Rush Limbaugh, Who Should Have Stayed Jeff Christie

A pioneer, and not in a good way

Rush Limbaugh, who died of lung cancer yesterday, was once a top-40 DJ who broadcast under the name “Jeff Christie” at KQV in Pittsburgh:

Listen to “Jeff’s” rollicking intro for “Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing” by Stevie Wonder. The man who would become infamous as a peddler of race politics really sells Stevie’s music! You can detect a trace of “America’s Anchorman” in his intro for “Garden Party” — by “former all-American boy turned hippie” Ricky Nelson — but most of his energy is pure radio.

When he went national in 1988 with a WABC talk show, it was built around a new character. “Jeff Christie” had long since made way for Rush, the “Doctor of Democracy,” man of “zero mistakes” who would tell drivetime audiences the real truths. Limbaugh’s virtuosity with the medium was key to the act. The tireless polysyllabic self-congratulation, which tumbled out of his mouth in breathtaking flourishes of gibberish braggadocio — he was “the most dangerous man in America,” with the “largest hypothalamus in North America,” who was “serving humanity just by opening my mouth,” with “half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair” — was for the benefit of a vast audience that was used to being told it was too stupid to understand its own interests.

Rush told them a different story. They were plenty smart. After all, they had chosen to listen to the smartest person in history. When he praised himself, he was actually praising his audience. They ate it up. He was a pioneer of the audience-optimization model of media — identify an audience, observe its obsessions, then vomit your demographic’s self-image back across the airwaves in big chunks, in between ad blocs. Jacking off your target market’s hangups was an innovation back then, and he had the skill to turn his broadcast studio into a second Oval Office.

Rush grew audience in an almost agricultural fashion, watering the landscape with diatribes about the libs and feminazis that truckers and cabbies with their radios on spread “across the fruited plain.” Unlike the Republican politicians he aided, the core of Rush’s act was the voters themselves: he made caller stories central to his show, carefully tending to the audience relationship, offering a kind of group therapy just by listening, in addition to serving up plenty of targets to blame in response.

This made him, at his height, more powerful than any Republican politician. The Newt Gingriches and George Bushes of the world were hired lackeys whose job was to convince the ordinary person that war, deregulation, and supply-side economics were good for regular folk, not just donors like Halliburton, Exxon-Mobil, and Lockheed-Martin. Those pols weren’t winning elections carrying Bill Buckley and George Will into battle. They had no connection to actual people. Rush did. The Republicans needed him, and he delivered, selling his audience out to a partisan con that among other things convinced a generation of Middle American listeners that their enemies were poor minorities and immigrants whose hunger for tax dollars was being stoked by “race hustlers” on the Democratic side.

Occasionally I would listen to Rush (he took some bizarre shots at me over the years, by the way, once even calling me a part of the “media-Democrat-industrial-complex,” which gave some of my friends a huge laugh), and it always struck me that this was a person without much natural interest in politics. It was totally unsurprising that he tried to move into NFL commentary, since he clearly liked football. But what Rush clearly loved above all was being a performer, and he’d hit on a Faustian bargain that gave him a gigantic audience and the adulation of millions. All he had to do in return was have no morals at all and embrace a sociopathic programming concept.

If the old KQV station-house in Pittsburgh was situated on “the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk,” as the DJs supposedly put it, Rush’s audience operated at the intersection of mass frustration and corporate interest. He was happy to flatter the worst urges rising out of the former — he really did try out a regular bit called the “AIDS Update,” where he mocked people who died of HIV over music tracks like “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places” — in order to deliver up their political energy into the maw of the latter. In other words, his job was priming the lowest common denominator in order to demonize half the country, while selling out the other half. And he was happy to do it, so long as he got to keep the star seat.

The problem is, any act based on riling audience against bugbears and ghosts requires an escalating storyline. Anger media is like dope, there’s a law of diminishing returns. The next generation of Rushes got this. Limbaugh had to be troubled by the arrival of people like Glenn Beck (who was far more creative in his conspiratorial insanity than Rush) and mortified by the rise of Infowars and Alex Jones, a parody version of Rush’s own act that substituted pure testosterone-addled screaming and chest-pounding for Rush’s King’s-English boasts (Jones made Rush sound like Noël Coward).

There was nothing to do but try to up the ante of his usual act, which was probably on his mind when he did the Sandra Fluke “slut” bit, or when he did this, at a moment when the Bush Republicanism he’d evangelized for years was in almost total disrepute:

Limbaugh was trying to riff on an L.A. Times column by David Ehrenstein, but it came across like a gross Hail Mary ploy to get his old mojo back. As Ehrenstein put it, “Clearly the Republican party… is 'split' over what to do in the wake of having lost so much political capital.”

Limbaugh would continue to have a highly-rated show, but his position as the Republican Party’s vote-whisperer was destined to disappear with the arrival of Donald Trump, who unlike Bush and Cheney and Gingrich and Dole could speak directly to people.

Even though Rush paved the way for Trump by fusing politics and entertainment, he was an unneeded middleman by 2016. Trump cut him out and turned his presidential campaign into the souped-up, with-teeth version of Rush’s act. He was the new political media star, many times over. After getting elected, Trump gave Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom in what felt like a left-handed compliment, like Bo Jackson doing charity events with Brian Bosworth.

In that moment we saw that Trump was president and Rush once again was just a DJ, who spun hate instead of hits, resentment instead of records. For all our sakes, he should have stayed Jeff Christie.