How Rush Limbaugh Shaped The GOP

How Rush Limbaugh Shaped The GOP thumbnail

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): After dominating the airwaves for more than 30 years, Rush Limbaugh died on Wednesday. (His wife, Kathryn Limbaugh, made the announcement at the top of his radio show.) Limbaugh is an important political figure, as he gave birth to the conservative radio talk-show format, including all its anger and bigotry, and in the process emerged as a very influential force within the Republican Party.

So, let’s talk about Limbaugh’s legacy, from what extent he was a de facto leader in the GOP to who in conservative politics will take up his mantle now.

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Let’s start with Limbaugh’s role within the party. He wasn’t an elected official, yet his wildly popular radio show captured a core component of the Republican Party’s base. What was the significance of that? And how did that help Limbaugh wield power within the party’s apparatus?

[In America’s ‘Uncivil War,’ Republicans Are The Aggressors]

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Something particularly interesting is that, while new figures came onto the right-wing media scene, Limbaugh himself didn’t seem to be subject to what I’ll call “the establishment effect” that happens to a lot of Republicans in government. People like former Ohio governor and 2016 Republican presidential candidate John Kasich or former Speaker of the House John Boehner — they were very conservative, but because they had access to power or were part of the “establishment,” their conservative credentials sort of faded.

Maybe it’s the difference between being part of the media and being part of the government — or a particular quirk unique to Limbaugh — but this doesn’t seem to have happened to him.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): It is always hard to prove how a media figure affects a party. A media person doesn’t control the legislative agenda, doesn’t have votes on the Hill. But, that said, I remember in 2007, when George W. Bush was trying to move a bill that would grant citizenship to some undocumented immigrants, opposition on the right was strong and intense, even against a Republican president. And part of that was because of Limbaugh and the rest of the conservative talk-show wing of the party.

In many ways, Limbaugh and others in the talk-show wing of the party have played two key roles in GOP politics. First, they have amplified the views of the party’s base, which sometimes haven’t been held by more establishment figures, and second, they have often expanded those views so that more in the party hold them. In fact, now you have a situation where outlets like Fox News, including their high-profile hosts like Tucker Carlson, have in some ways explicitly taken up Limbaugh’s mantle of both representing the base and pushing it further to the right.

sarah: That’s an interesting point, Julia, and makes me think of something HuffPost’s Nick Robins-Early and Christopher Mathias wrote in their Limbaugh obituary regarding his conservative credentials:

“When a Republican politician promoting racist and sexist policies could only use a dog whistle, Limbaugh provided a bull horn — he was, for example, an early progenitor of the racist birther conspiracy theory about Obama that Trump would later use to fuel his political career.”

Limbaugh was unique, as you said, in that he was able to maintain access to “establishment” conservative figures without having to censor himself to make his points. In fact, he arguably operated in a way that gave other, more establishment Republicans cover for these views within the party.

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julia_azari: One thing that jumped out at me in reading about Limbaugh is how much he contributed to the contemporary GOP by creating this style of politics. But I’m not totally sure I buy the “kingmaker” label. The Tea Party seems to have emerged from related but distinct forces. Perhaps for a candidate like Trump, a kingmaker in the media was needed because Trump lacked other elite constituencies at first. But Mitt Romney? George W. Bush?

perry: I think it’s hard to prove that Limbaugh created Trump. But I think it’s pretty easy to see Limbaugh as Trump before Trump — a white man who was not particularly working-class or religious still connecting with those parts of the GOP base by saying racist, sexist and bigoted things that made liberals mad.

Limbaugh did not care what America’s cultural elites thought, and that showed us that a party in which Limbaugh was a popular, respected and even revered figure was a party that could elect a Limbaugh-like figure to be its nominee.

sarah: To the point Perry is making about the sheer breadth of Limbaugh’s appeal, this stat from the Washington Post’s obituary stood out to me:

“Although his Democratic critics derided Limbaugh listeners as uneducated and easily led, a study by the Pew Research Center found that Dittoheads [Limbaugh’s biggest fans] were on average better informed than listeners of NPR and were more likely than public radio or C-SPAN audiences to have a college degree.”

