What Was Rush Limbaugh So Afraid Of?

What Was Rush Limbaugh So Afraid Of? thumbnail

The late bully’s 30-year reign on talk radio traced and drove the rise of a grievance politics that led to Trump—and the January 6 violence.

Being attacked by Rush Limbaugh is like being gummed by a newt.”

The late, great Molly Ivins wrote that way back in 1993, when the wing nut radio bully Limbaugh, who died of lung cancer on Monday, came after the legendary progressive Texas columnist because she had called out the racism central to Limbaugh’s appeal to angry white men.

That was almost 30 years ago. (Also, “newt”? Did she see Newt Gingrich, Rush’s congressional twin, coming upon us back then? I wish I could ask.)

Whatever. We know Ivins saw Limbaugh’s (and Newt’s) racism. Younger people know the late Limbaugh despised Barack Obama, espousing birther theories, mocking him as “the Magic Negro,” even comparing our former president to the evil, impotent boy-king Joffrey from Game of Thrones (just to mention three of his near-infinite insults).

But Limbaugh’s racialized hate predated our first Black president. He rose to radio dominance during Bill Clinton’s presidency, mocking not just Clinton himself but his wife and teenage daughter too. He went even harder on Clinton once the president denounced “loud and angry voices” spreading hate after the 1995 Oklahoma City white terrorist bombing. Limbaugh, though unnamed, took it personally.

As well he should have.

Years before that, Ivins recognized Limbaugh as the master of “white backlash” politics, which too many American journalists refused to see until the closing months of the presidency of Donald Trump. That Queens, New York, failure rode the racial backlash Ivins saw long ago into the White House, to Limbaugh’s applause, and then inspired a violent takeover of the Capitol when he lost it.

I only wish Ivins, who passed away in 2007, had outlived Limbaugh. But she had his number, early. That will endure, as prescience. Limbaugh’s Trump support will endure as profanity.

Like Ivins, I know what it feels like to be “gummed by a newt.” Limbaugh attacked me at least several dozen times, by my count—his website says 92 times, but it looks like some of the mentions are of other Walshes. (Clearly his trademark emphasis on accuracy extended to RushLimbaugh.com.) For the last few years, at least, it was like being gummed by a newt. I didn’t even know he was talking about me.

But for a while, especially after Obama was first elected, Limbaugh’s attention was scary. Back then, his dittoheads, and others, made violent threats to me, and many other people, mostly women.

Lately, I had no idea if and when he was talking about me. I’m not sure what that means, but in retrospect, I’m relieved.

RushLimbaugh.com’s landing page now declares him “the greatest of all time.” But it doesn’t specify: the greatest what?

It’s hard to choose. Bully? Bigot? Misogynist? Hypocrite? All of the above?

On social media, there’s debate about whether liberals should attack Limbaugh so soon after his death, with people espousing a modern version of De mortuis nihil nisi bonum (Latin for “don’t speak ill of the dead”).

I grew up with that saying. It doesn’t apply to Limbaugh.

I have wanted to say to his defenders: C’mon, Rush dished it out, he was a tough guy, he can take it. But the thing is: He really couldn’t take it.

Limbaugh was a needy, narcissistic man-child who, like most bullies, almost always punched down. If you paid attention to whom he was attacking, and why, you could often sense his wounds, his toxic white masculinity, his sad sense of thwarted entitlement—to women, to sex, to power; to never having to think about the racism that made his rise possible—and his rage at not getting enough of any of what he wanted.

Does that sound like anyone else we know? Yes, the one President Biden has taken to calling “the former guy.” (The best insults are subtle.)

Some (but not all) obituary writers have done a decent job of cataloging Limbaugh’s many slurs against women, Black people—anyone who wasn’t white, basically, but with a special emphasis on Black people, let’s be honest—and the LGBTQ community. (This HuffPost piece is particularly good.) I don’t have enough time to list a 10th of his ugly slurs here. Life is short. I want to go back to ignoring Limbaugh, which I’ve mostly done for the last few years.

But there are a few slurs I’ve come across, or remembered, that are worth sharing, because they demonstrate his fragile white masculine insecurities.

Ivins shared one I’d never heard about Hillary Clinton.

He, Rush Limbaugh, gets onto an elevator. The only other passenger is Hillary Clinton. She tears off all her clothes, throws herself on the floor and begs him, “Rush, make a woman out of me.” So Limbaugh tears off all his clothes, throws them at Clinton and says, “Fold those.”

LOL.

