The first time Rush Limbaugh read one of my columns on the air, I was in my early 20s and writing for the campus daily at the University of Iowa. I had blasted a particularly egregious example of Hawkeye political correctness and Rush had taken my words national. For a “dittohead” since high school, nothing could have been cooler. My friends were in awe. I didn’t buy a beer for a month.
It was a turning point for me and my decision to go into opinion journalism. I am not alone.
The fact is that if you talk to any conservative under 50 and they tell you they weren’t shaped by Limbaugh, they’re embarrassed to admit it or they are unaware of how much Rush shaped the conservative world they inhabit. Nobody since William F. Buckley had been as influential a gateway drug to conservatism except maybe George Will and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
But Rush stood above them all. Buckley built the institutions of the conservative movement, most notably National Review, Will had the Washington Post and ABC News behind him, the Journal was a national newspaper — they were all company men.
Rush was a regular guy with a microphone. His infectious curiosity and incandescent sense of humor brought him an audience in the tens of millions.
Entry point to conservative world
Listening to him starting when I had a skull full of mush ready to be shaped didn’t just give me many of the attitudes I have today, but it gave me the confidence that I had a set of tools to understand everything around me. He was an entry point to the world of conservatives ideas and voices with increasing sophistication.
As an individual instead of an institution, Rush connected with his audience on a deep level. I don’t think anyone could understand how deep and broad the affection for him was. For me, he was a friend and mentor without ever knowing me.
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The last time Rush read one of my columns on the air it wasn’t as big of a deal. Biased fact checkers had descended on Dr. Ben Carson to blast him for his misinterpretation of constitutional history. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal that Limbaugh used to launch a monologue that was even better than my snarky column. Our senses of humor meshed perfectly and I was glad.
By then I was a senior editor at USA TODAY and it was another day at the office for me. No awe and no beer. But I think it was a turning point just like the first, only this time for Limbaugh and not me.
That was in November 2015 when the Republican presidential primary was still up in the air and Rush was at his peak.
By then, Trump had been called a Nazi, but hadn’t proven he was an authoritarian.
Trump had been called on his tenuous relationship with the truth, but he had not yet uttered 30,000 lies.
Trump had been bankrupt six times, but hadn’t yet run a morally bankrupt administration that separated children from their mothers and put both in cages.
Limbaugh was as smart as they come. He knew all this and could see what was coming as well as I could. After all, Limbaugh was the one who taught me to think for myself.
His satire could have torn down Trump
Limbaugh’s powers then were immense. He could get any Republican leader or conservative thinker on the phone in a minute. He had an army of dittoheads just like I had been and he had 30 years of affection from everywhere in the conservative world for his role as the happy warrior for the right on cause after cause.
If Rush had stood up at that moment and said no, there’s a chance that the last four years of history would have been different. Who can say what would have happened. But no voice on the right had a better chance of rallying voters around a principled conservative instead of a reality TV huckster who says he paid to have the Clintons come to his wedding.
Rush could have wielded the power of satire to tear Trump down with a power that no voice in the mainstream media could match.
Instead Limbaugh spent his last years embracing an unprincipled huckster and betraying the conservative ideal he taught me to love. I am not sorry to see that end. It was a tragedy.
David Mastio is the Deputy Editorial Page Editor of USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidMastio.