By promoting talk radio’s partisan political discussions alongside their Christian “family-focused” messaging, all of these networks merged the Christian idea of being at war with spiritual “outsiders” with a conservative political theme that’s still dominant today: painting left-of-center democratic politics as immoral.
This framing was often explicit. When evangelicals of the ’90s urged their fellow Christians to engage in spiritual warfare, they often meant that they should all be working against Democrats and Democratic policies. For example, in the Christian fantasy bestseller of the era, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness series, a variety of left-leaning concepts and policies, from globalization to the welfare system, were presented as being part of an overarching Satanic influence. The books depicted demons as being physically attached to leftist political enemies of the church, while occultist New Age conspirators controlled democratic politicians. (Sound familiar?)
In other words, Clinton-era Democrats weren’t just Christian conservatives’ political enemies. They were The Enemy.
So when Rush Limbaugh — with his braggadocio, mockery of his political opposites, and confident assertion of his own righteous authority over any subject put before him — hit the airwaves and began broadcasting for three hours every day, five days a week, conservative Americans responded to him very similarly to how they would respond to Donald Trump decades later: They lauded him as a much-needed, truth-speaking foil to godless liberals.
A built-in assumption of Limbaugh’s righteousness allowed him to go unchallenged for years in spouting bigotry, including outright racism and homophobia. He constantly asserted the moral vacuity of Democrats while couching his own arguments in populist appeals, played for laughs, such that they could be more easily overlooked as jokes. Like Trump, it didn’t matter that he himself wasn’t particularly moral or spiritual or good — what mattered to his audience was that he held the ostensibly immoral and unholy up to a lens for public scrutiny and collective ridicule.
For a case study of this approach in action, look to one of Bill Clinton’s cabinet appointees, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the nation’s first Black Surgeon General. At the time of Elders’s appointment, Americans really weren’t outraged by her, and Republican senators had no real reason to block her nomination. But then Limbaugh viciously and relentlessly attacked Elders throughout the ’90s and beyond, labeling her “the condom queen” and using a thick, racist accent to mock her pro-abortion-rights and pro-sex-education stances. Limbaugh’s radio show arguably played a major role in fomenting negative public opinion against Elders, until Clinton ultimately fired her in 1994. “Goodbye to the Condom Queen,” a Newsweek headline crowed at the time.