Rush Limbaugh's Strategically Ambiguous Monologues

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Was the talk radio host being earnest or sarcastic when he praised the president for killing bin Laden? Neither answer is correct.

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Osama bin Laden's death caused a bunch of curiosity seekers to tune into Rush Limbaugh's radio program. Would the man who said he wanted President Obama to fail congratulate him on this success? The talk radio host was in a tough spot. He's long insisted that Obama is opposed to the U.S. asserting itself as an arbiter of justice. But there the president was: weighing America's options, ordering a unilateral military operation, and glorying in the death of Civilizational Enemy No. 1.

For Limbaugh, this was potentially devastating. President Obama is a flawed leader, no matter his recent success. His critics are right to keep saying so. But the particular criticisms Limbaugh regularly voices? "Obama doesn't believe we have the moral authority to do anything other than mouth a bunch of words," he said just weeks ago. "He doesn't look at America as the solution. We're the problem." That narrative was shown by dramatic real world events to be utter nonsense.

And he knows it. But to admit as much?

His problem was that he couldn't come out Monday morning swinging. Sure, some of his listeners would stick by him. But the Limbaugh audience is largely made up of nationalistic War on Terror hawks who wanted bin Laden's head on a pike as much as anyone. Opening with a direct attack on Obama after an event that brought out the jingoism in NPR listeners wasn't going to play.

Longtime Limbaugh watchers won't be surprised by his ingenious if cowardly solution. This is a man who often makes self-contradictory remarks that would evoke cognitive dissonance if uttered by a less talented broadcaster. (A recent example is his brazen about face on the war in Libya.) Over the years, he's gotten around this problem by putting ever more weight on his intellectual crutch of choice: deliberately ambiguous monologues that cannot be pinned down.

Did a segment have its intended effect? Then Limbaugh was totally serious. Is it generating more heat than anticipated? Oh, he was only joking. Isn't it just like humorless liberals to have missed that? His audience always buys these weak explanations because they're told that they're sophisticated enough to understand the nuance of his radio program, something his critics in "the drive-by media" lack the attention span and intelligence to grasp. The fact that he is often misunderstood by his least sophisticated critics only helps him get away with this clever feint.

That brings us to the way that he started his Monday program (transcript below):



We need to open the program today by congratulating President Obama.  President Obama has done something extremely effective, and when he does, this needs to be pointed out.  President Obama has continued the Bush policies of keeping a military presence in the Middle East.  He did not scrub the mission to get Bin Laden.  In fact, it may be that President Obama single-handedly came up with the technique in order to pull this off.  You see, the military wanted to go in there and bomb like they always do. They wanted to go in there and drop missiles and launch bombs, a number of totally destructive techniques here. But President Obama, perhaps the only qualified member in the room to deal with this, insisted on the Special Forces.  No one else thought of that.  Not a single intelligence advisor, not a single national security advisor, not a single military advisor came up with the idea of using SEAL Team 6 or any of the Special Forces.
Our military wanted to go in there and just scorch the earth, leaving no evidence of anything after the mission.  But President Obama single-handedly understood what was at stake here.  He alone understood the need to get DNA to prove the death.  Obama alone understood the aftermath, alone understood that there would be doubting Thomases if the place was just obliterated and no evidence was to be found.  According to news reports, not one member of the military, not General Petraeus, nobody in the intel community, nobody had the slightest idea of going in there and using Special Forces.  It was President Obama, single-handedly and alone, who came up with the strategy that brought about the effective assassination of Osama Bin Laden.   

On Andrew Sullivan's blog, Twitter, and elsewhere, folks were debating whether Limbaugh was being earnest or sarcastic in that segment. It's easy to understand their confusion: The "Osama is caught" monologue isn't a coherent example of either approach. Various aspects of it don't work as sarcasm. After all, President Obama did reject a military plan to reduce the compound to rubble, and actually deserves credit for ordering an attack that would leave proof of bin Laden's death. Plus there's all that stuff about how he continued George W. Bush-era policies, and being proud of the troops (more on that in a moment) -- just what you'd expect an earnest Limbaugh to say.  

On the other hand, it's obviously silly to say that nobody else in the U.S. government saw the merits of using a raid rather than bombs. The hyperbole used to describes Obama's role wasn't delivered with an obviously sarcastic tone, but it made no sense as an earnest statement.

Especially considering the man voicing it.

Where should observers come down? Early on, media outlets reported on the monologue as if it was totally earnest. A debate on Twitter ensued, where even savvy media observer Glenn Greenwald wrote, "Rush Limbaugh's Obama praise today is unquestionably sincere, not sarcastic -- not even a close call." But the talk radio host couldn't let himself be quoted in mainstream media articles earnestly praising Obama as singularly deserving of credit. Imagine what some of the hard core anti-Obama callers were saying after that first ambiguous half-hour!

So he comes back in hour three, springs the traps he set, and laughingly mocks the media sources that quoted him as if he was speaking in earnest. It's exactly the outcome he wanted. Limbaugh, put in an intellectually precarious spot, always does his utmost to change the subject into a meta-conversation wherein he critiques the media. It's the only way a man unable to defend so many of his utterances can survive. If it's Rush vs. the MSM, the audience will always take his side.

In order to fully grasp his mastery of the strategically ambiguous monologue, let's go back to the line I flagged before: "Last night I was as proud as I have been of the U.S. military in I don't know how long." Earnest praise for the troops? Sure seems like it on first listen. Mocking allusion to Michelle Obama's controversial "proud of my country for the first time" remark? Also plausible! Especially in context. Certainly some of his listeners heard it that way and chuckled. But also totally deniable if necessary! The important thing to realize is that there is no right answer, other than whatever happens to be more convenient for Limbaugh at a particular moment in time.

It is unimportant to him that there even be a true meaning. He is a bullshit artist in the strictest sense of the term:

There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity which resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline. The pertinent mode of laxity cannot be equated, evidently, with simple carelessness or inattention to detail... It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth -- this indifference to how things really are -- that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.

This failure to articulate and defend a single coherent position is the tactic of an intellectual coward, one who has abandoned any pretense of adding to the discourse, and satisfies himself by being an especially adept manipulator. In a man as smart as Limbaugh, it is a perilous course, for it can only end in self-loathing. But credit where it's due: he is damned good at the game he plays.

Image credit: Navish Chitrakar/Reuters

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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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