On Friday, we Americans will witness the inauguration of our 45th President, Rush Limbaugh.
OK, not really Rush. Instead, what Hollywood casting agents would refer to as “a Rush Limbaugh type,” one Donald J. Trump.
Limbaugh — the Big Daddy, the Jabba the Hut of right-wing radio talk — is not the inescapable presence he once was. He’s not quoted so much, and his name is not invoked as often. Though his audience is still the envy of the radio industry, he doesn’t have the influence he did at his peak in the 1990s, when his books were automatic #1 best-sellers and his religiously zealous fans, the “Dittoheads,” aggregated in coffee shops, bars and private homes to hear their inexhaustibly verbose hero fire fusillades of contempt and derision at President Bill Clinton and his policies and peccadilloes.
He has lost some key sponsors and in some cities prime outlets since that pinnacle thanks to some of his more extreme character assassinations. And he has lost some of his novelty, if not his thunder, to Sean Hannity and other blustering stars of Fox News Channel, the cable network that Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes based on Limbaugh’s radio model. (Ailes, in fact, directed the syndicated TV version of Limbaugh’s show that had a brief but instructive run in the early 1990s.)
Still, Limbaugh’s impact on this year’s election is more certain, if not more profound, than Vladimir Putin’s.
Limbaugh’s broadcasts over the years cultivated, queued up and gave voice to millions of resentful, angry Americans, almost entirely white and heavily male, who would eventually become the biggest component of Donald Trump’s voter base. And his conspiratorial insinuations about Hillary Clinton, starting when she was First Lady, became significant part and parcel of the “baggage” she dragged through her Presidential campaign (and almost certainly fueled her unfortunate obsession with secrecy).
Perhaps more important, Limbaugh’s bombastic, bullying, vitriolic style both foreshadowed Trump’s and provided a blueprint for what a shameless political candidate could get away with.
Before there was Trump insisting in interviews and at campaign rallies that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese, there was Limbaugh on the radio claiming, repeatedly, that ozone-layer depletion was just a fabrication by “environmentalist wackos.”
Before Trump complained that aggressive Presidential-debate moderator Megyn Kelly had blood coming out of her “whatever,” there was Limbaugh telling an argumentative female caller that she couldn’t grasp his point because she had tampons in her ears.
Before Trump went grotesquely spastic imitating a disabled reporter who’d incurred his wrath, there was Limbaugh claiming that actor Michael J. Fox, in a political ad supporting stem cell research, had exaggerated the effects of his Parkinson’s Disease: “He’s moving all around and shaking and it’s purely an act.”
Before Trump’s dismissed women who’d criticized him as dogs, slobs and pigs, there was Limbaugh, on the TV variation of his program, purporting to show viewers a photo of the Clinton family’s new dog and “accidentally” flashing a photo of their daughter, Chelsea, then 13 years old.
Like Limbaugh, the list of parallels could go on. And on. And on.
Disinclined to share the spotlight with anyone, let alone acknowledge a debt, Trump hasn’t and likely never will give Limbaugh any credit for his rise. But he should.
He should invite Limbaugh to his inauguration ball and, after the obligatory waltz with his wife, Melania, take El Rushbo for a spin around the dance floor. They deserve each other even if the rest of us don’t deserve either.