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Historian Ian Reifowitz on How the Race-Baiting Invective of Rush Limbaugh on the Obama Presidency Led to Trump

Ultimately, the right wing needs white racial anxiety. In fact, it cannot survive without it.

Ian Reifowitz, The Tribalization of Politics

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the forty-fourth president of the United States of America—the first African American to attain this exalted office. Hundreds of thousands crowded the National Mall during the ceremony to wish the new president well.

However, rather than offering the president words of encouragement and congratulations, voices from the far right almost immediately expressed the hope that President Obama would fail and serve no more than one term. He had inherited a faltering economy, a war, a country still divided by race and other vexing issues, while the right-wing media labeled him as anti-American and unpatriotic, as a black president who would please his constituents of color to the detriment of white citizens. 

Popular far-right talk radio host Rush Limbaugh was one of the most vociferous voices, and was the one with the largest audience. He uttered unceasing, racially-charged attacks on President Obama virtually every day of his two terms in office. 

Historian Ian Reifowitz examines Limbaugh’s hateful invective and American political polarization in his new book, The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Ig Publishing).

To better understand the attacks on President Obama, Professor Reifowitz took on the daunting task of analyzing the transcripts of Limbaugh’s radio shows and associated materials from the Obama years. As a result, Professor Reifowitz has documented the manifold instances of Limbaugh’s hateful race-baiting and “othering” of the president. And Limbaugh has profited greatly as a leader in sparking white fear of racial peril. 

The book traces the election of Donald Trump and the recent rise in white supremacist activity to the incendiary language of racism that the right-wing relies on to win politically. Historian Keri Leigh Merritt commented that The Tribalization of Politics is “is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand how the US has reached its lowest point in race relations since the Civil Rights Movement.” 

Professor Reifowitz teaches history at Empire State College of the State University of New York. His other books include Imagining an Austrian Nation: Joseph Samuel Bloch and the Search for a Multiethnic Austrian Identity, 1846-1919, and Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity. He has published a number of academic articles in the Journal of Jewish IdentitiesNationalities Papers, and East European Quarterly, among others. Professor Reifowitz is also a contributing editor at Daily Kos, and his articles have appeared in the Daily News, Newsday, The New Republic, In These Times, Truthout, Huffington Post, and others. His awards include the 2009 Susan H. Turben Award for Scholarly Excellence, and the 2014 S.U.N.Y. Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Scholarly and Creative Activities.

Professor Reifowitz graciously responded to a series of questions in an email exchange on his work and his new book. 

Robin Lindley: You’re a historian specializing in the modern history of the United States. How did you decide to study history, and then to focus on the American past?

Professor Reifowitz: I’ve always, since I was in college (too many years ago) been interested in multiethnic societies, and specifically how they work to create ‘national’ bonds across lines of ethnicity to bind together their diverse population. 

My graduate study, which led to my first book and other early academic publications, focused on Austria-Hungary. That state tried and failed to create strong enough national bonds, i.e., bonds based on citizenship in and loyalty to a common state, that would have allowed it to survive World War I and the overthrow of the Habsburg dynasty. Even while pursuing that research, I’d also been reading and thinking about another multiethnic society, the one we live in, that faces some of the same issues (thankfully, we don’t have to rely on a monarchy as the foundation of our unity). 

Eventually, my passion for understanding how unity and diversity were playing out today drove me to begin writing and researching the contemporary U.S. I published a couple of articles in The New Republic, and later in other outlets, and began to read more deeply and develop my ideas further. Then along came Barack Obama. I wrote my previous book, Obama’s America, in which I examined his conception of American national identity, one that incorporates pluralism and inclusiveness into a strong, unifying vision of national community that, one would hope, Americans of every background could adopt. 

Robin Lindley: How did you come to write about Rush Limbaugh’s race-baiting rhetoric in the Obama Era? Did the project grow out of your past research for Obama’s America?

Professor Ian Reifowitz: To continue the story from above, one section of Obama’s America examined critics (mostly on the right, but a few to Obama’s left) who criticized Obama’s vision of American national identity. I had spent some pages examining Rush Limbaugh’s rhetoric from the first couple of years of Obama’s presidency, and that had energized me (albeit with a sort of dark energy, compared to the more uplifting work of looking at Obama’s writings and speeches). 

Then, in the summer of 2015, the idea came to me for another book, and I thought: why not do a comprehensive, close examination of everything Limbaugh said about the Obama presidency. I put together a proposal, started the work in late 2015 and kept up the research until Obama left office, and then started writing. In the meantime, of course, Trump had emerged and been elected. Trump’s campaign and then victory helped me decide to focus the book on Limbaugh’s race-baiting, both in order to document it in a comprehensive way for people, and to draw parallels between what he was doing—playing and preying on white anxiety—and what Trump did in his campaign (and, to be sure, for years beforehand, starting with his own incendiary, racist rhetoric about the Central Park Five and right up to him claiming the mantle of birther-in-chief).