It hearkens back to a point The New York Times’s Thomas Edsall made in one of his columns about Trump’s support — that is, it’s a lot wealthier and better off than we (as in the media) often give it credit for. We saw this with the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, too.

meredithconroy (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University, San Bernardino, and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Another element of this is that conservatives, and increasingly the Republican Party writ large, distrust institutions, especially the media. According to a Morning Consult poll from January, 77 percent of Republicans distrust the media, and a Pew poll showed that Limbaugh was the third-most-trusted media source among conservative Republicans. This is important to understand because it helps explain why conservative talk radio is a thing and liberal talk radio isn’t.

perry: I am not sure we can easily isolate Limbaugh’s influence from the broader conservative talk radio/Fox News space. But that bloc certainly had — and still has — a lot of power: power to stop the GOP from moving to the left on immigration in both 2007 and 2013, power to help elevate Trump in 2015-16 and power to keep the party base from ever breaking with Trump, even after the Capitol riot. I don’t think we are in the place we are in now, with a Republican Party so linked to anti-multiculturalism and white identity politics, without Limbaugh and his ilk. Trump didn’t create this party by himself.

julia_azari: Regarding my thoughts on the kingmaker question, everyone’s going to write about how politics might have been different if Limbaugh hadn’t been such an influential figure. But I’m wondering how we would see his legacy differently if say, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz had been elected president in 2016.

sarah: That’s fair, Julia, but think about the role Limbaugh played during the Clinton and Obama years. He repeatedly demonized liberals and pushed GOP politicians further to the right on issues such as immigration, government spending and climate change. But, as I think you’re getting at, this is still only a faction of the GOP we’re talking about, and had Rubio or Cruz won in 2016, we’d probably think of Limbaugh’s legacy at this point very differently.

meredithconroy: And, historically anyway, I think Limbaugh’s schtick was less about mobilizing his listeners around someone in the GOP and more against Democratic issues and principles: health care, immigration, reproductive rights. But with Trump that changed. Still, there’s no question Limbaugh was the embodiment of negative partisanship, I guess is what I am saying — he knew there was more purchase in getting people to hate the group they weren’t a part of than to love the group they’re with.

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perry: Trump gave Limbaugh the presidential Medal of Freedom on his way out of the White House and in one of his first post-presidency appearances called into Fox News to praise Limbaugh — this shows that Trump thinks of Limbaugh as an ideological soulmate.

Keep in mind, too, that this was less than 24 hours after Trump trashed Mitch McConnell, who actually pushed his agenda through Congress.

julia_azari: It also points to the symbiosis between media figures and truly outside-politics candidates!

meredithconroy: Ding ding ding. Which is why I think you don’t have Trump without Limbaugh, or that media ecosystem. But you can still have a (2016) Cruz or a Rubio where media figures like Limbaugh exist.

perry: As I read these takes and profiles on Limbaugh, I think, Meredith, about how important the phrase “conservative media ecosystem” is. Limbaugh was perhaps the biggest figure in that system, too. Perhaps not as relevant now, but that ecosystem has mattered so much in the 1980s to now. It has not always chosen the party’s nominee, but it has mattered within the GOP. And it is that ecosystem that pushed the Republicans more generally into a non-policy, identity-obsessed, own-the-libs direction.

Who was more of an “own-the-libs” conservative than Limbaugh?

meredithconroy: Yes, Limbaugh paved the wave for so many more like him, but I’d agree he was one of the first to really do this “own the libs” effectively. Conservative media personalities Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter had their own versions of this, but neither were as influential as Limbaugh.

julia_azari: Limbaugh definitely waged his own type of “culture war.” Take him and Trump. It wasn’t a traditional culture-war issue like abortion or gay rights that fueled Trump’s rise. Instead, it was the issue of immigration. And Limbaugh latched onto that, going as far as to say that undocumented immigrants from Mexico “were an invasive species.”

The significance of this isn’t that Republican politicians flocked to that position, but many of them didn’t. Significant numbers of elected Republicans held a more moderate position, and that, in turn, drove the party’s failure to converge on a Trump alternative in the 2016 primary. It also created a wedge between other Republicans and Trump’s base.

