Rush Limbaugh Spent His Lifetime Speaking Ill of the Dead
He pioneered a style of commodified white ethnonationalistic sadism. He made his already-tedious listeners even less funny.
He’s a dead guy who made himself a multimillionaire many times over by targeting immigrants, women who use birth control, the preteen daughters of politicians, the Obamas, rape survivors, environmentalists, gay people, Asians, Latinos, Black people, and feminists. He popularized the term “feminazi,” a word that stupid assholes fling at women who won’t fuck them to this very day. He said that white people can’t be blamed for slavery, as they have done more than anybody else to end slavery. He mocked the intelligence of Black athletes and villainized the ones who protested against police brutality.
Twenty-five years ago, the great Molly Ivins noticed Limbaugh’s schtick of targeting “dead people, little girls, and the homeless,” an act that only accelerated as he approached the end of his life and his own death approached. He spoke ill of people who died of AIDS, of people who died by suicide, of people who were dying of Parkinson’s disease, and unarmed Black children who were murdered under racist pretenses.
When Robin Williams died by suicide in 2014, Limbaugh attributed it to a problem with Hollywood and, by extension, leftism. “If you had to attach not a philosophy but an attitude to a leftist’s worldview, it's one of pessimism and darkness, sadness,” he said on his show. “They're never happy, are they? They're always angry about something. No matter what they get, they're always angry.” Similarly, “Kurt Cobain was, ladies and gentleman, a worthless shred of human debris.” And Jerry Garcia, who died of a heart attack, was “just another dead doper. And a dirtbag.”
Limbaugh didn’t have anything nice to say after legendary New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died in 2010. “That cracker made a lot of African-American millionaires,” said Limbaugh, displaying his trademark sensitivity and tact.
After 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, Limbaugh defended the boy’s killer. Zimmerman, he said, “just loves law enforcement, and he's a self-appointed Neighborhood Watch commander, and he wanted to protect his neighborhood, and he just got a little overzealous and so forth.” And so forth.
The radio host also mocked then-candidate Joe Biden over the death of his wife and child in 1972 and more recently, his son Beau in 2015. “And if you dare talk about it that way, they’re going to be climbing down your chili. ‘You can’t be mean to Biden.’ See, Biden is a sympathetic figure. We’re supposed to feel sorry for Biden. Do you know why? Because his wife died in a car accident, and then his beloved son Beau Biden died from brain cancer. We’re supposed to feel sorry.” Limbaugh then lamented the fact that the media wasn’t adequately giving then-President Donald Trump space to grieve the death of his brother, whom Trump had spent less than an hour visiting when he was in the hospital before he died.
Rush Limbaugh was also a driving force behind a debunked conspiracy theory involving the 2016 killing of former DNC staffer Seth Rich in a street robbery. Despite Rich’s family pleading for right-wing media figures to leave them alone, Limbaugh joined Sean Hannity and others in promoting the notion that the Democratic Party had Rich killed over his role in leaked DNC emails. His grieving mother, Mary Rich, was driven to write an op-ed pleading for right-wing media figures to leave their family alone.
But perhaps the most bracing example of Limbaugh’s complete lack of respect for the dead were his infamous “AIDS Updates” in the 1980s, where he would read the names of gay and bi men who had died of AIDS while Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” played in the background. He sometimes called AIDS “the Rock Hudson Disease,” after the closeted actor who’d died of AIDS. “When a gay person turns their back on you,” he once quipped, “it’s not an insult, it’s an invitation.”
That is why Rush Limbaugh’s death is the truly rare instance where it is appropriate, and indeed necessary, to speak ill of the dead as people on the right try to lionize a man who made himself very rich by speaking ill of the dead and training conservatives to have contempt for death itself, or at least the deaths of their supposed enemies.
I can already see the angry tweets from the Fuck Your Feelings party, who cannot believe how unclassy the supposedly tolerant left is being by pointing out that Rush Limbaugh made the world worse. But it’s impossible to describe what Rush Limbaugh did in life without speaking ill of him in death. The problem is that Rush Limbaugh was, objectively, a huge piece of shit. That was his brand. To describe him as anything but a huge piece of shit would do a disservice to the image he spent decades cultivating. It would be dishonest.