Robin Lindley: You address our current political “tribalization” by focusing on Limbaugh’s rhetoric. In your view, what is tribalization, and how does it affect our politics now?

Professor Ian Reifowitz: I’ll give you the definition I used in the book’s introduction rather than come up with something off the top of my head.

“Tribalization refers to a transformation much more profound than merely convincing Americans to be partisans who vote based on a shared set of policy preferences. It means cleaving America in two, and, in the case of Limbaugh, creating a conservative tribe animated somewhat by political ideology, but more so by racial and cultural resentment that feeds a hatred of the opposing tribe."

Robin Lindley: This new Limbaugh project had to be daunting and possibly distasteful to you in view of your past research on President Obama and your favorable view of his efforts to unite our diverse nation. How did you feel as you put your book together? 

Professor Ian Reifowitz: Well, I did mention above that I felt a different kind of passion motivating me on this project compared to the Obama book. But I have to admit that, once I got deep into the research, there were times when I wished I hadn’t committed to the project. There were plenty of times that I didn’t want to read through another word of Limbaugh. 

I guess my stubborn streak helped. I wasn’t going to abandon a project that I’d already invested so much time and energy in, and certainly wasn’t going to do so because Limbaugh’s rhetoric was hard to stomach. I hoped I was doing something important, that could make some connections that would help people better understand where our politics has gone in the past few years.

Robin Lindley: What was your research process for your new book?

Professor Ian Reifowitz: I went to RushLimbaugh.com and read through the transcripts for every show he did during the eight years Barack Obama was president, which he thoughtfully published free of charge. To be honest, if the transcripts didn’t exist, I don’t know that I could have done the research by listening to the audio recordings. That might have been too much. Thankfully I didn’t have to find out. 

I also read secondary sources on contemporary politics, in particular on matters of race and identity. After I started focusing on the connections between Limbaugh and Trump, I read political science scholarship on public opinion in 2016, which documented how white anxiety and resentment correlated with votes for Trump both in the primary and general election, and I incorporated that information into my analysis.

Robin Lindley: What did you learn about Limbaugh’s origins?

Professor Ian Reifowitz: I read some about his rhetoric in early years, how he had used racist language even before making his turn toward talking full-time about politics in the 1980s. But the focus of the book is on what he said about Obama, which spoke for itself. To clarify, I don’t care if he actually believes what he’s saying, because the effect his words have is the same whether he’s just a cynical opportunist or a true believer. I’m not especially interested in his motivations.

Robin Lindley: How did you come to focus on Limbaugh in your book. You see Limbaugh as a major force in dividing the US during the Obama era, but other potent Obama detractors included the current president, Senator Mitch McConnell and much of the Republican Party, Fox News, the Tea Party, and others. How would you weigh Limbaugh’s influence, if possible?

Professor Ian Reifowitz: My background, in terms of the kind of work I do, focuses on analyzing political rhetoric. Limbaugh was the person whose rhetoric I chose to examine because he broadcasts about two hundred shows a year, so there would be essentially no important issue relating to the Obama presidency that he would not address. Plus, he had the largest radio audience in the country throughout all eight years Obama was president (and decades before as well, and even in the years since up through the most recent month). 

I used him as a case study—where the biggest part stands in for the whole of the right-wing media. The transcripts helped as well, as it would be impossible to read every word broadcast on, say, Fox. This way, I had a closed, yet comprehensive, set of data to use as my source base.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for explaining your process. Do you see Limbaugh as an ally of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazis? 

Professor Ian Reifowitz: His show helps push sanitized versions of some of their ideas into the mainstream. The views he expresses are not the same as the views of the KKK or American Nazis, but he taps into some of the same hate and fear that they do. I don’t think that makes him an ally, but more like an enabler.

Robin Lindley: How did Limbaugh view Senator Obama before he was elected in 2008? 

Professor Ian Reifowitz: I didn’t look at the pre-inauguration rhetoric in a comprehensive way, but from what I saw nothing changed on Election Day.

Robin Lindley: How did Limbaugh usually describe President Obama? 

Professor Ian Reifowitz: You want the whole book in a nutshell? Here’s a brief summary from the book:

“While Obama was president, Limbaugh constantly, almost daily, talked about him using a technique that scholars call “racial priming”—in other words, he race-baited. The host aimed to convince his audience that Obama was some kind of anti-white, anti-American, radical, Marxist, black nationalist, and possibly a secret Muslim to boot. This was neither a bug nor a supporting element of Limbaugh’s presentation, but instead stood as a central feature deployed strategically in order to accomplish a very specific task, a task reflected in the title of this book. The tribalization of politics is exactly what Limbaugh set out to achieve.”

