Immediately after learning hard-right radio host Rush Limbaugh had died, I texted three of my closest friends to talk about another close friend.
“Do we start taunting him now or wait five to 10 minutes?” I asked.
A few seconds later, I was amazed at how instinctual that had been. We shouldn’t feel schadenfreude at someone’s death, unless we’re talking about genocidal dictators, should we?
Then, it hit me. What I did was exactly what Rush Limbaugh would’ve wanted. One last time, he got me to take the bait.
That immediate reaction toward the divisive is the culture he helped create. He was the exalted emperor over a wave of right-wing media titans who jabbed for hours every day on the airwaves, shaming the pinkos and “feminazis.” Owning the libs and the nanny-staters, and somehow bringing everything back to Chappaquiddick, regardless of what year it was or the alive/no-longer-alive status of Ted Kennedy. My reaction would’ve proved his point on everything — whatever that point actually was.
Limbaugh made it OK to speak ill of the dead. He paved the way for a president who would insult war heroes, in life and death, and pick fights with Gold Star families. He was the gateway to things like QAnon and Infowars. By the end, he was churning the conspiracy mill just as much as they were, with all objectives being lost other than to fight — sometimes literally — the people who were putting noncitizens in the Oval Office and stealing elections to usher in the dawn of some sort of liberty-stripping, mind-control cult. Never mind that none of it was true.
The first time I heard Rush Limbaugh was on a long car trip with my dad. I knew some friends who listened, too. I thought the guy was funny. He made a lot of sense. Things were really as simple as he said. America was crumbling. We were a culture of participation trophies and willy-nilly abortions, off the moral axis and spiraling down. I was 11.
I grew up. I got to know people from all walks of life, all formed by their different experiences and circumstances. Not everyone fit into a neat box. Not everything facing our country, our society, could be boiled down to fit on a bumper sticker or in a tweet.
But who wants any of that? Limbaugh made every shade of gray so black and white (again, sometimes literally, given his blatant bigotry), even when he contradicted himself. And, whatever else you want to say about the guy, he was damn good at it. Don’t think I don’t get it. A lot of people from a variety of ideological aisles prefer to just dip their toes in the pool, rather than going beyond the surface. I don’t blame them. It’s an ugly mess down there.
The thing is, the world kept spinning after the first time I heard Limbaugh’s prophecies of doom around 1987. When the best trick you know, what built everything for you, is division and telling people where to point their anger and blame, it gets old. For me it did, anyway.
What do you do when you get what you want? Why are there still problems in America when the opposition gets put in its place? Because it’s not that simple. It never is. In fact, looking at people with different viewpoints as enemies is part of the problem. Still, the next anthill to kick over must be found. The next moral outrage must be engaged, even if it doesn’t make any sense or isn’t real. The war — cultural or otherwise — is never over, because, without conflict, no one profits.
Rush Limbaugh made a fortune on anger, misery and playing the victim while accusing others of perpetual victimhood. He was effective. He was an icon. And we’re all worse off for it.