Rush Limbaugh is gone – has he taken the Republican Party with him?

The conservative commentator set the tone for today's divisive – and self-destructive – Republican politics

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 05, 2018, US radio talk show host and conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh looks on before introducing US President Donald Trump to deliver remarks at a Make America Great Again rally in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Limbaugh, the US conservative radio host who spent more than four decades on the air, has died at aged 70 after a battle with cancer, his family said February 17, 2021. / AFP / Jim WATSON

The United States is plainly undergoing an historic social and political transformation. The outcome is in doubt, but the competing worldviews are clear. The true contest isn't essentially between Republicans and Democrats or even left versus right, but an agenda of governance and results versus a largely performative politics of bombast and outrage.

Last week, a key architect of indignation politics passed away. Veteran radio host Rush Limbaugh did more than almost anyone to evangelise raw demonisation. Without Limbaugh’s decades of rage-fuelled diatribes, the ultimate practitioner of grievance politics, Donald Trump, probably couldn’t have become president.

Unlike Mr Trump, who spent decades as a fairly liberal Democrat (with the notable exception of some of his views on race), Limbaugh was always a passionate and extreme right-winger. Yet his broadcasts were notably unfettered by any consistent philosophical or policy orientation.

Indeed, he rarely engaged in substantive arguments at all. He almost invariably championed Republican presidents and whatever was the most right-wing iteration of the party at any given time.

He was, therefore, at the beginning of his career an ardent supporter of Ronald Reagan and a champion of Mr Trump at the end of it, despite the vast chasm between those two presidents on a range of key issues, including immigration, race, trade, alliances, multilateralism and deficit spending, among many others.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 21, 2019, Rush Limbaugh shakes hands with US President Donald Trump during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Limbaugh, the US conservative radio host who spent more than four decades on the air, has died at aged 70 after a battle with cancer, his family said February 17, 2021. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm

Limbaugh never acknowledged these vast contradictions, or explained why he and most Republicans had changed their minds so drastically on such fundamental questions or which orientation was correct and why.

He is typically referred to as a "conservative", but if that is meant to imply someone with a coherent philosophy of government and society, he was never any such thing.

He certainly was right-wing, in the sense of being a political and social reactionary scandalised and offended by any effort to redress traditional inequalities – especially discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African-Americans, women and LGBTQ communities.

For Limbaugh, like Mr Trump, political orientation isn't primarily defined by one’s own orientation, let alone what one intends to achieve through governance or policies. Instead, one is defined by what and, especially, who one passionately denounces.

Most contemporary Republican politics is primarily about demonstrating that one has the correct enemies, and Limbaugh shoulders much of the responsibility for that. When Mr Trump and other Republican demagogues recite litanies of grievance and demonisation of others, they are simply replicating the style and substance of Limbaugh's highly influential radio programmes.

He was a crucial figure on the right because he demonstrated that there is an enthusiastic cultural and political market for overtly and passionately reactionary rhetoric. He was also a key pioneer of a now-popular dodging tactic for populist politicians when they go too far, which is to claim they are just kidding and then promptly reiterate the offensive remark.

Limbaugh was almost never actually joking, and neither are the others. They trust their followers to enjoy thoroughly the theatrically disingenuous disavowals.

Limbaugh was a pioneer in popularising wild conspiracy theories, including the fabrication that Barack Obama was not born in the US and was, therefore, an illegitimate president.

That cynical lie was, of course, the starting point of Mr Trump's political career. The former president acknowledged his manifest debt to Limbaugh by awarding him the prestigious Medal of Freedom last year.

Logan Nichols vacationing from California drops off a bouquet of flowers at the home of talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 20121 in Palm Beach, Fla. Limbaugh, 70, died this morning of lung cancer. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
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When Republican demagogues demonise others, they are replicating the style and substance of Limbaugh's radio programmes

The politics of pure performance and endless grievance are hardly restricted to the right, and can easily be identified among some prominent left-wing Democrats. But, at least at the national level, there is still a genuine political commitment among most left-wing democrats to achieving results, at least economically.

Meanwhile, performative grievance politics has come to dominate the Republican Party at the state level, in the House of Representatives and, especially, among the party base. Some Senate Republicans are the last significant bastion of even an attenuated, strikingly limited, results-oriented conservativism. But that group may be headed towards extinction.

Mr Trump has little chance of being reelected president. Yet his grip on the party and its voters remains rock-solid. If his current Republican critics like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ever really try to marginalise him and his style, any success will be partial and require a long, slow process.

By contrast, Democrats under Joe Biden have collectively bet on the politics of tangible deliverables for most Americans. They rallied around a candidate, and now president, who wastes virtually no time on grievances and is focused instead on some of the most ambitious government initiatives in decades.

Recognising the depth of America’s crises, and taking his cue from former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led the US out of the Great Depression, Mr Biden is beginning with a massive $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief measure that seems likely to pass into law. Beyond that he is plainly hoping to secure major infrastructure, climate change and other programmes that would significantly reshape the role of government in the lives of ordinary Americans.

If Mr Biden can secure a large part of this extraordinarily ambitious agenda – much of which is extremely popular among voters, including many Republicans – that would probably reshape the political landscape for at least a generation in favour of Democrats.

Republicans in Congress and the Supreme Court may try to block these measures. But success feeds itself, and a $1.9tn stimulus initiative could be a decisive early intervention.

If Mr Biden's gamble pays off, the nearly simultaneous passing of Limbaugh and Mr Trump's presidency could prove the death knell for right-wing performative and grievance politics. With Democrats producing tangible results for most Americans, if Republicans remain addicted to performative indignation, their party could become largely uncompetitive at the national level.

The future of Republicans, therefore, probably depends largely on the fortunes of Democrats. For now, though, the rhetoric of outrage championed by Limbaugh seems thoroughly dominant.

Limbaugh was among the most consequential commentators in American history. Yet his impact was largely to poison the cultural waters he powerfully prowled, and he may prove to have been steering Republicans towards political oblivion.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National