I’ll add: “[Limbaugh] portrayed him in a way designed to exacerbate white racial anxiety about a black president, or depicted him as a foreign “other,” outside the bounds of traditional Americanness.”

Robin Lindley: How did Limbaugh exploit Islamophobia and the fear of immigrants to attack President Obama?

Professor Ian Reifowitz:  He repeatedly sought to portray Obama as some kind of “secret Muslim” or somehow more sympathetic to Muslims—even terrorists—than to Christians and/or the interests of the United States. On immigrants, I’ll give you the following example:

“On July 1, 2015, two weeks after Trump’s infamous comments [made during his announcement that he was running for president] about Mexican immigrants being rapists and bringing drugs into the United States, a woman named Kathryn Steinle was shot and killed in San Francisco by Jose Inez Garcia Zarate [an undocumented immigrant with a criminal record].

“. . . On the campaign trail, Trump pounced, and Limbaugh followed suit a few days later. On July 7, in comments designed to inflame white racial resentment, the host claimed that Steinle’s name would “never be as well-known as Trayvon Martin,” and that the president would not deliver the eulogy at her funeral, even though Obama had not delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Martin or any other citizen killed by police. Obama did, however, speak at the memorial service for the five Dallas police officers murdered a year later….Limbaugh speculated that the president did not care about Steinle’s murder, and blamed it on the administration’s immigration policies, which were “coming home to roost”—this was a phrase uttered by Reverend Jeremiah Wright that was discussed so often on Limbaugh’s show. The host again talked about Obama hating America and wanting to alter its “composition” in order to change “the face of the country.”  

Limbaugh attacked the president over Steinle on three more shows over the next week. On July 15, 2015, the host contrasted Obama not having contacted the Steinle family to his having written letters to forty-six felons whose sentences he commuted, and to his outreach to the family of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Limbaugh’s point was to remind his listeners that Obama cared more about prisoners (read: black and Hispanic people) and black people killed by cops than a white woman who was murdered by someone here illegally. If there’s one segment that both encapsulates Limbaugh’s tribalizing history of the Obama presidency, and shows how his race-baiting rhetoric set the way for the rise of Trump, this was it.

Robin Lindley: How did President Obama respond to Limbaugh’s attacks, particularly in terms of dealing with claims that he was pro-Muslim, anti-police, and anti-white? 

Professor Ian Reifowitz: He basically ignored them, but I did not examine Obama’s responses comprehensively.

Robin Lindley: Limbaugh attacked President Obama almost daily during his eight years in office. For Limbaugh, it seems that the ideals of equality, tolerance, democracy, community, and serving the common good are anathema and, indeed, anti-American. What is your sense of Limbaugh’s view of these ideals? 

Professor Ian Reifowitz: He would pay lip service to most of those ideals in the abstract, while attacking Obama and other liberals for seeking to change the traditional definition of them to something involving retribution and reparations that would take from whites and give to non-whites. He would turn any criticism of racial inequality in America back around and argue that the problem of racism in America stemmed from people overexaggerating it. For example, on July 25, 2013, Limbaugh “accused “the left” of wanting “race problems” to remain unsolved, and in fact wanting to make them worse. Why? Because “too many people make money off of racial strife, and therefore they’re always going to promote it.” Here’s a quote from May 26, 2010, about Obama and liberals in general: “everything’s about race. Everything is about skin color to these people, or however they classify people, however they seek to group them, whatever, they’re victims.” This is how he viewed racism in America. 

Robin Lindley: Beyond Limbaugh, what are some things that you learned about the massive right-wing media misinformation machine?

Professor Ian Reifowitz: I didn’t do too much with them, because they do generally move in lockstep. I did note in the book that in the summer of 2018, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham on Fox News echoed Trump’s language of white anxiety regarding immigration and demographic changes. Limbaugh had spoken similarly as well during the Obama presidency, which I documented in greater depth.

Robin Lindley: Were there any particular findings that surprised you as you researched and wrote your book?

Professor Ian Reifowitz: Nothing really surprised me in terms of ideology, Rush pretty much delivered exactly what I expected when I started the research. I was already pretty familiar with his bile. However, when I came across Limbaugh’s comments connecting Tiger Woods and his sex-related scandals involving white women to Obama—which suggested that the president might be involved in something analogous based on little more than the fact that both were multiracial guys with a similar skin tone—that was something beyond even what I had expected. There were also a few times, at least until I got used to it, when I was surprised by how baldly Limbaugh just lied about facts and statistics, in particular regarding the economy. Either he really didn’t understand them, which is not likely to be true because he didn’t manipulate them to make President Trump look bad—only President Obama—or he just thought lying was the right thing for him to do.

