I suppose the reason I haven’t commented much on the resurgence of Rush Limbaugh into the national spotlight, is I have never, ever taken the Great Bloviator seriously. He’s always been just another talk-radio windbag to me, representing not just an ideological demographic that I find unappealing, but also a tone and style that is at once hyper-partisan and inflexibly loud. To listen to Rush is to listen to total certitude, to have all the answers laid out at your feet, and all the blame tucked away in all the right places. This is why people listen to the man. He is not thoughtful in his approach. He is unapologetic and verbose. He combines the unflinching, non-introspective politicking of George Bush with a much cannier oratory. Oh, and he’s much more “movement” than Bush ever was. He has his Reaganisms down to an art form.
No wonder he’s found his way to the top of the conservative movement. That the movement is failing is beyond a doubt, and that this direction, the Rushifying of the Right, is only going to help speed it on its way to intellectual and political insignificance remains fairly certain as well. But the movement has become a self-serving institution, and right now no more charismatic presence exists. There is a vacuum that only Rush can fill. Or, rather, that only Rush can hope to fill. Even in his rotundness, I have my doubts that Rush is the right man for the job. Then again, right or wrong, perhaps he’s exactly the man who will do what’s necessary in the long run. Bear with me.
First of all, he’s divisive and uncompromising. That he has a huge following is true, but those who despise him or regard him as just another pundit far outnumber those who are avid listeners. We may very well be a nation conservative in its disposition, but we are also attracted to unity and common ground, which is one reason the American public fell in love with Limbaugh’s hero, Reagan. The American public was drawn to Reagan for the exact same reasons they find Rush repugnant, which is ironic on the one hand, and sort of tragic on the other. The GOP, for all its deifying of Reagan has seemingly missed one of the Gipper’s main attractions – the fact that he could bring people together. Obama gets this, if Limbaugh does not.
Regarding the CPAC speech. While some people found Limbaugh’s words inspiring, I can only wonder. Everything he said he’s said before. The long litany of Republican talking points haven’t changed, and to revel in past failures and mistaken policies seems rather backwards to me. Once again the GOP believes that all the answers lie in tax cuts; that the progressive income tax implemented by Teddy Roosevelt is socialism; that free markets and rugged individualism are the answers to each and every one of our problems, and that community is synonymous with communism. Of course, this is wrong-headed in so many ways, I could respond with a long litany of my own. It is not “spreading the wealth around” just to pay for much-needed infrastructure and other government services, and while I agree that the very notion of negative income tax is wrong and wrong-headed and oppose any such measure, I still can’t wrap my brain around the fact that on the one hand Rush et al are waxing eloquent about the need to not spend what we don’t have, and to not increase the deficit and so forth, and on the other for years continued their unadulterated support of the largest expansion of government and deficit since FDR.
Bush gave Obama this mandate. Where was Rush when we were spending trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and effectively screwing the coming generations with the bill for absolutely no reward, not even an attempt to enact stimulus legislation. To write off this travesty as a national security measure is preposterous. What we were doing was attempting to democratize countries that will never be ripe for democracy. Hell, even our neighbor to the south should provide an example of just how pointless democracy is when there is no rule of law…(more on this later…)
In any case, to my mind Limbaugh is not, as Robert Stacy McCain asserts, “a man who cares more for the opinion of cab drivers than for the praise of elitists.” He is an elitist, first of all – what the hell does that word mean anymore anyways? And second of all, whatever his motives, whoever he speaks to, the main benefactor of Limbaugh’s words is Limbaugh himself. Certainly its not conservatism.
Rod Dreher says it well:
The gist of what’s wrong with Limbaughism is that it’s right-wing Rousseauism. That is, he believes that man is born free, but is put in chains by the government. He believes in living without limits is the essence of conservatism, which is just … crazy. If traditional-minded conservatives know anything, it’s that human nature is fallen, and there are natural limits that must be respected. Conservatism is a form of humility. I see none of that in Limbaugh and what he stands for.
Beyond this is the fact that Rush simply represents the lowest common denominator of the conservative movement. The brash, baleful bloviating; the lack of any sort of compromise; the faux populist rhetoric. Perhaps more problematic is the fact that Rush embodies that very damaging dynamic of “More conservative than thou!” He shrinks the Tent. Reformers and paleos and anyone else who doesn’t tow the line need not apply. Scott is right that Limbaugh will keep the movement “honest” – at least to its core principles, which Rush represents to a tea. The problem is the movement is a failure. Perhaps the best way to end it is to let its brightest flames burn out.
Which is to say, Rush is not just the best example of the cancer that’s blackening the conservative movement at the moment. He’s not just the face of the problem, or the conservative Oprah. He is now also at the vanguard of the movement. He is in a position to actually shake things up, propel things ahead – to lead, in effect, his Party over the cliffs to the briny stones below; to lead them out to sea where perhaps they’ll realize its time to leave him and his rhetoric and the whole talking points strategy if they ever wish to return to relevance and power. The rebirth of the Republican Party will be as much accidental, or perhaps dis-intentional, as anything. As Mark pointed out in an earlier post , change will come unexpectedly, and “no one will have planned it this way, since really it’s not what anyone wants right now.” Change will come but not from within, but from the sidelines, from the wreckage.
So maybe I have an answer to Ross, who asks:
Remember when National Review ran a cover story about Howard Dean, entitled “Please, Nominate This Man!”? That’s how liberals feel about Rush Limbaugh at the moment: They can’t get enough of him. I don’t see any reason why conservatives should be playing into their hands.
You see, I do see a reason. I don’t think conservatism in its current manifestation will survive Obama if it sticks to its guns – if conservatives make like lemmings and follow Rush on off that ideological precipice. And I think that’s a good thing. The phoenix can’t be reborn if it doesn’t turn to ashes first. So I say, while it is really, really stupid of conservatives to make Rush their mascot, their fearless leader, their champion, their high pontiff, it’s still probably the best thing for them. In the end they will be stronger and smarter for it, they’ll learn to adapt, come up with better policies. Perhaps they’ll even give up the ghost of Reagan, and find a better way.