WASHINGTON — Americans of a certain age remember the days before Spotify when we made mix tapes of bands we loved. In college in the late 1980s, my friends and I would play them during long road trips, savoring the chance to expose each other to new artists.
On one particular trip, a friend popped a tape into the cassette player — but instead of music, a voice came on the radio. It was a scratchy recording of a talk show from New York’s WABC. “You have to hear this guy,” my friend said. The voice was that of Rush Limbaugh. My friend had recorded a week’s worth of shows, and we listened to them the whole trip.
For a budding young conservative at the dawn of the age of political correctness, Limbaugh was a revelation. He was funny, irreverent, iconoclastic and unapologetically conservative. Back then, those of us on the right had few places to turn. National Review arrived in the mailbox twice a month, and we watched William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line” on PBS. But there was no Fox News and few alternatives to the left-leaning media. Then Limbaugh burst onto the scene, declaring himself “America’s anchorman.” He not only became the most successful radio talk-show host in the country, he launched an entire industry — creating the phenomenon of conservative talk radio and reaching an entirely new audience for conservative ideas.
How did he become such a sensation? First, he made conservatism fun. He feigned arrogance, declaring that he possessed “talent on loan from God” and that he spoke with “half my brain tied behind my back, just to make it fair.” And he made fun of the left. Just like his hero, Ronald Reagan, who told jokes to mock communism and big government, Limbaugh used humor as a powerful weapon in the battle of ideas. His adversaries wanted to be taken seriously; he made them the butt of the joke.
Second, he connected with millions of Americans who felt ignored, derided and marginalized by the political elites. Long before Donald Trump came along, Limbaugh rallied these “forgotten Americans.” He understood that the conservative movement has always been populist at heart. In 1964, Reagan declared that conservatives refuse to “confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” And Buckley famously said, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”
Limbaugh gave a voice to folks in the phone book and elevated them over that little intellectual elite. He rarely had guests on his show, choosing instead to give a platform to ordinary Americans who called in. He gave them a voice in our political discourse and affirmed the validity of what they believed. He assured them that “our beliefs are not the result of a deranged psychology,” and they felt they finally had a champion. “I am Rush Limbaugh ... and I want anyone who believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to succeed. And I want any force, any person, any element of an overarching Big Government that would stop your success ... to fail,” he said.
He loved his audience, and they loved him back. They arranged their schedules around his show, doing their shopping so they would be in the car when he came on. Long-haul truckers listened to him on the job, while workers gathered in “Rush Rooms” at local restaurants to listen to his show during their lunch hour.
The left hated him — in part because they didn’t like being on the receiving end of his sometimes over-the-top approach, and in part because they could not replicate his success. Air America — liberals’ would-be answer to conservative talk radio — crashed and burned. But Limbaugh kept succeeding — three hours a day, five days a week, for more than three decades.
He did it while overcoming addiction and hearing loss that would have ended other careers. He continued to broadcast to the very end, even while fighting the stage four lung cancer that finally took his life. He was unfailingly generous, leaving $5,000 tips in restaurants and ranking as high as fourth in Forbes’s annual list of most generous celebrities.
In 1992, Buckley invited him on “Firing Line” to talk about his success. The intellectuals dismissed Limbaugh, Buckley said, because they “assumed that nobody who really counts spends time listening to people talk over the radio.” They recoiled at his irreverent humor, but “only the humorless are really offended.” Like Julius Caesar, Buckley said, Limbaugh “came, he saw, and he conquered.”
Marc Thiessen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.