Rush Limbaugh wasn’t the first conservative media star to endorse Donald Trump for president. But he was among the first to popularize — and normalize, for many Republican politicians and voters — the style of politics that would become synonymous with the Trump name.
Mr. Trump’s widespread appeal with voters initially confused many people in politics. But anyone who was a regular listener of Mr. Limbaugh’s three-hour weekday radio program, which reached roughly 15 million listeners each week, would have been less surprised.
“To conservatives, it all sounded familiar,” said Nicole Hemmer, a media scholar at Columbia University and the author of a book on Mr. Limbaugh and other conservative media figures, “Messengers of the Right.”
“The insults, the nicknames, the really outrageous statements — they had been enjoying that as a form of political entertainment for a quarter-century before Donald Trump,” Dr. Hemmer added.
There was no person or subject that was off-limits for Mr. Limbaugh’s ire. Black people, gay men and lesbians, feminists, people with AIDS, the 12-year-old daughter of a president, an advocate for victims of domestic violence: All found themselves the subject of denigrating put-downs by Mr. Limbaugh over the years.
Few media stars were as crucial in making disinformation, false rumors and fringe ideas the right’s new reality. And toward the end of the Trump presidency, Mr. Limbaugh’s willingness to indulge the paranoia among Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters was especially powerful in misleading people to believe that bad news about their president — like his loss in November or his mismanagement of the coronavirus response — was simply made up by his enemies or the result of a nefarious plot.
Mr. Limbaugh rarely apologized for his comments and often attacked those who called him out, arguing that they were taking him too seriously or twisting his words out of context. Often, Mr. Limbaugh denied he had said what his critics claimed.
Both Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Trump made fun of people with disabilities. Mr. Limbaugh once shook his body during a broadcast to mimic the actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease. Mr. Trump, in a strikingly similar display, once flapped his arms in a cruel imitation of a New York Times reporter who has limited use of his upper body.
But it was more than their behavior. The way their fans were similarly eager to defend the most indefensible conduct of both men was a sign that the nation’s political divide was hardening into something more personal and tribal. Mr. Limbaugh’s most loyal listeners developed a capacity to excuse almost anything he did and deflect, saying liberals were merely being hysterical or hateful.
And many loved him even more for it.