doling out “extraordinary financial gifts” to his constituents. It was vintage 1994 Limbaugh, deployed in 2012, though this time widely greeted as repulsive and politically inept. But Limbaugh—otherwise critical of Romney for the entire past year, frustrated that the candidate never “explained” conservatism—loved it as much as ever. Limbaugh had already dismissed Obama’s win as America voting for “Santa Claus,” and Romney’s “gifts” remark jibed perfectly: “So Romney is out saying that Obama was Santa Claus. Where have we heard that before?”
This is the strain of conservatism that Limbaugh instilled in the national conservative media at its inception. Radio undeniably remains a dominant force, and any right-wing pundit worth listening to is still listened to via radio. But that’s another part of the problem—everyone has a radio show, and some hosts are starting to put together audience numbers similar to Limbaugh’s. Press estimates in the mid-1990s put Limbaugh’s audience at an untouchable 20 million to 25 million weekly. For 2012, the trade journal Talkers put Limbaugh’s weekly listenership at 14.75 million; Sean Hannity was at his heels with 14 million.
As more radio hosts emerge, they’re working to maintain a traditional audience that skews older while appealing to a younger generation that looks to other media sources for news. Conservatives in the mood for anti-liberal invective have an expanding array of online options from which to choose. Before his death last year, Andrew Breitbart set up his own online empire attempting to revolutionize (in his own view, at least) conservative media; the empire continues on, despite infighting among the subordinates left in charge. Conservative online news outlets like The Daily Caller and The Washington Free Beacon are trying to carve out their own niche—free-wheeling and
in liberals’ faces, smaller in audience but more dynamic with reported content updated all day long.
Limbaugh is streamable online (if you purchase a membership), and late last year his show launched iPhone apps that let you listen to the show, read his newsletter, and correspond with Limbaugh himself via an “exclusive, super-secret e-mail address.” But he remains, for the most part, old--fashioned appointment listening during the narrow window of 12 P.M. to 3 P.M.
Limbaugh’s biggest impact going forward on the conservative media and Republican politics could well be his stubborn resistance to change. His imitators are at least toying with altering the formula as they grapple with the challenges facing conservatives. But Limbaugh, still the loudest voice in the room, is having none of it. Since the election, he’s continued lecturing Obama voters on how they’re “low-information” and “ignoramuses.” After National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre gave his tone-deaf post-Newtown press conference, Limbaugh said that he sounded like “an adult looking for real solutions.” One day in late January, Limbaugh claimed he was taking it upon himself to fight, alone if necessary, any immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. The next day he denied having said this and heaped plaudits on the enforcement provisions in Rubio’s immigration proposal, briefly raising the possibility: Could the immutable Limbaugh be budged, even if only slightly, by the forces of change? Shortly thereafter he dismissed the entire Hispanic immigrant population (minus Cuban Americans) as lazy and not “invested in hard work.” His own incoherence aside, the safe money is on Limbaugh supporting “anti-amnesty” rank-and-file Republicans over the GOP leadership.
Limbaugh is doing what he’s always done, because it’s worked for him in the past. But there’s a question now as to whether this model, an artifact from the Reagan years, can plausibly lead the broader conservative movement forward. It’s not 1988 anymore, and Republicans and conservatives still smarting from 2012 have to be wondering about the future of the party of Limbaugh.