For decades, Rush Limbaugh was the lightning-rod of American political discourse. His racist invective, homophobic bile, and misogynistic tirades drew scorn and controversy, and even inspired a massive advertiser boycott. Limbaugh’s legendary toxicity even supplanted my income for a spell: In 2011 and 2012, a Democratic operative paid me to call into Rush Limbaugh’s show and debate him. I was given bonuses whenever Limbaugh got flustered and the segment went viral. Even in death, Rush Limbaugh was polarizing — Fox News spent the day broadcasting hagiographies of him, and leftist Twitter made the macabre hashtag #RotInHellRush trend.
Given that history of infamy, Limbaugh’s replacement hosts are decidedly vanilla. The forgettably named Clay Travis and Buck Sexton (or is it Clay Sexton and Buck Travis?) have officially taken over Rush’s 12-3pm ET spot under the late pundit’s Excellence In Broadcasting umbrella. Upon visiting RushLimbaugh.com, a highly visible banner now directs users to visit ClayandBuck.com. And the website hosting Travis and Sexton’s show has the exact same aesthetic as Limbaugh’s — dark gray with black and gold accents. It’s not unlike the gaudy style often employed by HGTV’s Flip or Flop Vegas.
Clay and Buck’s first segment aired on Monday, and the interchangeable hosts managed to project half the personality of Limbaugh despite having twice as many voices. The two opened the program with a mushy tribute to Limbaugh, vowing to not replace the irreplaceable firebrand but to carry on the “mission” of advancing conservative ideology. They assured listeners that even though they might find themselves “in the midst of a cancel culture storm” if they agreed with what they said, Clay and Buck would always be there, despite Big Tech “strangling down and circumscribing what everybody can say.” (This is laughably false; Facebook’s algorithm is intrinsically built to amplify far-right content.)
ClayandBuck.com hosts not just monologues, but individual segments. One top segment features Sexton “picking apart” critical race theory, but his droning cadence makes it far too easy for listeners to tune out before he has time to get to his central point (something about white people being oppressed?) Anyone who has listened to at least one of Limbaugh’s programs can immediately tell the difference between Sexton’s dry delivery and Limbaugh’s caustic barbs combined with those signature long pauses for dramatic effect.
Listeners who managed to make it through to the end of this week’s segment heard testimony during a Florida hearing on the teaching of critical race theory from Quisha King, whom Sexton only described as a “Black mother” but who publicly displays her full-time position with the Republican National Committee in 2020 on her LinkedIn profile. This is not unlike the numerous Fox News segments that feature “concerned parents” railing against critical race theory who turn out to be paid Republican strategists, lobbyists, staffers, and media personalities.
It remains to be seen whether or not Travis and Sexton will keep the loyal following their predecessor built during the turn of the century. Whereas Limbaugh boasted as many as 13 million weekly listeners as recently as 2016, his replacements have a lot of ground to cover. Sexton ranked #43 on Talkers magazine’s “Heavy Hundred” list, and his co-host was unranked. And as of Monday afternoon, the @ClayandBuck Twitter account has a little less than 9,000 Twitter followers (for perspective, the Eat The Rich podcast has more than twice as many followers).
To be fair, Travis and Sexton are inhibited by not just a lack of personality, but by a cacophony of right-wing media that simply finds ways to churn the outrage of the day in a more efficient manner. Limbaugh was able to command the airwaves with bombast and rigor partially due to his program’s polarizing nature, but also because in Limbaugh’s heyday, prior to the age of social media and podcasts, conservatives relied uniquely on talk radio to advance their messaging. Today, in the era of Ben Shapiro, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Dana Loesch, Michael Savage, and other much louder right-wing media personalities, Travis and Sexton are two novice guitarists hacking away on a 10-watt amplifier while getting drowned out by a ten-piece guitar ensemble amplified by a wall of Marshall stacks.
The legacy Rush Limbaugh left was not just a Republican Party that nominated, elected, and almost reelected a blustery tyrant who hired an outed white nationalist as his top advisor, but a well-oiled, omnipresent, deafening right-wing noise machine. Whereas Limbaugh became the GOP’s de facto mascot utilizing just a gold-plated microphone and a recording booth, the conservative media landscape today is incredibly layered and complex. Right-wing institutions like Cato and Heritage hire right-wing personalities as experts. Those institutions get funding from right-wing oligarchs to publish studies and write model bills to address manufactured crises like voter fraud and critical race theory. Right-wing networks like Fox News and Newsmax interview those experts to manufacture public pressure around those nonexistent issues. Then, right-wing lawmakers introduce those model bills in their respective statehouses, and advocate for them with testimony pulled from the same right-wing institutions.
It’s undoubtedly a career achievement for Clay Travis and Buck Sexton to inherit Rush Limbaugh’s brand and three-hour radio spot. But at the end of the day, they’re back-benchers depending on a dated medium to reach audiences who already get their preferred content elsewhere. Rush Limbaugh’s time has come and gone, and so has his business model. Travis and Sexton clinging to Limbaugh’s brand is just as sad as it is irrelevant.
Carl Gibson is a freelance journalist and columnist. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs.