Less than a week has passed since Rush Limbaugh died from cancer. He undoubtedly ranks high on a list of polarizing Americans in the modern era. Liberals derided him as a bigoted fool, and conservatives hailed him as a misunderstood genius who spoke the truth about a changing nation (so much that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ordered flags in his state to be lowered to half-mast in Limbaugh’s honor).
Though many Americans have taken to the internet to skewer the late talk-radio personality and express elation over Limbaugh’s death, I want to offer a different perspective. Instead of taking an almost perverse joy over the death of this man, be sad over the type of life he lived.
Rush Limbaugh did quite a bit to provoke the ire of Americans in his decades of radio broadcasts and that cannot be ignored.
During the 1990s, when most Americans believed HIV / AIDS affected primarily gay men, Limbaugh read the names of individuals who died as a result of the AIDS. His segment, known as ‘AIDS update,’ mocked human beings who suffered tremendously.
Limbaugh’s show also utilized another crude concept during his rise to fame. When callers to his show expressed views he didn’t like, he would end the call with what he referred to as a ‘caller abortion.’ An approximately 10 second audio clip mixed a vacuum cleaner sound with human screams as he ended the call.
The disgusting and boorish behavior extended to other areas, including his discussion of race in America. Limbaugh once stated, “The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.” (For the unaware, the Bloods and Crips are two notorious gangs from South Central Los Angeles.)
About the NAACP: “The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.”
About President Barack Obama: Limbaugh called him, “Barack the Magic Negro,” and laughed when a caller referenced the president as looking like “Curious George,” a monkey from a popular children’s book.
Responding to a caller arguing black people deserve more of a voice in public affairs: “They are 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?”
Additionally, his brief stint in sports broadcasting on Monday Night Football ended quickly when he made comments alluding to the fact that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb received accolades because the media wanted the story of a successful black quarterback in the NFL.
This list could go, but not just about black Americans. Limbaugh has made stunningly foolish statements about Native Americans, immigrants, women — pick any minority or marginalized group and he insulted them in the most offensive ways.
Elected officials subject themselves to a measure of scrutiny by serving the public. However, Limbaugh made offensive comments about a number of people who were not elected officials, and these set a poor precedent for our society. This included comparing Chelsea Clinton (a then 13 year old girl) to a dog, and claimed actor Michael J. Fox exaggerated the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.
He fueled the flames of conspiracy theories for years, suggesting President Bill Clinton and his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were connected to mysterious deaths and suicides of their former political allies. Limbaugh suggested ‘eco-terrorists’ perpetrated an act of violence by sabotaging oil rigs in the BP spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. Each year brought more shenanigans and they increased in their insane assertions, including the decreased number of hurricanes disproved climate change, the existence of gorillas disproved evolution, and the ever mysterious “they” want you to believe the COVID-19 pandemic was being overplayed. He defended the January 6th mob at the nation’s Capitol, subtly comparing the people there to the likes of Sam Adams and Patrick Henry.
What possibly irritates people the most is the hypocrisy which oozed from Limbaugh’s personal life. As a man who supported conservative traditional values, he had no problem marrying four separate times. Limbaugh backed the War on Drugs, and claimed drug addiction was a choice. However, in 2003, he revealed his own drug problem, securing hundreds of pain pills per month for several years. Charges against him were dropped when he agreed to go to rehab. He also defending his smoking cigars, which undoubtedly caused the very lung cancer which killed him.
Defenders of Rush Limbaugh will point to his apologies for many of his poor statements and his financial contributions to charities. However, his legacy as a human being cannot be overshadowed by money for charities or half-hearted apologies. Rush Limbaugh was not a good man.
The brief synopsis I provided here does not truly reflect the cruelty of Limbaugh. His decades of radio broadcasts fostered anger, bitterness, racism, and misogyny. So why shouldn’t people rejoice in his death?
Rush Limbaugh should be the object of your pity. He was a modern day Willy Loman, from Arthur Miller’s classic, Death of a Salesman. Limbaugh lived in a fantasy land about how the world should be rather than how it actually is. We often saw Limbaugh’s insecurity through his criticism of anyone who wasn’t like him or supportive of him.
Limbaugh spent his life trying to measure up. Many members of his family, including his father, worked in the legal profession, as either a lawyer or judge. Limbaugh dropped out of college at 20 and spent a considerable amount of time bouncing from one job to the next. Before a talk-radio host, Limbaugh was a DJ and spent time working in sales for the Kansas City Royals. His success became dependent on peddling misinformation that appealed to the worst parts of humanity. It must have been exhausting to be Rush Limbaugh.
We should pity him in the same way we pitied Willy Loman. Neither man was exceptionally smart, and their only avenue to generate money came from scamming others (Loman commits suicide for his son to receive the insurance money). They were failures who could not cope with that reality. For Rush Limbaugh, even his rise to wealth and fame could not rescue him from the fact that the America he knew was changing. He and Willy Loman were perpetually angry because they could not control the world or the people around them.
Taking joy in the death of a human will change you. We, as humans, sometimes experience a strange emotion known as ‘schadenfreude,’ where we take joy in the troubles and failures of others. Scientific studies demonstrate those who experience this emotion more frequently tended to have lower feelings of self-esteem than others. If you justify feeling like Limbaugh deserved this, or worse, you will find reasons to justify feeling that way towards other human beings.
When you give in to the temptation of hatred of this kind, you run the risk of becoming Rush Limbaugh.
Taking joy in the death of Rush Limbaugh is a form of dehumanization that will only bring about more problems in America. The consequences of this type of rage move beyond one’s personal health and well-being.
Our children already live in an environment of polarized political ideology where shouting and name-calling have replaced true discourse. Positive responses to the death of a human being moves American society in a direction where even worse conditions become more acceptable — sadism, psychopathy, and narcissism. It’s a slow descent into the dark places.
People pay attention to our lives. Our children, grandchildren, friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc. will see how we respond and some of them will emulate our behaviors. Don’t believe me? Rush Limbaugh’s career as a talk-radio host acts as a testimony to people mimicking his behavior. Rush Limbaugh brought about significant damage to American society in his life, and we should critique his words and deeds. Don’t let Rush Limbaugh’s ways become your ways.
Society can, and must, differentiate between despising the actions of a person and lauding their death.
History judges the demagogues. While Rush Limbaugh’s supporters see him as a brash, outspoken supporter of conservative values, people like him do not escape the rightful critique of their actions. America has seen several Rush Limbaughs come and go.
For instance, Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest and radio broadcaster in the Depression Era, riled up the public with his rhetoric where he made anti-Semitic comments, purported conspiracy theories, and backed some fascist policies of Hitler and Mussolini.
During the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy created fears of communist infiltration of the United States with absolutely no evidence.
The nation’s historians always appropriately frame these individuals and we see them for precisely what they were. All style and no substance. No real care or love for their country of people. Or as Sir William Scott wrote,
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung.
Despite the money, the influence, and the renown among his tribe, Rush Limbaugh cannot escape history.