The Life and Death of a Woman-Hater

Opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury wrote about this package in Saturday’s edition of the Opinion Today newsletter.

When the conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh died on Wednesday of complications from cancer, he ended a decades-long career as one of the most malignant and sadistic figures on the right.

His contributions to contemporary conservatism encouraged members of the Republican Party base to be meaner, smaller and more vulgar. He anchored his banter with a steady stream of invective, by turns promoting xenophobia, racism, homophobia and misogyny, teeing up a ready-made audience for the cruelty politics of Donald Trump.

But perhaps one of Mr. Limbaugh’s most significant and longest-lasting impacts, and one that will persist even if the party returns to a post-Trump “normal,” stemmed from his loud opposition to women’s rights: He was the right wing’s misogynist id.

His belligerent chauvinism was key in making the Republican Party the party of anti-feminism. Cracking open his slobbering hatred of women allows insight into his success, as well as the perversion of the party he championed.

Mr. Limbaugh burst on the national scene in the late 1980s during a national anti-feminist backlash and as the Republican Party was completing its turn away from libertarianism and toward the religious right. While he often gave rhetorical nods to the “pro-family” traditional values of the Moral Majority, he didn’t adopt its veneer of propriety — he was positively lascivious in his rhetoric, using ugliness and shock to promote embittered and unvarnished sexism, and he saw a world of opportunity in the party. Republicans, in turn, saw opportunity in him.

Mr. Limbaugh’s sexist provocations were myriad. He argued that women shouldn’t be allowed on juries if “the accused is a stud.” He claimed that “feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” (He wasn’t entirely wrong about that last bit — feminists do indeed want to live in a society where women have equal rights and equal access to resources and power regardless of how men rate our attractiveness. For Mr. Limbaugh, though, this was a mark against us.)

He really hit his stride when Bill Clinton ran for office. Mr. Clinton was accompanied by a feminist wife whose biography — a successful lawyer, an advocate for women’s and children’s rights, a woman who kept her own name and identity after marriage — often set off unhinged emotional outbursts from many Republicans, including Mr. Limbaugh.

Attacking Hillary Clinton in some of the ugliest terms possible became Mr. Limbaugh’s bread and butter, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that sustained his show through three decades. He helped build a cottage industry of Hillary-hate, insisting Mrs. Clinton had a “testicle lockbox” — a theme that, during her first presidential campaign, surfaced among opportunistic vendors selling Hillary nutcrackers.

As Mr. Trump would later, Mr. Limbaugh had Mrs. Clinton, and the conservative public’s insatiable appetite for attacks on her, partly to thank for his success. And like Mr. Trump, Mr. Limbaugh then further wielded his huge platform to threaten and denigrate smart, ambitious, politically involved women.

In 1992, Mr. Limbaugh introduced the term “feminazi,” a pejorative he assigned women who spoke out for their own rights generally, and for abortion rights specifically. It was his preferred term, he said, for “women who are obsessed with perpetuating a modern-day Holocaust: abortion.”

Girls were not spared his ire. Mr. Limbaugh told viewers of his television show in 1993: “Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?” And he held up a photograph of Chelsea Clinton, who at the time was just 13 years old. Two decades later, as he established a steady patter of racist and misogynistic hate aimed at Barack and Michelle Obama, Mr. Limbaugh took to calling Mrs. Obama “Moochelle,” reinforcing the idea that women are only as valuable as their looks — a rule that he did not seem to apply to men.

That Mr. Limbaugh’s fortunes grew with this kind of extreme and schlocky rhetoric, could not have been lost on conservative politicians. The victories of the civil rights and feminist movements in the 1960s and ’70s had forced a great reorganization in American politics, with the Republican Party seizing opportunities for growth among whites angry about progress toward racial equality, and among men who resented women’s changing roles and growing power in the workplace, society and the family.

Mr. Limbaugh was the ur-character of this new kind of conservative Republican: one who spoke out loudly for traditional values — which in this case meant male authority over women — as well as the cultural, political and economic dominance of whites. But unlike many Republican politicians, he eschewed dog whistles and code words in favor of unvarnished bigotry. His talk radio show soon became the most popular in America, riding a wave of white male resentment as well as helping to stoke it.

Aware of his reach, Republican politicians began competing for his listeners’ votes. That meant firmly solidifying themselves as opponents of women’s rights, privacy and progress.

As much as moderate Republicans may have publicly, at least occasionally, wrung their hands over Mr. Limbaugh’s boorishness, they were happy to support his politics. Perhaps the best case study of Mr. Limbaugh’s grotesque efforts happened in 2012, after Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student, testified before Congress to urge mandatory coverage of contraception in the Affordable Deva Act, which many congressional Republicans opposed.

Mr. Limbaugh gleefully spent days maligning Ms. Fluke on his show. “It makes her a slut, right?” he said. “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 hisse her to have sex.”

