Donald Trump directing Melania to put the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Rush Limbaugh’s neck in the middle of his State of the Union was the most on-brand moments of that speech, if not his presidency. In one gesture, Trump owned the libs and nodded to his racist fanbase by honoring a broadcaster who’s made his career, and paved a path for this president, by doing those same things.
Past the broad strokes, Rush—who recently announced he has advanced lung cancer—was a pioneer in broadcasting with a particular disdain for star athletes whose visibility, in combining wealth with blackness, signals the kinds of modest black progress that most effectively inflames white racial resentment. The Donald, who courted black athletes as a casino and sports team owner, and then as a reality TV star, followed down the path the radio talker had trod of treating them as scapegoats and convenient enemies.
In fact, Limbaugh’s invectives against black NFL players greased the skids not only for Trump’s broadsides against black athletes but for the ascent of Trump himself.
Start in 2003, when the right-wing radio host was hired to join ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, a position he held for four games—presumably as long as he could hold out before offering the kind of racist hot takes that had made him the nation’s top-rated radio host and landed him the sports-talk job in the first place.
“Football is like life, and I know life,” Limbaugh said when he was hired, with ESPN praising him as “a great communicator and a fan’s fan” whose “acute sense of what’s on the minds of his listeners, combined with ability to entertain and serve as a lightning rod for lively discussion, makes him the perfect fit for this new role.”
In a sign of things to come, ESPN said that ratings were up 10 percent with Rush slinging takes. But in his fourth week, Limbaugh put down Donovan McNabb, the black quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, using tired racist stereotypes about black athletes that had effectively locked them out of the position for much of the league’s history.
"Sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go," Limbaugh declared after McNabb led the Eagles to a 23-13 win. "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."
The panel erupted. Limbaugh retreated, before doubling down on the home field of his radio show, where he insisted that “all this has become the tempest that it is because I must have been right about something. If I wasn’t right, there wouldn’t be the cacophony of outrage that has sprung up in the sportswriter community.”
Hours later, he offered his resignation, while still insisting that “My comments this past Sunday were directed at the media and were not racially motivated." Limbaugh added, "I offered an opinion. This opinion has caused discomfort to the crew, which I regret.”
The president of ESPN and ABC said, passively, "We accept his resignation and regret the circumstances surrounding this.” The lightning rod had served his purpose.
The following season, the quarterback Limbaugh dismissed as a diversity hire propped up by white liberal sportswriters would lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl.
A few years later, Limbaugh made his McNabb remarks look quaint when he compared the optics of a 70 percent black football league to gang warfare, openly trafficking in stereotypes about black criminality.
“Look, let me put it to you this way, the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons,” Limbaugh announced on his radio show. “There, I said it.”
Limbaugh didn’t limit himself to football, of course. The year after his McNabb remarks, he told his listeners that “it’s time to get rid of this whole National Basketball Association. Call it the TBA, the Thug Basketball Association, and stop calling them teams. Call ’em gangs.” He also once told his audience, “You look at NBA players and the uniforms, you don’t have to go back very far. The uniforms have changed totally. They’re now in gang colors.”
As he ran for president, Trump quickly picked up on the appeal to his fans of telling rich young black men to know their place, hurling insults at the likes of NBA stars LeBron James and Steph Curry and, of course, attacking then 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee to protest for racial justice as players took the field for the playing of the national anthem, an American tradition going back to… 2009. Those racist outbursts came straight out of the Limbaugh playbook, in which black athletes are chided for failing to display proper gratitude to the mostly white owners who employ them.
But Limbaugh’s notion that black folks should know their station—an attitude shared by Trump—extended far beyond the realm of sports stars. In 2011, Limbaugh accused then-FLOTUS Michelle Obama of being “uppity,” an old-school term for black folks who are insufficiently deferential to white people. Trump and his supporters were galvanized by that kind of white anger, which saw the election of the first black president as the ultimate affront. Limbaugh, who like the president, even indulged in birtherism, stoked the racial fires that led to Trump’s rise. The president continues to exploit those white resentments, issuing his most demeaning and vicious insults to black stars in politics, media and of course, sports.
Trump opined as a candidate that Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it’s not gonna happen,” and as president that the “privilege of making millions of dollars” should be stripped from NFL players who protest. He once tweeted that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had “lost control” of the league, creating a topsy-turvy situation in which “players are the boss.” Perhaps most infamously, Trump suggested that owners should “get that son of a bitch off the field right now!” The NFL bent its knee and obeyed, blackballing Kaepernick to satisfy Trump and deter other players from following his example.
On the same day Trump first attacked Kaepernick, Limbaugh used his radio show to insult the quarterback for his ungratefulness toward white folks.
“It’s ironic that we have now a quarterback who was adopted and raised by a white family, who was scouted and signed by white scouts, was employed by white owners, the National Football League, decides now to steal the stage of the National Football League to make personal statements during the week he is about to be cut from the team because of his inability to play,” Limbaugh stated in 2016, priming the audience.
He lamented that Kaepernick’s (white) coach wouldn’t tell him what to do. “You can’t? You do every day. You give ’em bed check. You give ’em curfews. You tell ’em what time they have to show up in the morning and if they don’t, ostensibly they’re in trouble. Adults used to tell kids what to do all the time because the kids hadn’t been alive long enough to know right from wrong, good from bad, appropriate from inappropriate. The coach is the adult.”
In 2009, Limbaugh dropped out of a collective of rich white guys who were trying to buy the St. Louis Rams, because his old racist comments garnered pushback from black players none too happy with the idea of letting him into the owner’s club. “I, too, have had my high-tech lynching,” Limbaugh declared, employing a term that he and Trump both favor for its hurtfulness toward black folks.
On Sunday, a black quarterback won the Super Bowl for the third time, beating a 49ers team that had last been led there by Colin Kaepernick, who wasn’t mentioned at all in the broadcast. (As it happens, the Kansas Chiefs coach, Andy Reid, had coached McNabb and the Eagles in 2003.)
Tuesday, Donald Trump presented an award previously given to Rosa Parks and Desmond Tutu to Rush Limbaugh, and thanked him for “decades of tireless devotion to our country.” It was a victory lap of sorts—a kind of cultural spiking of the football to remind everyone just who’s winning.