Rush Limbaugh and the Nineties Roots of “Cancel Culture”Breaking News
tags: conservatism, free speech, Rush Limbaugh, Cancel Culture
If you weren’t around for it, it’s a little hard to explain how and why Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing broadcaster who died this week, was (very briefly) a member of the commentary crew for Sunday NFL Countdown back in 2003.* Nationally televised professional sports is a realm so allergic to controversy, and to any association with partisan politics, that television commentators are more likely to be suspended for getting political than they are to be hired for their politics. So how did Limbaugh—whose politics weren’t just incidental but the obvious core of his appeal—end up a Disney employee tasked with commenting on National Football League games? One reason is that he was, at the time, a more or less mainstream figure.
Living in the present United States, where the conservative movement has effectively created an entire parallel media ecosystem that allows right-wingers to cut themselves off entirely from any other sources of news or entertainment, it’s hard to remember that in the not-too-distant past, right-wing media figures still largely depended on the “mainstream media” for their platforms. And the mainstream media happily provided those platforms.
For those too young to remember his prime (and I’d probably count myself among those too young to truly remember his Clinton-era heyday despite my occasional exposure to him in a conservative relative’s truck or on their bookshelf), it’s difficult to convey just how nasty and bigoted Limbaugh was but also how mainstream he was. And it is therefore difficult to understand exactly how reactionary the entire American media environment—and, consequently, the political culture—was in that era.
If anything, in his later years Limbaugh dialed it back a bit just because it would’ve been impossible even for him to keep getting away with the sort of things he routinely said and did at the peak of his fame. A complimentary (and representative) New York Times story from 1990 shows how the establishment laundered his bigotry right from the start. While clearly contemptuous (the piece makes a point early on of specifically delineating his weight), the profile basically treats Limbaugh as a guilty pleasure. “So why has Rush Limbaugh become the new titan of talk?” the paper asks. “Maybe it is America’s shock at discovering a new species: a funny right-winger.”
Feel free to scour the piece for examples of his humor. One of them is only mentioned in the vaguest possible terms. Rush, we’re told, “has cut some of his material, especially on homosexuals.” More specifically: “He killed a running bit on AIDS after two weeks.” Limbaugh is then given space to apologize: “It’s the single most regretful thing I’ve ever done,” he tells his profiler.
Even as outlets like The New York Times continued to characterize his audience as bumpkins, they appreciated his right-wing “comedy,” revealing the degree to which 1990s elites were actually some of his most eager fans. Limbaugh was a pioneer in the creation of the parallel conservative media, turning talk radio into a key arm of it. But television kept beckoning. By March of 1990, he had his first gig as a TV host, sitting in on CBS’s Pat Sajak Show. He’d go on to get a (Roger Ailes–produced) syndicated talk show a few years later. He’d periodically resurface in the occasional sitcom or movie cameo throughout the rest of the decade before finally ending up with that ill-fated stint in the Sunday NFL Countdown booth. (He was fired after making racist comments about Donovan McNabb, a black quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.)
In other words, Rush—despite (or, more probably, because of) his rancid bigotry—was, in the 1990s, just a normal celebrity. Meanwhile, the most prominent left-of-center voices on American television during the Clinton years were Bill Maher and Al Franken. It was a deeply reactionary mass culture in which certain figures could say anything so long as their targets were marginalized or powerless.
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