“Hell no?” asked Rush Limbaugh in his August 14 broadcast. “Damn no! We’re the party of Damn no! We’re the party of Hell no! We’re the party that’s going to save the United States of America!”
Limbaugh was revising the congressional minority leader John Boehner’s “Hell No!” rejection speech against national health care reform. Naturally he took Boehner’s slang a step further into cussing. A sign of solidarity, you might say, but also a stroke of one-upmanship, and in both respects a characteristic message from the virtual leader and most admired celebrity of the Republican Party; his talk show reaches between 14 and 30 million listeners, more than any other radio broadcast.
Superficial observers for two decades have treated Limbaugh as a cutup, a frat boy, a brawler with a barroom gift for getting people to listen. The facts are otherwise and have never been hidden. Rush Limbaugh III is a member of a highly respected family of Cape Girardeau, a small town in the border state of Missouri. He comes from a line of distinguished lawyers, including his brother David and two judges in the last two generations: Stephen Limbaugh Sr., a federal judge in St. Louis, and Stephen Limbaugh Jr. (the cousin of Rush), who in 2008 was sworn in as his father retired from the same US district court. A military link on the Limbaugh family website goes further back. It names at least six ancestors who served in the Civil War, all of them on the Confederate side. These data are a reminder that the supposed division between the “chattering class” and ordinary Americans may be a mask for a phenomenon both larger and more specific: the southernization of American politics. It shows more plainly now than at any moment since Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign.
Limbaugh seldom speaks overtly about race. Disgust with the federal government is his preferred device for letting the subject in: the Nanny State, the Mammy State, Obamacare, Yo Mamma Care. Limbaugh, who coined the third of these phrases, has not had to say the second and fourth to keep them playing around the listener’s ear. In the background too, in any given hour, he is working up a grotesque idea of the “Democrat Party.” The party as he presents it is composed of superannuated aristocrats, pretentious arrivistes, and a ragtag swarm of dependents; the model here is the nineteenth-century imagery of carpetbaggers and their lately freed camp followers. The Rebel germ in Limbaugh was never appeased by healing afterthoughts about the Union government that came south and overstayed its welcome. In a throwaway riff last summer, for no good reason except irritation, he deplored an hour he was forced to spend listening to federal officials celebrate the subsidy, design, and construction of a new federal courthouse in Cape Girardeau, the Limbaugh Building, named after his grandfather, Rush Limbaugh Sr. It might seem an honor but it was a government project all the same.
His mischief can be more acrid. Over the bass guitar blues that opens his show, on September 7 Limbaugh could be heard singing a softer song. What was this? Well, President Obama at a Labor Day rally had performed a riff of his own. “Some powerful interests who had been dominating the agenda in Washington for a very long time,” Obama said, are “not always happy with me. They talk about me like a dog.” The peculiar lapse and the provocation it offered were not lost on Limbaugh; with malicious cheer he trotted out the lyrics sung in 1952 by Patti Page: “How much is that doggie in the window?” A mindless improvisation, yet it touched a nerve—exposing to the glare of public notice Obama’s synthetic folksiness (often signaled by excessive reliance on the word “folks”).
Obama had transgressed an invisible boundary in that Labor Day speech, and the hunter Limbaugh was bound to go after him. The president who talked of being treated like a dog had lately returned from a week in Martha’s Vineyard. Before that, as Limbaugh recalled, we saw Michelle Obama’s vacation in Spain with half a dozen friends and the mandatory entourage of sixty Secret Service agents. Between the two junkets came a fast visit to the oil-spill coast of Louisiana, “the Redneck Riviera.” It was about this time that he started calling her Michelle Antoinette Obama.
Granted, Limbaugh went after Bill Clinton as relentlessly. Still, no careful listener can doubt that race is an element in the new tone of presumptive insolence. It is also true that the Obama administration—foolishly, if they weren’t prepared for a fight—called out Limbaugh by name early on. “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done,” Obama told the Republican congressional leadership a few days after taking office when he floated his dream of a bipartisan majority to pass large reforms. The confident dismissal of a dangerous enemy came at a time of unexamined faith in himself. It now seems plain that between February and April 2009, Obama believed that his election had disclosed not a beginning but the completion of a change in American manners. Everything Limbaugh has done in the past two years depended on a different reading of that triumph and a hunch about the weakness of character and experience that underlay it.
