Rush Limbaugh was very popular among the American right, particularly in rural America. But Limbaugh was not a sterling example of a man with good character.
On the David Lettermen television show Rush Limbaugh attacked the Clintons as he always did but he even attacked their daughter Chelsea who was only 12 years old. He made a joke by comparing her unfavorably to the family dog. Nothing was too low for Limbaugh, particularly when attacking liberals. No tactics are off the table in a religious war.
He attacked them bitterly over the death of Vince Foster. He said on his show that a Washington consulting firm was about to publish a story that Vince Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton! Foster was a childhood friend of Bill Clinton and joined the White House administration as counsel and was involved in scandals that in hindsight were pretty minor. Nothing compared to the later Trump administration scandals. Foster was depressed, anxious and over worked. His death was investigated by 2 police agencies, a coroner, 2 independent counsels, and 2 Congressional Committees. All said his death was a suicide. But all this was nothing beside the fax that was sent to Rush Limbaugh. The implication of the fax was clear—Clintons were murderers! This brought polarization into American politics at a whole new level of extremism. And Limbaugh was proud of his efforts.
Of course, there were many right-wing conspiracies about Foster. One of those was that Foster was assassinated to keep him from testifying against the Clintons. Or that he had been blackmailed by Israel over a secret Swiss bank account. Or that his death was the consequence of a secret tryst with—you got it—Hillary Clinton. Who else? Once more there was no evidence to support this. It was all lies manufactured somewhere on the right where these things are spawned. (and I am not denying that there have been lies on the left as well) But they have really found a congenial home on the right.
Rush Limbaugh helped embed conspiracy theories permanently inside the Republican party. Conspiracies were there to stay. They are still there in abundance. He had gone a long way toward convincing American conservatives that their president and a future presidential candidate were murderers who would stop at nothing to get their political way. This was a religious crusade. And religious crusades always end badly and don’t allow truth to get in their way.
The crusade against the Clintons has been a remarkable phenomenon in American politics for about 2 decades. And it is not ending any time soon. Crusades can do that. American right-wing talk radio has been a big part of that. Now I do not claim the Clinton’s were entirely innocent political actors. I am saying though that they have been the object of an unprecedented massive campaign of lies that has been building for decades. Such a mountain of lies would be difficult for a saint to overcome, and for the Clintons it was impossible.
Many of us did not appreciate this when Hillary ran for the presidency in 2016. No matter how absurd, the lies accumulated and had tremendous effect. After all, how could she combat a campaign that painted her as the leader of a cabal of pedophiles operating out of the non-existent basement of a pizza restaurant basement in Washington D.C.? No possible evidence could refute such a massive lie.
Rush Limbaugh played an important role in manufacturing, spreading, and solidifying this campaign of lies.
As Justin Ling said in his podcast series on CBC “The Flamethrowers”,
“The conspiracy theory was here to stay, thanks in large part to Rush Limbaugh. No longer were the Clintons conventional political villains. They were murderers! But whether or not the Vince Foster story really took hold in the minds of Limbaugh, he was leading a political crusade—and he was winning.”
The result was what one political commentator called “a seismic shift to the right tonight in American political thinking. It is measuring 10.0 on the political Richter scale.” It was massive; it was powerful; and it was created by Rush Limbaugh and his revolutionary cabal of right-wing radio commentators around the country.
It was intensely visible in 1998 in the American mid-term elections. The Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954. They picked up 54 seats in the House and enough seats to claim the Senate as well. It was the worst loss suffered by a sitting President in 50 years.
There was one clear lesson from all of this: Conspiracy theories work.
And the Republicans did not forget that lesson then, and have not forgotten it since.