Of course, a decade and a half later, during her first run for president, men would trail Clinton with ironing boards that read “Iron my shirts” and signs that said “Make me a sandwich.” That’s what Rush wrought. Or, to be fair, channeled. During that same campaign, Limbaugh asked his audience, “Do the American people want to watch a female president age before their very eyes?”

Did anyone have to watch Limbaugh age? I did. It wasn’t… pretty.

I’m not trying to be mean. Aging is tough, if you’re lucky enough to age, and not expected to be pretty. But insecure men get to point at women to stave off their dread at their own decline. It rarely works. Poor Rush.

It also turns out Limbaugh was telling the “make a woman out of me” story for decades. Maybe it was his way of saying he wasn’t man enough for Clinton? At any rate, in 2016 she got more votes than the misogynist serial sexual assaulter but never became president. Points to Limbaugh!

At least Clinton outlived him.

Limbaugh’s sexism, and sexual creepiness, came out most clearly in his 2012 attacks on then–Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, after she testified in Congress about why oral contraceptives should be covered without a co-pay under the Affordable Care Act.

Rush was hugely triggered.

Fluke “essentially says that she must be paid to have sex,” he wailed. “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

A few days later he said he’d be OK with free contraception, with a condition: “So Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal: If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is: We want you to post the videos online, so we can all watch.”

Vile? Yes. Misogynistic? Of course. Creepy? Very.

But the more he ranted about Fluke (it went on for days), the more women mocked him, despite our rage. Limbaugh seemed not to understand the way oral contraceptives work—that they’re taken daily, not before sex (unlike his beloved Viagra). We pay the same amount (or nothing; thanks, Obama!) whether we have sex once a month, 100 times a month, or not at all. He came off clueless about the epochal, liberating change in male-female relationships that came with The Pill (caps added for drama) in 1960.

What else didn’t Rush know about women?

Limbaugh also had a strange fixation with anal insults. We cataloged them at Salon in 2009, when I was editor in chief (he liked to call me “editrix” for a while, whatever he meant by that). It wasn’t Salon’s finest work, but it’s still an interesting period piece. From diligent database searches, it appeared that Rush had personally coined the term “anal poisoning”—not that it ever became a household phrase. But he enjoyed tossing it around.

In 2009, he lamented that Obama would be allowed to destroy the economy, because “he’s being followed around by a bunch of sycophants who are going to die of anal poisoning.” (He also posited that Terry McAuliffe, Lindsey Graham, and then–UK prime minister Gordon Brown would die of the same made-up malady, for different reasons.)

Limbaugh also used anal rape analogies as a synonym for being politically defeated. Most memorably, perhaps, he wielded it to complain about being criticized for saying he hoped Obama would “fail” as president.

“We are being told that we have to hope [Obama] succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president,” he whined.

Rush’s anal insult list goes on like that, for a long time. But I won’t.

Limbaugh’s bit about wanting our first Black president to fail put me on the vast wing nut radar early in Obama’s term. Just after he said it, I went on MSNBC to debate whether it was fair, given that no Republicans denounced him, to call Limbaugh the leader of the GOP. Presciently, I said yes. Former Texas GOP representative Dick Armey was reduced to sputtering at me, “I am so damn glad that you could never be my wife, ’cause I surely wouldn’t have to listen to that prattle from you every day.” (“That makes two of us, sir,” I replied. So proud.)

It was the beginning of my time in the misogynist wing nut barrel—berated by not just Armey but the disgraced former Fox host Bill O’Reilly and Limbaugh and too many others to name. The hate mail and social media threats and even death threats those three unleashed remain unrivaled to this day.

Limbaugh came after me hardest, though, a few months later, after he and the rest of the loony right lost it over Obama stating one simple fact: Cambridge police acted “stupidly” when they arrested Harvard Pprofessor Henry Louis Gates for “breaking into” his own home (he’d forgotten his key, and he explained that to the officers).

Limbaugh and his ideological, psychological soulmate Glenn Beck—Beck was Limbaugh with all the rage and racism, but without the so-called “humor” (thanks, Rich Lowry)—insisted Obama was revealing his anti-white racism with that one word, “stupidly.” Beck, infamously, said it revealed the president’s “deep-seated hatred for white people.”

Limbaugh agreed. On television and in print I said I found that ludicrous, at least partly because Obama’s mother was white, as were the grandparents who mostly raised him, but mainly because it wasn’t true. “There’s a clear case of projection here,” I said on MSNBC, “where these guys—with really suspect racial feelings and perceptions—are projecting their own hate and their own divisiveness onto [the] president.”

