Rush from Reality

I’ve been listening to Rush Limbaugh for going on twenty years now—since 1989, when my summer job after my first year of college involved driving a daily route which took me from Milwaukee to a little town two hours away. I listened to the whole thing. Every day.

He had been on nationally for only a year. He was not yet a national phenomenon, and when I discovered him, I realized I had stumbled upon something important and extraordinary. I knew about Father Coughlin, the para-fascist “radio priest” of the New Deal Years—I’d read about him in history books—and had an inkling that I’d someday be reading about this “Rush Limbo” (as I first misheard his name) in books as well. For as has been frequently remarked, Rush is an astonishingly gifted talent when it comes to filling the air on the radio. Already, in 1989, people were packing auditoriums around the hinterlands to hear him dispense his wisdom on his “Rush to Excellence” tours. Already, he was an exceptionally commanding presence.

I hadn’t listened through an entire three hour show for years, however, until this past November, the day after election day, when I was riveted by the realization that, after twelve years of being alienated by Reagan and Bush from the right, and then eight years of opposing Clinton (I was never a fan) from the left—and then the dark reign of Bush the Second— the intellectual patterns of most of my life would have to be radically reconfigured. America had a president I supported. Everything—especially listening to Rush—would be different now.

It was disorienting to listen to Rush that Wednesday, but not so much that I couldn’t draw some conclusions. It made me realize something important, as he rehearsed his horror at what America was about to experience; it made me realize how I should be thinking about the American right now. I ended up hoping that Rush enjoyed extraordinary ratings during the Obama years. It will help, as I wrote last month, “conservatives retreat within their own cocoon of fantasy rather than participate in the actual conversations taking place to move the country forward. It’s a good thing: one sign of a decrepit, declining ideological tendency is that its adherents worry more about reassuring themselves about the purity of their own symbolic identity as liberal-irritaters than on actually getting anything accomplished.” As Atrios wisely noted yesterday, that turns “conservatism” into nothing more than a self-referential hall of mirrors, intelligible only to other conservatives. We’ll lose them in the funhouse, while we get on with the business of communicating with, and governing, the country.

And so, yesterday, I visited the funhouse again, to see what the hall of mirrors looked like after President Obama’s triumphant State of the Union address (Sixty-eight percent of viewers had a very positive reaction, 24 percent a somewhat positive reaction, and only 8 percent a negative reaction)—the day after, in other words, conservatism was ground into the dust once again.

Rush came out of the gate blaring, declaiming the irrelevance of such polls. Here was his opening thought: that two years ago Bernie Madoff would have had a 99 percent approval rating. And then: “Somebody told Bobby Jindal to act like he was talking to first graders last night.” That was a nifty riff—perhaps Jindal had been sabotaged? He’s doubling down on Jindal, urging his listeners not to throw “good conservatives” “overboard.” The nautical metaphor was appropriate, because he next repeated Jindal’s made-up story about the bureaucrats turning back the Katrina rescue boats—and then lied about the lie. He concluded, “Jindal gets on the phone with the bureaucrat. ‘I’m Bobby Jindal. Congressman. If you want, you can arrest me, too.'” (In the original story Jindal had said nothing about getting on the phone.)

Then he dug into the meat of the program: the excoriation of David Brooks. Brooks has radically strayed off Rush’s reservation: he believes, heretically, that the way Republicans have governed and politicked over the last eight years deserve a second look. Specifically, he went berserk on the rhetoric of Bobby Jindal—calling his “stale, governing is the problem” bromides a “disaster for the Republican Party,” and “insane.” So Rush went berserk back. He went back to Brooks’ column, which expressed reservations about Obama giving staffers close to him too much power.

Silly David.

This is what authoritarians do, David!.. How could you ever have bee a conservative and not see who they are?… This is what community organizers do, David! We’ve been trying to warn the country about this, Dave!… We elected agitator. An organizer. An authoritarian!

He went on, of course. And on, and on, and on, and on. Came the first caller, who made the mistake of pointing to Obama’s actual language in the speech, and got interrupted by El Rushbo—

Pay no attention to what he says. He means the opposite in most cases. What he says is irrelevant.

Unless, Rush didn’t have to add, Obama says something Rush considers embarrassing. Then, of course, he means exactly what he said.

I knew I’d heard this before. This was the doctrine of the “principle of reversal” enunciated by John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. Welch explained that in order to understand what the Communists are saying, you have to translate it into its opposite. Though it was a principle, of course, that Welch frequently honored in the breach. When a Communist said something he thought was embarrassing, Welch hammered home that the Communist meant exactly what he said.

The sole authority, of course, qualified to decide when a Communist meant the opposite of what he said, and when he meant exactly what he said was Robert Welch.

I’ll have more later today. For now, suffice it to say this: a political tendency that relies on esoteric pope figure to interpret the actuality of plain reality is not in a good position to win the loyalty of a nation. It is, instead, a cult. Enjoy the spectacle: that is what the conservative movement is becoming.

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