Robin Lindley: Limbaugh wasn’t new to exploiting race to divide Americans. In fact, that’s been a Republican strategy for decades. What did you find about how Republicans use race to their political advantage? 

Professor Ian Reifowitz: I wrote this in the book: “As journalist Dylan Matthews noted in an article entitled “Donald Trump Has Every Reason to Keep White People Thinking About Race,” a vast corpus of social science research indicates that “even very mild messages or cues that touch on race can alter political opinions,” and added that “priming white people to so much as think about race, even subconsciously, pushes them toward racially regressive views.”

Robin Lindley: What do you see as Limbaugh’s role in the election of President Donald Trump?

Professor Ian Reifowitz: I’ll share an example from the book, with some data, that demonstrates the role Limbaugh’s race-baiting rhetoric played in paving the way for Trump:

“Public opinion research data suggests that exactly this kind of rhetoric helped move some whites who had previously voted for Obama into Trump’s column by 2016—most Obama-Trump voters expressed high levels of anger toward non-whites and foreigners. It might be hard to imagine Obama voters being bigoted, but John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck found that significant numbers of whites who voted for Obama in 2012 expressed varying degrees of white racial resentment while also overwhelmingly embracing liberal positions on issues such as taxation and the existence of climate change. It might be surprising, but about 25% of those whites who found interracial couples unacceptable nonetheless voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. The country’s racial climate during Obama’s second term contributed to this phenomenon of racially resentful white Obama voters shifting to Trump, as [according to Zack Beauchamp at Vox] Black Lives Matter and Ferguson “kicked off a massive and racially polarizing national debate over police violence against African Americans.” Limbaugh took full advantage of that climate, and his race-baiting helped pave the way for Trump.”

Robin Lindley: What has Limbaugh been doing since Trump’s election? Does he continue to blame President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton for problems the nation faces. 

Professor Ian Reifowitz: I’ve stayed away from Limbaugh to some degree, just to give myself a break. But he’s still a huge media figure. He’s done exactly what I expected, which is the same thing he did once Trump became the presumptive nominee. He’s been a huge Trump backer and has continued to use rhetoric aimed at ginning up white anxiety, to make sure those anxious whites keep on remembering who their (false) champion is. I did check to see what Limbaugh said about Tiger Woods recently, now that Trump has embraced him, and in fact Limbaugh has done a 180, offering nothing but praise for how been Tiger has been a friend to Trump. However, while discussing Tiger and Trump, Limbaugh made sure to remind his audience that Obama is still the one to blame for exacerbating racial tensions in America. He certainly doesn’t blame Trump—or himself, for that matter. None of those things qualify as a surprise.

Robin Lindley: What are some good ways to counter the hateful and inaccurate rhetoric of Limbaugh and his fellow extremists in the right-wing media? 

Professor Ian Reifowitz: I’ll leave folks with the concluding paragraphs of the book, which are as close as I get to offering a prescription going forward regarding how to counter the Limbaugh/Trump vision of America:

“White racial identity has been the foundation of the single most destructive form of identity politics over the course of American history. In colonial times, slave-owners raised the status of white indentured servants—many of whom had developed close relationships with the enslaved African Americans alongside whom they worked—transforming these “plain white folks” into equal citizens and telling them that they were superior to blacks, who were thus undeserving of freedom. Why did they do this? Because the slave-owning elites had one fear above all: a white-black coalition of the masses that would unite to overthrow them. Similarly, after emancipation, the Southern economic elites made sure to bind poor whites to them through the race-based advantages conferred by Jim Crow, all in the name of thwarting that same white-black, class-based political partnership. 

“In this century, some working- and even middle-class whites, especially those without a college degree, have been drowning economically in a way they have not since the Great Depression. For many, whatever privilege comes with being white is not enough to keep them afloat. They are angry, afraid, and looking for a scapegoat. Limbaugh has been only too happy to oblige. He has absolutely no interest in helping the country figure out how to deal in a productive way with the white anxiety that arises from demographic change. He is interested in one thing, and one thing only: exacerbating this phenomenon in order to keep separate whites and Americans of color who do share common economic interests. That is how Republicans win elections. 

Limbaugh’s divisive approach, in that specific regard, is a carbon copy of the approach taken by the nineteenth century Southern white elites. The more he can get working, and middle-class whites to identify with their racial identity—their tribe—above their economic interests, the better he will be able to prevent the multiracial, progressive coalition assembled by President Obama from growing strong enough to defeat Limbaugh/Trump-style conservatism once and for all. Ultimately, the right-wing needs white racial anxiety. In fact, it cannot survive without it.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for those powerful words. What are you working on now?

Professor Ian Reifowitz: Right now? How about a nap? I’m still teaching full time, so I’ll be spending time thinking about a new project over the coming months.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful comments Professor Reifowitz and congratulations on your fascinating new book, “The Tribalization of Politics.”