The sad radio bully want nuts. He devoted a several-segment rant to me. On his site it’s headlined: “State-Run Media Promotes Race War Between Obama, Talk Radio.” His critics were claiming, he alleged, that “we are projecting our racism on the pure postracial messiah who is intent on absolving white people of their sins, this is the template and they’ve been waiting for this, I guarantee you.” Then he went off on me, calling me “the Magic Honky,” which I guess was a counterpart to Obama’s “Magic Negro.”

From the transcript:

Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief, Salon.com—also known as the ‘Magic Honky’—is the real racist. The real racist is Ms. Joan Walsh with her race-based, maternalistic attitude toward black people who have, in her small little mind, no responsibility for their own actions. This flap over Gates and the cop, Sergeant Walsh [sic: His name was Crowley, but all Irish look alike], happened as a direct result of actions and words. Both Gates’ actions and Obama’s words. But that doesn’t matter a hill of beans for the Magic Honky, Joan Walsh, who sees blacks as perpetual victims in need of her white protection. She sees black people as needing to constantly be reassured by her that she understands that they understand that she is trying real hard not to be a racist.…

Because for 21 years people like Joan Walsh…have been trying to label—not just me, but all of you who are conservative—as inherently racist just because of your political views. And here that doesn’t stand. The president of the United States tried doing that against me in the early nineties and now this bunch in the state-controlled media trying it again.

That’s pretty much why he railed at Ivins. I’m flattered.

Obama’s “beer summit” with Crowley, Gates, and then–Vice President Joe Biden (Limbaugh, cleverly, called him “Joe Bite Me”) riled the radio titan even more. He continued calling me “the Magic Honky” for a while. He even photoshopped a new cover for Obama’s Dreams From My Father that featured me writing a forward, “By the Magic Honky”—along with a photo of himself. The whole thing was actually kind of funny, and I said so publicly.

The day after I said that, a FedEx package arrived at my office. Limbaugh had sent the photoshop art to me with an autograph and a greeting. I now cannot remember what the note above the autograph said, but it was very nice. I hung it in my bathroom for years—guests loved it—but I’m not sure where it is now.

That’s why I wonder about whether he might be the GOAT “hypocrite.” I’ve heard several people who knew him earlier in his career suggest he’s not that bad, not that racist or conservative; his right-wing schtick became an act. It made him fabulously wealthy, and then he couldn’t kick it. (I have friends who used to say the same thing about Ann Coulter, but they’d never say that now.) Was the gift to me another sneer? Or was it a wink? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. But it was weird.

One of the last times Limbaugh came after me was when I said that he and his pal Coulter, and their free-form rage, were behind Trump’s flip-flopping on whether a government shutdown was tolerable (Trump at first said no, they said fight, Trump said yes). “He got bullied by Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh…[they] took him to the woodshed,” I said on CNN. As Limbaugh noted in his rant, a lot of other journalists made similar comments. Because it was a fact.

What’s most interesting to me is what Limbaugh posted in that same rant: a video he and Coulter did for Fox News in 2007, fantasizing that he was president and she was vice president. It’s juvenile. The video itself is restricted to RushLimbaugh.com “subscribers,” but the site offers a partial transcript. All they do, via the transcript, is enjoy cigars in the White House (relishing that it’s no longer a smoke-free zone, thanks to President Limbaugh) and refuse a phone call from Nancy Pelosi. YOLO!

It was deeply stupid, but also a window on Limbaugh’s stunted psyche, where he’s the cigar-smoking president with a supposedly “hot” (and deferential) female vice president, turning down calls from Nancy Pelosi. Is that really what he’d do with his power? Probably.

Also: I had no idea he’d talked about me in that segment. I never heard about it. I don’t know what his audience was then, but it seems he couldn’t send his wing nut monkeys after people anymore. Hallelujah: No one came after me.

By then, I think, Trump had eclipsed him, becoming Limbaugh’s real-life avatar. “The former guy” repaid him with a Presidential Medal of Freedom during his final, farcical State of the Union address, and Limbaugh’s final sad year.

I want to view Limbaugh’s death, only three days after Trump’s acquittal in his historic second impeachment trial (it’s progress: This time seven Republican senators found him guilty; last time it was only Mitt Romney), as some kind of sign, or at least a bookend. Not quite an ending to this era of cruel, vicious, and violent white backlash, but maybe it will help us move past it?

Probably not. Or not yet. Certainly, not by itself. Both men were evidence of the rot eating away at the GOP; again, but not the cause. Their departures can’t hurt, but our work to identify the rot they helped inflict on our country, and to rebuild what matters, will continue for a long time.

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