When, in one of his first acts as president, Obama announced the closing of Guantánamo and seemed to be passively waiting for a plan to emerge, Limbaugh saw an opening. He lives to destroy and to have a good time. His favorite target is the beautiful intention that has nothing underneath it—no plan, no powerful backers, no swell of popular support. How many such liberal ideas did Obama vaguely share with the American people in the first six months of his presidency? When the health care negotiations dragged into summer 2009, Limbaugh turned the President’s left flank and executed the first of the maneuvers that may end by gaining a Republican majority in 2010. The occasion was the President’s comment, at the end of a press conference ostensibly devoted to health care, on the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Obama said nobody could doubt that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly.”
A sympathetic viewer might have worried then: How many portfolios does he think he holds? Limbaugh went much further. He blew up the questionable line and made it a seven-day story. Why does Obama want to get in on the action everywhere? This man is in every corner and every moment of your lives, and if you think it’s bad already (a growl, a shuffle of papers), just wait till Obamacare is passed. He’ll be telling you which doctor to go to. He’ll be telling you what to eat. He’ll be telling you to exercise and exactly how much each day. He thinks he knows more about crime in the streets than a cop on the beat.
Like all demagogues, Limbaugh knows the value of repetition. His work in the spring and summer of 2009 was to teach the Republican Party to repeat the word “No.” They must execute an across-the-board refusal and nullification of Obama’s initiatives. He wanted the President to fail, and said so. Admonished that such a sentiment was unpatriotic, he backed and filled and said, no, it wasn’t that he wanted the country to suffer. Obama had to fail if the country was going to succeed. Limbaugh does not apologize and he doesn’t explain, and his incitements have left a deeper mark than they did in 1995 when he blamed the government for the terrorist bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Since he struck that defiant pose, Limbaugh’s reputation has risen higher again than might have seemed possible. He created and is still the leading practitioner of the talk-radio culture that instructs the Tea Party. According to an October 14 story by Kate Zernike in The New York Times, there are 138 Tea Party candidates running for office in the House and Senate this year. If as many as thirty of them win, they will make a substantial force in national politics, and all are obedient to an easily iterated string of maxims: drastic reduction of federal taxes; mandatory cuts in government spending; increased funding for the armed forces. Unlike Newt Gingrich, who led the Republican victory of 1994, Limbaugh does not have to pass legislation or run for reelection and he is not answerable to an ethics committee. His estimated worth—largely from his salary and bonuses—is around a billion dollars, and his sponsors are not about to give him up.
The far-right Republicans and unhappy independents who are led by talk radio are generally known as “angry.” Limbaugh makes them angrier even as he offers a story to focus their rage and resentment. Rage about what? The loss of “the America we grew up in.” Of course, only people over sixty grew up in a country much less chaotic than American society today; but the myth of the Fifties has been going strong since the Seventies, in TV shows like Happy Days and movies like Back to the Future. The Fifties, when America stood its ground in the cold war, are linked in this imagining to the Eighties, when Ronald Reagan won the cold war. The myth of Reagan as a transcendent embodiment of uniquely American virtues has outlived the facts of his presidency.
Yet Limbaugh, unlike Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, does very little trafficking in myth. His ground note is the booming old-school pledge-of-allegiance voice, reminiscent of Paul Harvey and George Putnam, but that starting point is a misleading clue to his temperament and procedure. Where Beck reads and quotes from the Drudge Report and crank secondary literature, Limbaugh always has spread before him the latest from Reuters, AP, Politico, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and a good many other direct sources. He treats them with a reassuring bustle, as of a man about serious business: “Lots to do!” Behind the compulsion is a complex nature—boisterous, insinuating, self-righteous, almost infantile in his self-love. Lots to do! What Limbaugh’s appreciators see in him and dote on is a quality both greedy and innocent.
Limbaugh and Beck are tastes as opposite as John Philip Sousa and Burt Bacharach. Limbaugh cannot bear to share the stage with anyone. Beck, on radio, is hard to imagine without the two sidekicks who giggle and do the trash talk and sometimes pull him into line. (On television, on the other hand, he performs solo with a blackboard, and draws diagrams of history, sociology, anthropology, and political theory to prove the imminence of the totalitarian threat within America today.) When Beck is not on his knees (“Pray for me. Pray for our country”), he is standing on tiptoe reciting a history lesson. The high jinks and clowning that normally lead off the radio show would not be out of place in a college dorm; and as in that milieu and format, a female voice of any kind would feel out of place. Beck’s voice in his religious interludes shifts from the usual silken tenor to something weak and trembly. The common trait in all his poses and voices is excess of drama. There are too many veerings to keep track of, and an awkward kind of sympathy draws you in.