Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting and Gaslighting of Obama Paved the Way for Trump

Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump at the 2019 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hate. Fear. Lies. These are things most of us abhor and at least try to avoid. For Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio host who died on Wednesday, they were the tools of his trade. He used them to build an audience that, at its height, reached 20 million or more, and maintained the largest audience in talk radio over four decades. Furthermore, as I wrote in my recent book, Limbaugh’s race-baiting rhetoric during the Obama presidency both tribalized our politics and paved the way for the election of Donald Trump.

This is a publication about religion, so rather than simply talk about the host’s broad influence on our politics, I’m going to delve specifically into some examples of how he used religion to divide Americans when talking about President Obama, and how this reflects his larger approach. This material is drawn from the research and analysis included in my book.

Barack Obama is a Christian. That’s a fact. Another fact, as numerous polls have shown, is that a lot of conservatives don’t really believe that—with many of them believing he’s a Muslim. Rush Limbaugh bears a significant degree of responsibility for people holding those false beliefs about Obama’s religion. Over and over again, the host questioned whether the 44th president was really a Christian, and suggested that he might be some sort of ‘secret’ Muslim, or harbor pro-Muslim and anti-Christian sympathies—since, apparently, if one is pro-Muslim that means, by definition, one must be anti-Christian.

On August 19, 2010, as part of a long diatribe about Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, the host put these questions front and center for his audience: “You see, Obama’s Christianity is the opposite of obvious . . . He has a Muslim name: “Barack Hussein Obama.” He had a Muslim father and an extended Muslim family in Kenya. He was partly raised and educated in Indonesia by a Muslim stepfather. He has Muslim half-sisters and brothers.” This went on for a while before, at the end of the segment, Limbaugh pulled back ever so slightly: “Now, having said all that, none of what I have said means that Obama’s a Muslim and none of it means that Obama’s not a sincere Christian. If he’s going to say that he is, fine. We will accept that he’s a Christian.”

This is textbook Limbaugh. He was not only a hatemonger, he was a lying gaslighter. If anyone accused him of calling Obama a Muslim, he had his defense ready: “See, I said he was a Christian, you heard it,” he could claim, thanks to the last couple of sentences. That’s how he covered himself. But his listeners got the message.

Six days after that broadcast, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews criticized the host over the words cited above. Limbaugh, on his show, said he’d never called Obama a Muslim, and had merely sought to “help” journalists better understand why large numbers thought the then-president was. Limbaugh then used the opportunity to repeat the same sentiments, further implanting the doubts about Obama’s Christianity into the minds of any listeners who had missed the previous broadcast. That’s how you spread hate, fear, and lies while deflecting any charges that that’s what you’re actually doing. I’ll also add that the whole shtick of using hateful rhetoric and then attributing it to “some people believe” or “some people say” was a favorite tactic of not only Limbaugh, but of Trump as well.

On September 18, 2015, his audience again heard Limbaugh explore the question of whether Obama might in fact be a Muslim: 

“And the media say, ‘He said he’s a Christian!’ Okay, fine. Let’s leave it at that, then. I don’t know. It’s not my job. But . . . Obama has gone out of his way to try to tell people that ISIS is not Islam and they’re not Muslims . . . He’s hell-bent on people thinking that.” 

The host walks right up to the line here. But he didn’t have to say the words “Obama’s a Muslim” to get his point across.

Then there’s what Limbaugh did on May 4, 2011, in his first show after the death of Osama bin Laden. After going off on the fact that U.S. personnel made sure to perform the appropriate Muslim burial rituals on the body, the host offered that “whenever it comes down to deciding between American or Muslim sensitivities, Obama always seems to side with the Muslim sensitivities.” Limbaugh had to make sure his listeners remembered that, even though Obama had ordered the killing of Bin Laden, he still really was somehow on the side of Muslim extremists.

Please also note how he contrasted the idea of “Muslim” with “American,” as if there are no Muslim Americans; as if to be one is to automatically not be the other. Seeming to anticipate criticism, Limbaugh then said that these remarks were just another “media tweak.” Right, he’s just tweaking the hyper-sensitive media types with his, er, jokes. That’s another way the host gaslighted, by pretending he was only kidding and that the uptight liberals should just lighten up. Meanwhile, he was laughing all the way to the bank, and all the way to a position of tremendous political power.

When talking on June 14, 2016, about the mass murder at an Orlando night club committed by an American-born Muslim, Limbaugh went after Obama in similar terms, saying he was always “really, really bothered out there about offending Islamists,” yet did “not seem concerned about Christianity. He is a Christian. If he is [sic] get upset about attacks on Christianity, he never comes out defends [sic] Christianity.” Again, Obama is really on the side of Muslims, not Christians, is what the audience takes away from such bile.

Religion is far from the only topic on which Limbaugh spread fear, hate, and lies over the course of nearly 5 decades in broadcasting. In recent years, whether he was talking about immigration, Black Lives Matter, birtherism, health care, or any number of other topics, the host sought to scare his audience, and get them to believe that Democrats, feminists, non-Christians, and/or Americans of color were their enemies. America is changing, he told them, and not for the better. 

This country was, and is supposed to be, dominated by traditional white Christians. At least it’s how things were back when America was great. That was Limbaugh’s whitewashed vision of, to quote the title of his first book, “the way things ought to be.” His greatest impact was laying the groundwork and providing the rhetorical blueprint for a man to be elected president by echoing exactly those deeply bigoted ideas on how to supposedly make this country “great again.”