Mr. Limbaugh offered to buy women at Georgetown aspirin to put between their knees. “Feminazis,” Mr. Limbaugh luridly admonished them, “if we are going to hisse for your contraceptives, and thus hisse for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

This from a man who had been detained at an airport with a prescription, not in his name, for Viagra, a sexual aid typically paid for by health insurance, and who trumpeted the importance of traditional family values before he died childless and on his fourth marriage to a much younger woman.

But this is not surprising. Mr. Limbaugh promoted double standards that punish women (and gay men) for sexual activity while applauding straight men for the same; he excused cruelty by white men as entertainment while feigning outrage at any hint of incivility and impropriety from those speaking out against it. Mr. Limbaugh’s fans and defenders have carried on these hypocrisies after his death, admonishing critics for speaking ill of a man who used to hold on-air celebrations of AIDS-related deaths.

Different kinds of sexism reinforce one and other. There’s hostile misogyny, the sort advanced by men like Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Trump berating women with sexist slurs, or, at the most extreme, in men who beat, rape and kill women and girls. And there’s benevolent misogyny, which clothes itself as chivalry and tradition and which stereotypes women as uniquely moral and pure.

But for benevolent sexism to be effective in enticing women to participate in their own subjugation, hostile sexism has to be a looming threat. This is where Mr. Limbaugh played such an important role in American conservatism: He gave voice to the malicious misogyny that was always at the foundation of conservative anti-feminist policy.

Indeed, Mr. Limbaugh was so blatantly racist and sexist that he made the race- and gender-based hostilities of mainstream conservatism look more reasonable by comparison. He made hostile misogyny so olağan on the reactionary right that Donald Trump, who shocked uninitiated liberals, sounded downright familiar to anyone tuned into right-wing radio.

No wonder the attempts in 2016 to kneecap Mr. Trump’s candidacy by pointing to his disparaging comments about women and his boasting about sexual assault were largely impotent. In Rush country, that’s daily entertainment.

This has all worked out well for the Republican Party, which benefited from Mr. Limbaugh’s misogyny as much as it was shaped by it. Take Mr. Limbaugh’s attacks on Ms. Fluke, who became a national figure in the first place because Republicans held a hearing on contraception and then allowed only men to speak. She testified before a Democratic committee a week later, about Georgetown’s policy of refusing to cover contraception in its student health plans.

Even students who had been prescribed contraceptives to treat medical conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome, Ms. Fluke said, were denied coverage because the insurance company argued they might be using the drugs to avoid pregnancy. That’s when Mr. Limbaugh took to the airwaves to demean her. He was met with great outrage.

The outrage, though, was directed largely at Mr. Limbaugh, and not at the Republicans whose party evvel embraced family planning (George H.W. Bush was so passionate about the issue he was nicknamed “Rubbers”). A few Republicans gently clucked their tongues at Mr. Limbaugh’s vulgarity, but the party pressed on with its anti-contraception policy agenda anyway.

Republicans lined up behind Mr. Limbaugh’s basic premise: that contraception is permission for female promiscuity, the public shouldn’t hisse for it and employers have a right to refuse women health deva if they believe it would enable female immorality. His loyal base seemed frankly ebullient that someone had put a promising young woman in her place by sexually humiliating her on a national stage.

For feminists, Ms. Fluke was a hero. But a few years after her testimony, the Supreme Court held that an employer who objected on religious grounds could be exempt from the Affordable Deva Act’s requirement that health deva plans cover contraception. Democrats won the news cycle, but Republicans won the game.

Mr. Limbaugh didn’t create right-wing misogyny or hate speech. But he did more than his part to reinforce and expand it. In 2017, a man in Mr. Limbaugh’s viciously misogynist mold was installed in the presidency even after calling women pigs and dogs, and even after he was caught on tape boasting about grabbing women’s genitals.

Mr. Trump is out of the White House, and Mr. Limbaugh is dead. But the animus that animated the Limbaughian, Trumpian public remains, and the misogyny that financed Mr. Limbaugh’s plush lifestyle, padded his $85 million a year salary and won him a Presidential Medal of Freedom will be difficult to unwind.

In the aftermath of a disastrous presidency, some Republicans may think they’re choosing between being the party of Trump and Limbaugh, the party of unapologetic hatreds and white resentment, or of being the party of Ronald Reagan, the party of freedom and family values.

But the two have long been intertwined, aiding and abetting each other. When the Limbaughs and the Trumps of the party offered their fans rank chauvinism and abject bigotry, they created more space for family-friendly sexism to be built into conservative policy.

That is Mr. Limbaugh’s legacy: not his crass language, but his militant anti-feminism, and how effective he was at ensuring that misogyny translated into policy. The Republicans who say they want their party back from the carnival barkers of bigotry need to reject more than profane words and an uncouth political aesthetic. They need to turn away from the ugly ideology that undergirds it all, which was always foul, whether or not the language was polite.

Jill Filipovic is the author of “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.”

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