Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who helped shape the modern Republican Party while pushing conspiracy theories, bigotry and racism for decades on radio, has died of lung cancer at the age of 70.
Limbaugh’s wife, Kathryn, announced his death on his radio show Wednesday, just over a year after he revealed his lung cancer diagnosis.
“Losing a loved one is terribly difficult, even more so when that loved one is larger than life,” she said. “Rush will forever be the greatest of all time.”
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Limbaugh was a pioneer of conservative radio. He launched his show in the 1980s and carried it forward for over three decades, until his cancer diagnosis forced him to quit in late 2020. He built a large and committed following over the years, and became a multi-millionaire in the process.
The cigar-loving host called himself an entertainer, but his rants during his three-hour weekday radio show broadcast on nearly 600 U.S. stations shaped the national political conversation, swaying ordinary Republicans and the direction of their party.
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Limbaugh is widely credited as playing a key role in the Republicans’ takeover of Congress in 1994, and remained a force until his death. He has been a vocal supporter for many Republicans over the years, and he was also a frequent contributor on Fox News.
“In my heart and soul, I know I have become the intellectual engine of the conservative movement,” Limbaugh told author Zev Chafets in the 2010 book Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One.
Limbaugh peddled many conspiracy theories on his radio show and regularly launched bigoted, hateful and racist remarks at his perceived culture-war enemies.
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Among those conspiracy theories was the false “birther” claim about Barack Obama, which former U.S. president Donald Trump used to help launch his own bid for office.
The radio host mock-quoted China’s former president as saying, “Ching cha, ching chang cho chow.” He referred to the NBA as the “Thug Basketball Association” and its teams as “gangs.” He suggested Chelsea Clinton was a dog when she was 12. He also infamously played a parody song on his show in 2007, called Barack the Magic Negro, and mocked Canadian actor Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease.
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Limbaugh was an outspoken supporter of Trump, and would frequently amplify his conspiracy theories on the airwaves. Trump would often quote Limbaugh’s supportive comments on Twitter, and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year at the U.S. State of the Union after his cancer diagnosis was revealed.
Trump’s wife Melania Trump placed the medal around his neck after her husband lauded Limbaugh as “a special man beloved by millions of Americans” and “the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet.”
Limbaugh’s blunt, hyper-partisan style inspired a long line of conservative commentators such as Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly.
“What he did was to bring a paranoia and really mean, nasty rhetoric and hyperpartisanship into the mainstream,” said Martin Kaplan, a University of Southern California professor who is an expert on the intersection of politics and entertainment and a frequent critic of Limbaugh.
“The kind of antagonism and vituperativeness that characterized him instantly became acceptable everywhere.”
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His foes accused him of trafficking in half-truths, bias and outright lies — the very tactics he decried in others.
In 2003, Limbaugh admitted to an addiction to painkillers and went into rehab. Authorities opened an investigation into alleged “doctor shopping,” saying he received up to 2,000 pills from four doctors over six months.
He ultimately reached a deal with prosecutors in which they agreed to drop the charge if he continued with drug treatment and paid $30,000 toward the cost of the investigation.
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He lost his hearing around that time. He said it was from an autoimmune disorder, while his critics said hearing loss is a known side effect of painkiller abuse. He received cochlear implants, which restored his hearing and saved his career.
Trump hailed Limbaugh for supporting his false claims about the election on Wednesday, in a phone interview with Fox News.
“Rush thought we won, and so do I,” Trump said of the election, which he lost.
Trump also praised Limbaugh for supporting him. “He was with me right from the beginning, and he liked what I said, and he agreed with what I said, and he was just a great gentleman.”
—With files from Reuters and The Associated Press
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