Don't Call Rush Limbaugh a Racist

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The talk radio host is no earnest bigot. He's a cynical businessman who plays on the anxieties of his listeners.

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If the troops are not paid by their commander in chief -- I have a question. If the troops still engage in battle, if they go to war and they execute the orders issued by their commanders, if the troops are thus not paid by their commander in chief, are they his slaves? ...I mean, it's one thing, folks -- and we can all agree on this -- it's one thing to have to pick cotton. But to be forced to risk your life overseas without being paid, that's the worst kind of forced labor to me... if these guys expect these troops to stay on the job, it sure sounds like Obama has more in common with President Jefferson Davis than he does with President Lincoln. ~ Rush Limbaugh, discussing the prospect of a government shutdown last week.

This is a perfect passage for understanding Rush Limbaugh.

His object is to provoke outrage and garner attention. And so he calculates. How to spin the day's news in the most offensive way imaginable? Let's see, we've got a black president, and I've been implicated in several racially tinged controversies, so why not compare him to a slave holder? Plus I can riff off his Abraham Lincoln complex by adding that he's actually more like a Confederate. Ha. Comparing our first black president to Jefferson Davis! That will get 'em going.

The usual outcome when Limbaugh says things like this is that he is accused by someone of being a racist. It allows him to go back on the air, feign outrage - as if a man genuinely wounded by being accused of racism would constantly frame his political commentary in the most racially provocative terms imaginable - and play on the anxieties of his audience, many of whom see accusations of racism as little more than a cudgel used by the left to discredit conservatives. They've occasionally been used that way, and the talk radio host exploits that fact. What some of Limbaugh's critics misunderstand is that he isn't someone who is prejudiced against minorities so much as a man who cynically plays on the racial anxieties of others in order to boost his ratings. Its arguably more odious than the rhetoric of an earnest bigot. 

Cynical provocation isn't a new strategy for the talk radio host:




Or as he put it more recently on his program: "I will have no problem getting people to listen to me who don't like me. In fact, I have to keep giving them reasons. There are some people who listen precisely because they hate, precisely because they don't like. You gotta keep fueling that."

In a long profile of Limbaugh published awhile back by The New York Times Magazine, the talk radio host is interviewed while sitting in his 24,000 square foot house, beside a brochure for the $54 million airplane he owns. "Do you know what bought me all this?" he told the interviewer. "Not my political ideas. Conservatism didn't buy this house. First and foremost I'm a businessman. My first goal is to attract the largest possible audience so I can charge confiscatory ad rates."

Critics of Limbaugh would do well to avoid issuing the simplistic accusation of racism that merely causes his listeners to rally around him and improve his ratings. The more serious and accurate critique is that he deliberately plays on the racial sensitivities of minorities and liberals, and intentionally provokes the racial anxieties of his listeners. In doing so, he exploits one of the most sensitive and historically fraught divides in American society for the sake of lucre.  Presumably the bedroom in his mansion is well-furnished. Those of us with mattresses from Costco shouldn't be jealous: he's a smart enough man that we're likely sleeping a lot better on our cheap box springs.

Photo Credit: Reuters / Micah Walter

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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