In the early ’90s, white men began to get the idea that they were being attacked. By feminists, gay and trans people, the idea of Ebonics as an area of interest, legal abortion, and a host of other concepts that didn’t prioritize their interests above all others. To offer a service menu in Spanish or allow a woman to talk publicly about the high costs of birth control made them furious, even though the subjects didn’t concern them. Or perhaps a part of their rage was because none of these subjects concerned them.
But on his radio show, Rush Limbaugh dutifully re-centered all of these conversations about expanding rights for others on men and their feelings, labeling any change in cultural norms an attack and appointing himself a general on the front lines, tirelessly fighting for men’s importance. For all his blustery rage and derisive mockery, Limbaugh’s message is always the same, “Don’t forget about me and my feelings, even if the subject is in no way about me.”
Last night, President Trump called Rush Limbaugh, who recently announced he has stage four lung cancer, the “greatest fighter and winner you will ever meet” before awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a president can award a civilian. In light of Limbaugh’s health problems, this kind of memorializing a career spent belittling and mocking anyone who disagreed with him as heroic was inevitable. Even Trump’s phrasing in praising him—a fighter and a winner— reinforced the idea that Rush Limbaugh has long been a major player in a supposed war on men.
And from the beginning, Rush Limbaugh was always mounting a defensive for white, straight men, using his own struggles against a changing culture as a proxy for the struggles his listeners imagined they faced in their own lives. His rambling list of “Undeniable Truths” underlined his insistence that challenging unfairness is to attack an established American way of life:“The culture war is between the winners and those who think they’re losers who want to become winners. The losers think the only way they can become winners is by banding together all the losers and then empowering a leader of the losers to make things right for them.”
By framing the struggle for a more fair society as an attack on the feelings of those at the top, himself included, Rush simultaneously paints himself and his audience as both the underdogs and the winners, while mocking the very attack as futile.
One of Limbaugh’s favorite subjects is his own hurt feelings deriving from attacks on his character in the “liberal media,” a catch-all term for anyone who does not like him. Whether it’s was misrepresenting his words by publishing them verbatim or unfairly labeling his ties boring, he viewed all criticism as an organized attempt to undermine him, an attempt that can’t work because he’s too right and too powerful.
Women, as a single, threatening entity are another group Limbaugh seems to believe are constantly conspiring to attack, and launching counterstrikes against encroaching women is perhaps Limbaugh’s main battle.
It’s hard to round up a comprehensive list of every shitty thing Rush Limbaugh has said about women over the past 30 years. A greatest hits list might include the statement “Feminism was established as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society” on that list of undeniable truths. There’s also the time he said that, because they are unencumbered by the desire to conform to the male gaze, lesbians become “obese” and dependent on alcohol from too much conversation with women. He called a 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton a “dog” because he, a forty-something-year-old man at that point, did not find her sexually attractive. He accused political correspondent Krystal Ball of being too sexy at 14 and posting nude pictures on Facebook and Myspace, despite neither of those platforms existing when she was a teenager and the fact that no such photos exist.
But perhaps the most famous subject of Limbaugh’s vitriol was Sandra Fluke, who wanted doctor-prescribed birth control covered by the health insurance she paid for. This, to Limbaugh, felt like an attack, as if he, personally, would be on the hook for the whole cost:
“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic],” Limbaugh said back in 2012. “Who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps...No, we’re the Johns.”
Even that assessment is Limbaugh (wrongly) weighing the ways power dynamics might change if women weren’t saddled with the prohibitive cost of birth control. If women’s health care is even given the same consideration as men’s, what does that take away from men, and how might that make men feel? The entire statement falls under the same pattern of all Limbaughs defenses of attacks on men by outsiders—mockery tinged with fear of becoming unimportant.
It’s fitting that just after Trump praised Limbaugh’s bravery in the war against change, he hinted at future plans to attack women’s rights, presenting a toddler who was born prematurely and labeling her a “miracle of life” before calling on bans for late-term abortions. He wanted the audience to imagine that the “abortion machines,” as Limbaugh once labeled liberal women, want that living child dead, framing women’s desire for reproductive control as an attack on others’ decisions to have children.
After decades of feeling attacked by science that said smoking was bad—once even claiming he deserved a “medal for smoking”—Limbaugh recently announced that he has stage four lung cancer. Last night’s Medal of Freedom presentation seemed like he finally got that medal, Trump sending Limbaugh off to Valhalla with a promise to continue the fight for white men’s right to control the conversation.