In this most partisan moment in living memory, everything—including and perhaps most especially—the deaths of famous people, are perceived through a political lens and provide fodder for abusive exchanges on Twitter. So it comes as little surprise that the passing of conservative talk-radio icon Rush Limbaugh, who spent his career engaging in no-holds-barred polemics, would trigger an overheated debate about his life and work. For conservatives, Limbaugh, who turned talk radio into a vital part of American politics, was a hero and a source of inspiration. For liberals, he was a despicable person whose death has inspired many of his detractors literally to wish they could dance on his grave.
Equally unsurprising is that American Jews and Israelis are just as divided about him.
Conservatives are lauding his consistent support for Israel and philo-Semitism. Liberals say that praise for a man who said abusive things about minorities and women is a disgrace. The fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent condolences to Limbaugh’s family sent some on the left off the deep end with one writing in Haaretz that this courtesy was spitting in the faces of President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. When columnist Caroline Glick tweeted that the deceased was an “angel” who should rest in peace, it set off an exchange with historian Daniel Gordis. He responded with an article in which he claimed via a lengthy Talmudic lesson that Limbaugh was a model of “impure” speech that Jews should reject.
Gordis deplores the all-or-nothing view of the issues, which in a Jewish context can mean that anyone who is a friend of Israel automatically gets a pass for anything else they did. As a general rule, he’s right to deplore political discourse discussed only in absolutes. But to use this as the only lens through which we view Limbaugh is a bit misleading. The reason why he’s important enough to inspire all of these arguments is that his impact was about more than just a few catchphrases or the examples that his detractors always cite as evidence for his bad character. If, as even some of his foes admit, Limbaugh revolutionized not just radio but political commentary, it’s worth understanding why the question of his support for Israel is not merely one of conservatives giving a get-out-of-jail-free card to a political ally.
Almost single-handedly, Limbaugh created a medium of talk radio that provided what was at the time the only mass-media alternative to the monopoly of liberals over the mainstream press. Years before Fox News filled an underserved niche on television that consisted of about half of the American people, Limbaugh had become what National Review aptly termed in 1993 “The Leader of the Opposition” to the Democrats and then-President Bill Clinton.
His influence at his peak in the 1990s was enormous. The approximately 20 million Americans who tuned in to hear his daily, three-hour virtuoso performances looked to him for reassurance that their disagreements with the liberal consensus were reasonable. Even in his later years, when that influence was somewhat diminished by the proliferation of imitators, he still mattered.
That made him not just a target for those who disagreed with his stands but made him a symbol of everything they hated. Clinton would go so far as to imply that he was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building by a far right-wing terrorist—a piece of hyperbole that was as extreme and unfair as anything Limbaugh ever said. But it indicated just how large he loomed in the imaginations of his opponents.
It was axiomatic about those who hated Limbaugh that few of them listened to his show. If they had, they would have realized that their determination to seize on snippets of his routines could be misleading, whether or not they were quoting him accurately.
Limbaugh had a remarkable facility for explaining complicated issues in a way that was easily understood by listeners. But what critics missed by not listening was that Limbaugh was not a radio version of William F. Buckley or Norman Podhoretz—influential conservative intellectuals who admired him but didn’t have the megaphone of a huge radio audience. He was instead as much, if not more, of an entertainer than anything else even though his critics treated his utterances as if they were doctrinal manifestos.
Limbaugh got his start on radio as a popular DJ and, like the best of that genre, his shows were filled with comedy bits and mimicry that employed wicked humor to skewer the objects of his and his followers’ ire. At a time when liberal pieties went unchallenged in the mainstream media and conservative intellectuals struggled to reach large audiences, “Rush,” as his audience knew him, was there to mock them. With the left’s faith in multiculturalism and political correctness just taking hold, employing his self-consciously pompous and braggadocious on-air persona, Limbaugh attacked and parodied these ideas. He was a daily answer to the dull conformity of liberal groupthink that reigned elsewhere.
In doing so in a manner that often went over the top, he exposed himself to some of the most telling critiques of his work. There’s no defending his insult of Clinton’s daughter; calling feminists who supported abortion “feminazis;” his mockery of AIDs victims and some African-American targets; or calling a young woman who advocated for free contraception a “slut.”
Some of these egregious references were comic hyperbole or intended as satire. But as Gordis points out, “impure speech” is wrong in and of itself. That he apologized for some of his excesses was ignored by his enemies, and cherry-picking such insults out of the vast library of his daily soliloquies and spoofs as proof that he was a racist or a misogynist may seem unfair to his fans. Still, it goes with the territory for those who engage in such public discourse.
Yet some who are now metaphorically dancing on his grave have no problem with those who just as mercilessly parody, distort or outright lie about conservatives or people of faith on the liberal answers to Rush on “The Daily Show” and other late-night comedy television shows. The left claimed that Limbaugh’s humor-laced diatribes misinformed his listeners, yet are unmoved by the fact that a disproportionate percentage of younger viewers only learn about the news through that left-wing funhouse mirror version of events.
What a lot of those celebrating Limbaugh’s death are lamenting is not so much the tenor of his discourse, but the fact that the targets of his barbs were the sacred cows that they worship. Some on the left want to revive the old “fairness doctrine” that enforced ideology conformity in broadcast media until it was discarded in 1987 because its absence allowed Limbaugh and other conservatives to succeed. What they want is not better-behaved commentators but a way to muzzle their opponents, while leaving their own side free to distort and smear their opponents on networks not named Fox News.
All of which comes back to the question of his significance and whether his pro-Israel views matter more than scruples about the way he expressed himself.
Love him or hate him, Limbaugh was one of the most consequential figures in American politics of the last 30 years. That means that his vocal embrace of Israel can’t be considered a mere footnote. In a political world in which Rush’s views mattered desperately, his willingness to vocally support the Jewish state plays a not-inconsiderable role in making the Republicans a lockstep pro-Israel party.
Even those who didn’t share his politics need to acknowledge that those in the pro-Israel community who mourn him have good reason to do so. They also need to understand that while putting the genie of uncivil discourse back in the bottle might be desirable, singling out Limbaugh as responsible for all that ails the body politic fails to recognize that enforcing conformity of thought—as the Big Tech oligarchs and other forces seeking to enforce political correctness seem to want to do—is more dangerous than anything that Limbaugh said or did. Democracies need those willing to loudly, and sometimes even outrageously, dissent and talk back to power. Agree or disagree with him, if Limbaugh hadn’t existed, he would have had to be invented.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.