Donald Trump awarded the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh during the State of the Union address on Tuesday. If reading that sentence makes you want to tear something up, just remember, that’s exactly how they want you to feel. As Rep. Ayanna Pressley (quoting Adam Serwer writing in the Atlantic in 2018) said after Trump’s speech, “the cruelty is the point” for Trump.
The idea that Individual-1 placed Limbaugh on a list that includes people as righteous and moral as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Harvey Milk, Rosa Parks, and Cesar Chavez sickens me. As we all know, Limbaugh is a hateful bigot who has brought race-baiting, in particular as it relates to President Barack Obama, to a new level.
I spent far too many months going through eight years—spanning the entire Obama presidency—of “The Rush Limbaugh Show” transcripts, documenting his race-baiting. Others have collected examples of Limbaugh spewing hate throughout his whole career. Yet we don’t need decades, or even just years of Limbaugh transcripts to prove that his particular brand of race-baiting, which centers on stoking white fears with lies that they are or will be somehow oppressed by the all-powerful people of color, infects his discussion of every issue—including ones that, like healthcare reform, ostensibly are about policy differences which can be discussed without bringing up race. We just need one.
In a broadcast on July 20, 2010, Limbaugh targeted Shirley Sherrod, an African American official in the Georgia office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). On July 19, 2010, Andrew Breitbart, the now-deceased founder of Breitbart News, posted a falsely edited video in which Sherrod was supposedly heard openly recounting an act of discrimination against a white farmer to an audience at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) meeting. Shortly thereafter, Sherrod was fired by the USDA. The full, unedited video surfaced within a day, showing that Sherrod had actually helped the farmer. In a subsequent interview, the farmer said that without Sherrod’s assistance, he would have lost his farm, adding that they remained friends. Here’s Limbaugh’s rant, which quickly moved from Sherrod to something much broader and more insidious:
(W)e know that the NAACP is racist, we know that the race business is racist, we know that it relies on racism and we know that the way it relies on racism is to tar and feather everybody else as racist. And what they’re doing to the tea party now some people look at as a success because it’s taken the tea party off message. But the real thing you need to glean is that the Obama administration and the federal bureaucracy is full of incompetents like Shirley Sherrod and it’s not going to be very long before you’re going to be dealing with her for your health care, and if you happen to be showing up to a black bureaucratic [sic] appointed by Obama and you happen to be something other than black, you might have the same treatment regarding your health care that this poor white farmer got. I mean, the bigger picture here is that.
Now, she supposedly has been dismissed, and she’s out now saying, (paraphrasing) ‘This is a terrible misunderstanding. I didn’t do any of this. The interpretation here on Fox and everywhere else is totally incorrect. I didn’t do anything.’ Of course not. Of course not. Minorities, they can’t be racist, they don’t have the power to be racist. It simply isn’t possible. So remember, folks, these are the kind of people—and we are talking about the federal bureaucracy—these are the kind of people, ‘Look, go to work for the government, nobody ever gets fired here.’ The ruling class. Nobody ever gets fired in the government. Everybody gets raises when you work for the government. And these people look at it as having all kinds of power over the rest of us, the ruling class versus us, the so-called country class. It’s not going to be long before these same kinds of people are going to be the people you have to go through to get the healthcare treatment or whatever access you need to the system. Those are going to be the people you first run into, by design and on purpose.
Limbaugh told his white audience that, under Barack Obama and his healthcare plan, it is highly likely that a “black bureaucratic [sic]” will have control over what kind of health care you will receive. In other words, the host told white people that power over their very lives will be in the hands of black people who work for a black president, a man who, Limbaugh had already told the audience countless other times by this point, hates white people and white America. When people say that Rush Limbaugh has spent years exacerbating white racial resentment for partisan, political purposes, this is what they mean.
What is the most important impact of Limbaugh’s race-baiting rhetoric? It helped lay the groundwork for Trump—The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote—to win the Oval Office. On the day Trump announced his candidacy, he slandered people coming into the U.S. from Mexico as rapists and drug dealers.
Both on the campaign trail and since his inauguration, Trump has spoken the language of racially resentful and alienated whites, language Limbaugh had been broadcasting five days a week to millions of Americans since Barack Obama had become president in 2009. By practicing the most divisive kind of white identity politics, Trump has put himself forward as the false champion of those whites in the struggle against their supposed enemies, people like President Obama, liberals, and those whom they championed—particularly, Americans of color and immigrants.
In reality, Trump, Limbaugh, and the Republican Party enact policies that benefit the economic elite and harm most of their white supporters, both in terms of their wallets and their health. By playing with and preying on white anxieties about the future of their collective status as the nation’s demographics shift, Republicans distract middle and working-class whites from this reality.
When Trump said that there were “very fine people” on both sides of a white nationalist, neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Limbaugh defended him by claiming his president was merely “trying to be accommodating, and he was trying to identify both sides as being somewhat guilty and somewhat responsible.” If you want to know why I believe Limbaugh deserves Trump, those shameful remarks are Exhibit A. The clash between the Obama and Limbaugh/Trump definitions of America and Americanness will remain central to our public discourse for the foreseeable future.
Trump gave the Medal of Freedom to Limbaugh at the State of the Union, ostensibly because the host had just announced that he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Daily Kos Community member Leslie Salzillo offered what I thought were appropriate comments on how progressives might react to that news.
I don't wish anyone ill health. Nevertheless, Limbaugh is a liar and a race-baiter. He has grown incredibly rich by spreading hate, and has helped bring to power those who make our country weaker, less just, less free, and less democratic. It is said that one should not speak ill of the dead, even if what one says is the truth.
Either way, Rush Limbaugh is still alive.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas). Some of the material in this post is excerpted (in some cases with slight alterations) from the book, with full permission from the publisher.