Limbaugh had a reputation among his fans for “giving it to them straight” or “saying what the suits won’t!” But the truth is that most of Limbaugh’s loud, processed meat-flecked tirades weren’t even true. Politifact found that 84 percent of his statements they evaluated were “mostly false” or “pants on fire.” Zero percent of his statements evaluated by the fact-checking site were rated as “true.” On even the things that weren’t flat-out lies, Limbaugh was on the wrong side of history when it came to almost every important issue. Climate change, same-sex marriage, Obamacare’s contraception mandate, torturing Iraqi prisoners, accusing veterans of being “phony soldiers” for opposing the Iraq war, basically everything to do with the war. His show was full of lies. His books were full of lies. It was like he was trying to be the wrongest bitch on the right wing, a crowded and highly competitive field.
In addition to roaming the halls of American discourse, slamming anybody smaller or weaker than him into lockers like an overgrown bully whose dad never hugged him, Limbaugh’s lies killed people. He told his huge audience of racist great uncles, twentysomething college Republicans who look like they’re 50, and McMansion rage posters with Back the Blue truck nuts on their $50,000 extended cabs that COVID-19 was just like the common cold. Why?
Because he was a terrible person. He peddled the “big lie” that the election that Joe Biden won by 8 million votes was stolen from Donald Trump, a lie that led to an insurrection that killed five people and led to the suicides of two Capitol police officers.
Limbaugh set standards in the ugly, roach-infested corner of the media he occupied. He pioneered a style of commodified white ethnonationalistic sadism. He made his already-tedious listeners even less funny. Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance wagged his finger at those who dare articulate why they did not like Rush Limbaugh, writing that he wished “people could honor a person who changed media forever without being cruel.” But that wouldn’t be honestly honoring a person who changed media by being gleefully, gratuitously cruel. Yes, Limbaugh changed media forever, but he changed it forever in much the same way that a dark brown skid mark changes a pair of men’s briefs.
In addition to all of his purposeful shock-jockery— like playing peppy music as he sarcastically celebrated AIDS deaths—Limbaugh also perfected a particular type of brazen truth-telling: confessing by accusing. Trump’s “No Puppet, No Puppet, You’re The Puppet” children’s nursery rhyme was a poor imitation of some of Limbaugh’s virtuosic hypocrisy. Like how Limbaugh called law student Sandra Fluke a slut for using birth control when he was, at the time, on his fourth human woman wife and yet had sired zero children (after advertisers started jumping ship, he apologized to Fluke). Either Limbaugh had sexually chaste marriages, was infertile, had the best luck in the world with a very unreliable method of “natural” birth control, or his wives had used birth control like that “slut” Sandra Fluke. Limbaugh, who was fat before the cancer, also had a problem with fat people. He called former First Lady Michelle Obama “Moochelle,” to make fun of her weight. Limbaugh famously advocated for tough sentencing for first-time drug offenders. Limbaugh hated drugs, big time… until he went to rehab for a drug addiction of his own. Limbaugh, not exactly a George Clooney, railed against “feminists”—in some cases the raging feminism hard-ons these women supposedly had were products of Limbaugh’s imagination—for not being attractive enough for him. No women anywhere were hot enough for him.
People who are fat, use birth control, are less attractive than average, or have addiction issues do not deserve to be shamed for those things. But Rush Limbaugh, who definitely fit three of those criteria and probably fit all of them, promoted the belief that those things are shameful, but only when non-Rush Limbaugh people do them.
Dead or alive, it’s hard to not dislike somebody who aggressively hated everything I am. Boy, he hated women who didn’t act how he wanted them to act! Hated us! In addition to making “feminazi” happen, Limbaugh once suggested that the way to end abortions was to perform them with guns. Get it? He hated women who were in college. Limbaugh once ridiculed an affirmative consent policy at Ohio State University: “How many of you guys in your own experience with women have learned that 'no' means 'yes' if you know how to spot it?" In addition to the utter creepiness of a man several decades older than college-age weighing in on the sexual practices of students at a school he did not attend (mind your own business, Rush!), something about that quip makes me feel a pang of pity for all four of Limbaugh’s wives.
Those who took umbrage with Limbaugh’s ghastly media persona were often told they were being humorless, “PC,” or, recently, trying to do a “cancel culture” on an honest, hardworking man who was only trying to put food on his table by promoting lies that have resulted in many, many deaths. But he wasn’t joking. The thing about comedy routines is that they stop once a comedian goes offstage. They’re presented as hyperbole, not repeated ad nauseum until somebody storms the Capitol. If your jokes are getting people killed, consider writing some new jokes.
So am I speaking ill of the dead? Maybe. If anyone should understand, it’s a man who made a career of speaking ill of the living and dead alike. If Rush Limbaugh can read this from wherever he is now, I hope he understands that he was practically asking for it.