"In recognition of all that you have done for our nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and that you inspire, and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity, I am proud to announce tonight that you will be receiving… the Presidential Medal of Freedom," Trump said Tuesday night as his third wife, Melania, presented a very frail and sick-looking man with the our nation’s highest civilian honor.
In that moment, it was very clear that Rush Limbaugh was dying, his flesh slack where it used to be tight, his hair gray where it used to be brown, his eyes sallow where they used to be bright. We will all slip this mortal coil eventually but the grim specter of Rush’s lung cancer was especially obvious that evening.
Trump gave Rush Limbaugh that medal of honor last night because Rush Limbaugh helped give Donald Trump the presidency.
Rush, with his hugely popular conservative radio show, created a climate where someone like Donald J Trump could become president. He helped validate a serial adulterer and business failure to a GOP base that relished Trump’s in-your-face racism and pussy-grabbing misogyny.
Rush once famously said feminism "was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society." He compared Obama to a cartoon monkey, and regularly commented on Michelle Obama's body, referring to her as "Moochelle Obama" and "Michelle, my butt.” Rush is one of the most divisive people in America. With his radio show, he continuously sewed endless strife and discord to almost assure his audience would grow up to be MAGA America.
But Rush Limbaugh is also dying. Last night, the image we saw was of a dying man weeping real, salty tears as he was presented with a medal.
This is an image that anyone who’s ever had a relative dying of cancer knows. It’s an image that all of us have seen. In a world filled with hot takes and memes, images speak loudly; images change hearts and minds. The image of a dying man receiving a medal he obviously wants is a powerful one.
But I suspect there’s another reason that Trump gave the presidential medal to Rush last night, another more Trumpy reason. I have a theory that Trump gave that medal to Rush because he wanted “to own the libs.” Trump knew the optics of Democrats saying terrible, even if richly deserved, things about a man dying of cancer would be good for his campaign of division in America.
Trump wanted Democrats to attack Rush. The cynicism is breathtaking: the president wanted a dying, frail man not long for this world out there as a human shield. Rush is a trap for Democrats. Democrats will have the rest of time to explore the many ways Rush has created divisions in the culture.
I am not saying that we should be dishonest about Limbaugh’s racist, sexist legacy but I am saying that death is larger than anything on this mortal plane. The most intelligent thing Democrats could do is not take the bait. The smart thing Democrats can do is ignore it, ignore Trump, ignore Rush, ignore all of it. One could argue that the thing Trump hates being ignored more than being attacked. Trump is obsessed with ratings, with driving the narrative. Let us never forget the moment he tweeted: “Wow, television ratings just out: 31 million people watched the Inauguration, 11 million more than the very good ratings from 4 years ago!”
Rush Limbaugh was a crucial pillar in the Trump media ecosystem, one of its strongest reinforcement mechanisms. Heard three hours every weekday on hundreds of radio stations, Rush is the biggest Bigfoot in the conservative talk radio game. No one even comes close as arrival. It is difficult to imagine replicating his ability to hold an audience of his size and power. We should be grateful that he stuck with the talk radio format, because if he’d launched during the social media era, God protect us.
His ability to disguise racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and cruelty in a package he called “a lovable little fuzzball” is fortunately rare, and even in the world of talk radio’s grotesques, there’s no one else like him.
Not every battle needs to be fought right now, and a battle with a dying man is unwinnable. Democrats often think that because they occupy the moral high ground they don’t have to play at politics. Democrats think that because they’re correct they don’t have to be cunning. But that’s wrong. Trump is very good at trolling.
While Trump may be stupid and evil, he is good at getting Democrats to produce unflattering soundbites, and he knows how tempting it must be to target Rush Limbaugh right now. Democrats shouldn’t let him. Let history judge Rush. Let him die quietly, along with Trump’s desire to use our own anger against us.