[Related: Why A Trump-Led Third Party Is Unlikely]

perry: Right, part of the reason Rubio, in particular, couldn’t win in 2016 was precisely because he had moved left on immigration in 2013 and people on the right later attacked him for this. That is all to say someone like Limbaugh goes a long way in explaining why a more traditional Republican didn’t win in 2016.

sarah: A question I want to end on is one that Nicole Hemmer, a historian, raised in a tweet:

The things we now think of as particularly Trumpian features of conservatism — the insults, the conspiracies, the blend of entertainment and politics and anger — Limbaugh had been doing it for a quarter-century before Trump showed up to the party.

— Nicole Hemmer (@pastpunditry) February 17, 2021

Let’s dive into that coequal branch point Hemmer makes here. Is that Limbaugh’s legacy?

That is, that the more extreme voices in the party — often outside the party officially, but at home in media outlets like Fox News, Newsmax and One America News Network — aren’t going anywhere. In fact, for the time being they seem to be another coequal branch within the GOP apparatus, driving policy and the direction of the party, and that has to do with Limbaugh, yes?

perry: “Rush Limbaugh … elevated conservative media into a coequal branch of party politics, and pioneered a style of rhetoric, argument, and entertainment that would come to define conservative politics.”

I don’t quite agree with that, if only because my list of most important Republicans in the past few decades might include McConnell and Chief Justice John Roberts. I still think actual power matters more than media power.

julia_azari: I don’t know, Perry. I think many scholars of party politics agree that the conservative media apparatus is a powerful force within the party. And, traditionally, elected politicians have an interest in pushing divisive, difficult issues (immigration, civil rights) off the agenda as much as possible while media figures like Limbaugh have the opposite incentives.

perry: So, in some ways, Fox/Limbaugh are what civil rights groups are on the left when it comes to forcing the party to deal with the most fraught issues?

julia_azari: I think the limit to that analogy, Perry, is that civil rights groups want concrete action, and the media have an interest in keeping the issues alive, not in resolving them.

meredithconroy: That’s an interesting parallel, Perry. But one difference is that civil rights groups have policy demands … and I’d argue that the media ecosystem doesn’t, as Julia says. They use policy to divide, no doubt, but I’m not sure they have policy demands. I could be wrong, but “news” media with policy demands is a weird marriage.

Julia has written extensively about the dangers of weak parties and strong partisanship, but what’s interesting in the GOP is that it has allowed for conservative media (which now includes YouTubers like Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, etc.) to be coequal to party leaders like McConnell and Kevin McCarthy in terms of the influence they wield.

sarah: Oof, it’s hard to believe we haven’t mentioned Shapiro at this point, as he does seem to be a natural successor to take on Limbaugh’s mantle. Let me open that question up to the group: In Limbaugh’s absence, who do you think will fill this role on the right?

[The GOP Might Still Be Trump’s Party. But That Doesn’t Mean There’s Room For Him.]

perry: I don’t think Shapiro is the next Limbaugh. I feel like he has a younger audience, or at least younger than the core GOP base, and he is also aiming for a more wonky audience than Limbaugh had. I think Limbaugh’s more natural successor is Carlson or even Sean Hannity.

julia_azari: I was thinking that about Shapiro, too, Perry, as he reaches a very specific part of the base. But he does make a point to attack transgender rights, which takes a page from the larger culture-war playbook. The difference, I’d argue, is that this isn’t an issue that currently fractures the GOP in the way some other issues do.

It’s also worth thinking about this in the larger context of a GOP that is shrinking and a culture war that is in some ways waning (attacking gay rights is not the rich political vein it once was). The country is also facing some pretty pressing material crises that might not make these issues as salient.

perry: Maybe Limbaugh’s real heir was Trump? I lost track of what Limbaugh was saying in recent years, and I wonder if that is because we basically had Limbaugh in the White House tweeting his thoughts. Once Trump is really back on social media, I think he will be setting the agenda for the “own the libs” bloc of conservatives.

meredithconroy: That’s a good point, Perry. I’d argue whoever is leading the “cancel culture” charge will be the one to take up the mantle.

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