The Rebel Germ

Rush Limbaugh
Rush Limbaugh; drawing by John Springs

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…

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