JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 4, 2011
The newest issue of Commentary has an ode to the goodness of Rush Limbaugh, authored by Wilfred M. McClay. Apparently, Commentary staffer, former Bush administration Minister of Propaganda and designated Jonathan Chait Blog Fodder Provider Pete Wehner called Limbaugh to inform him he was being so flattered, leading to this entertaining on-air exchange:
RUSH: Last night I'm minding my own business, actually reading a novel and I get an e-mail from my buddy Pete Wehner saying, "Hey, if you haven't seen it there's a great piece at our magazine, Commentary magazine: How to Understand Rush Limbaugh." And I thought, "It must be if Pete's pointing it out to me." This guy, Wilfred McClay, writes about, how to put this... we're into our 23rd year here and he raises things that have not been asked before other than by Zev Chafets in the book Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One. So we've linked to it at RushLimbaugh.com. ...
RUSH: Okay, to the phones. We'll start in Greenville, North Carolina, and Sarina. I'm glad you called. It's great to have you here, and hello.
CALLER: Hi, Mr. Limbaugh. How are you? It's such an honor to speak to you.
RUSH: Thank you very much.
CALLER: Anyway, I'm calling to tell you I'm a little bit mad at you because I got up this morning and I got on my Facebook and I saw the post that you had to look at that article on how to understand Rush Limbaugh, and I read the entire thing and it's absolutely excellent, and you told your viewers that you "hardly" recommend it, but it's excellent. Why?
RUSH: Well, no, no, no. I said I "heartily" recommend it.
CALLER: Oh, heartily! I misunderstand. That's my mistake. I thought you said you "hardly" recommend it.
RUSH: Why would I bring it up if I don't want to recommend it?
CALLER: That's true. I just wanted to tell you that I love you, I listen to you every day, I'm seven months pregnant, so I've got a genuine Rush Baby in utero.
As for the article itself, the only thing keeping the author from declaring that he, too, has a Rush Baby in utero is his lack of uterus. The many criticisms of Limbaugh (see for instance, David Frum's piece on the subject) are ignored or, at most, referenced only in the most oblique way. Of course, in so doing, McClay forces himself to miss the only things that distinguish Limbaugh from every other Republican talking head. Here, for instance, is McClay's account of Limbaugh's dust-up with the White House in January 2009:
Limbaugh had just stunned the country, days before Obama was inaugurated, by summarizing his feelings about the new president in four simple words: “I hope he fails.” Limbaugh impatiently brushed aside the happy talk about compromise and bipartisan cooperation and scoffed at the claim that Obama was a pragmatic, post-ideological, post-partisan, post-racial conciliator and healer. Instead, he saw every reason to believe that Obama would aggressively pursue a leftist dream agenda: an exponential expansion of government’s size and power, a reordering of the American economic system, and a dismantling of America’s role as a world power. Limbaugh was not alone in such views, but he was the only major figure on the right willing to stick his neck out at a time when the rest of the nation seemed dazed into acquiescence by the so-far impeccably staged Obama ascendancy.
The notion that Limbaugh was the sole right-winger unwilling to pledge himself to a bipartisan lovefest with Obama is, obviously, more than a bit strained given that GOP leaders came out in total opposition to Obama's economic rescue program even before he was sworn in. What actually set Limbaugh apart was not that he disagreed with Obama's economic program, or that he hoped it would fail legislatively, which would be a perfectly normal thing for a partisan to believe, but that he believed that Obama's plan was not even intended to spark the economy. Limbaugh wanted Obama to fail because he believed Obama was actually trying to foment an economic collapse. He said so repeatedly:
We have plenty of external threats, enemies across oceans, but we have a threat inside as well. This is something that I've never felt. I never feel that we had a president actually governing against the country, against the will of the people. I know we've had liberals. Clinton and Hillary were, and are. They're pedal-to-the-metal liberals. But they didn't want to destroy things. This bunch does...
Why aren't we growing jobs in this country like we used to? Why aren't we? It's not hard to do. There's all kinds of textbook evidence, real-life historical evidence of how to do it. We're not doing it; we're not doing it on purpose. It's payback time.
Or, for another example, here:
Obama is joyfully overseas talking about the decline of the US economy, happily presiding over it, implicitly acknowledging the decline of American dominance. It's what he's all about. He's happy he's made it happen.
The assumption that Obama is deliberately subverting the economy, not just pursuing misguided policies, dovetails with the notion of Obama as an alien subversive, which Limbaugh is also happy to encourage:
All right, little Barry is back in Indonesia, and they're all happy over there. Little Barry Soetoro is back and they're all happy over there in Indonesia. In fact, he was someplace in India, he was introduced by somebody from Kenya, and the woman says, "As a fellow Kenyan, Mr. President," of course everybody looked the other way, "What do you mean fellow Kenyan, we don't want to hear this," and now little Barry is back.
This kind of delirious, conspiratorial talk had been heard from ranters appearing at the late stages of McCain-Palin campaign rallies, but the campaign had vigorously distanced itself from it. The significance of Limbaugh's rant was a mainstreaming of what had been a marginal set of beliefs -- Obama not merely as a liberal, but as an alien, conspiratorial figure posing a fundamental threat to American liberty and working deliberately to subvert its strength. That is a genuine intellectual contribution, though McClay can't acknowledge it.
The only way an uninformed reader might be able to glean that Limbaugh has any controversial beliefs is McClay's reference to his manifold, powerful enemies:
He conducts his show in an air of high-spiritedness and relaxed good humor, clearly enjoying himself, always willing to be spontaneous and unpredictable, even though he is aware that every word he utters on the air is being recorded and tracked by his political enemies in the hope that he will slip up and say something career-destroying. Limbaugh the judo master is delighted to make note of this surveillance, with the same delight he expresses when one of his “outrageous” sound bites makes the rounds of the mainstream media, and he can then play back all the sputtering but eerily uniform reactions from the mainstream commentators, turning it back on them with a well-placed witticism.
"Surveillance" is funny word to use here -- it is generally thought to apply to the unwanted monitoring of private conversation, not the practice of listening to political diatribes broadcast on national radio so as to rebut them.
And why do Limbaugh's enemies "surveill" his program in the belief that he will destroy his career? McClay won't come out and explain, so allow me: Limbaugh is a racial demagogue. He plays constantly upon the racial paranoia of his audience. If he were black, we would call him a "race man."
Limbaugh is obsessed with race. In his telling, racism against whites does not just happen here or there, it has overwhelmed -- indeed, completely replaced -- traditional white-on-black racism. "Racism in this country is the exclusive province of the left," he says. In Limbaugh's world, minorities deploy racism endlessly and with impunity against whites, who are hamstrung by out-of-control political correctness. He presents Obama's agenda as the blacks' revenge against White America for slavery and Jim Crow. ("He's angry, he's gonna cut this country down to size, he's gonna make it pay for all the multicultural mistakes that it has made, its mistreatment of minorities.") Even such disparate events as a random school bus fight between a couple kids who happen to be black and a kid who happens to be white reveal, in Limbaugh's fevered mind, a widespread pattern of racial victimization against whites triggered by Obama:
You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama's America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, "Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on," and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he's white.
This is another interesting quality of Limbaugh's. He stands in stark contrast to the general pattern of a Republican Party that has steadily distanced itself from racialized appeals to whites. McClay, obviously, can't acknowledge that, either. Instead he offers up descriptions of Limbaugh such as "he reminds one of the affirmative spirit of Ronald Reagan and, like Reagan, reminds his listeners of the better angels of their nature."