Rush Limbaugh's Cowardly Approach to the Newt Gingrich Debate

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He remains the most influential voice in the conservative movement. But unlike William F. Buckley, he shies away from clarifying clashes.

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The rise of Newt Gingrich in the GOP primary is making for strange bedfellows. When was the last time figures as diverse as Ann Coulter, George Will, David Frum, Erick Erickson, Ross Douthat, Daniel Larison, and Jennifer Rubin all pointedly expressed misgivings about the same Republican?

Their concerns are many: Gingrich's proclivity for embracing wacky ideas that would enlarge government; his unconservative temperament and dearth of wisdom; the fact that his Republican colleagues judged him unfit to lead in the late 1990s; his philandering and divorces; his hypocrisy about values issues; his dangerous, self-aggrandizing instincts in foreign policy; his lack of discipline, raging ego, and his various flip-flops on the Iraq War; and that's just from the seven folks already mentioned, who lay out evidence to bolster their assertions.

Who is on the other side of the argument?

In the mass media, Rush Limbaugh is by far the most prominent figure. But he isn't actually arguing. He isn't listening to various criticisms of Gingrich and refuting them with logical rebuttals.

He's just attacking the ideological purity of the critics. 
 
It's long been true that criticism levied by people like Frum, Douthat, and David Brooks has been dismissed on the hard right as the grumblings of RINOs or "fake conservatives," as if ideological bonifides trump arguments. What's new is seeing the same rhetorical dodge applied to people like Coulter, Will and Erickson. It's like the late stages of the French Revolution.

Even the most fanatical partisan isn't safe from being denounced.

Says Limbaugh:
 

The conservative movement, and I mean this from bottom of my large beating heart -- ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom -- the conservative movement is made up of me, talk radio, the Tea Party and the American people who are conservative. A conservative movement made up of movement media people, there hasn't been that since Mr. Buckley passed away.

When I last aired that quote, I should've added that this "challenge their bonifides, not their arguments" approach has always been a self-serving dodge. Yes, there's karmic justice in seeing Coulter and Erickson subjected to it. But they've both articulated earnest concerns about a man who could be president. Here's what Limbaugh says to avoid responding to them or anyone else:

Anybody I talk about is smaller than I am so when I talk about 'em I elevate 'em and call attention to what really is not noticed by a whole lot of people. So there's a lot of stuff I can't, either by virtue of my professional policy and by virtue of common sense, there's a lot of stuff that I don't talk about because it doesn't deserve to be any more widely spread than it already is on its own. Do you understand what I'm saying, Snerdley? It's a very limiting thing.

That's an excuse for an intellectual coward.

When William F. Buckley was the leading voice in the conservative movement, he spent 33 years going on Firing Line and matching his mind against all comers. Now the leading voice in the conservative movement says he won't joust with anyone, because they're all secret liberals, plus being famous is ever so "limiting." The truth is he wouldn't dare to debate Ann Coulter.

Or David Frum.

He's a big-tent intellectual coward. Anyone who might not show deference is someone he'll not engage directly. 

You'd think the contrast between Buckley, with his 1,504 televised debates, and Limbaugh, with his abject failure to play a useful or even respectable role in the 2012 nominating contest, would spur the right to conclude it'd be better off if someone else were the most powerful voice in the conservative movement -- someone with the guts to fully participate in the debates of the day, even if it could lead to an occasional bruised ego.

"I am so grounded in conservatism, I'm so grounded in common sense, it's not possible for me to waver from it," Limbaugh says. "I don't doubt myself." Where indeed would the doubts come from after having decided to only argue with listeners of your own show who make it past the call screeners you employ? And how would conservatives who get all their information from Limbaugh and his copycats ever develop their own doubts about someone like Gingrich?

The right is paying for its least defensible champions.

UPDATE: Erick Erickson has responded to this post in a pretty hilarious way. As if to demonstrate what it looks like when someone focuses on intentions rather than arguments, he titles his post, "This Guy Conor Just Wanted to Slam Limbaugh, Right?" and subtitles it "probably in hopes Rush would mention him and send web traffic his way." That would be a strange motive since, as this very piece explicitly states, Limbaugh ignores those who criticize him by name. The usual behavior of those seeking to benefit from Limbaugh's audience is to act as his sycophant, not to repeatedly criticize him for years on end, as Erickson of all people well knows.

Nowhere in his post does Erickson address the role Limbaugh has played in the GOP nominating process or the charge that, unlike Buckley, he shies away from directly debating those who disagree with him. Erickson does assure us that "Rush lists 'talk radio' as being on the conservative side. I write this as I fill in for Neal Boortz on his syndicated show, taking a break from my own talk radio show." In other words, Erickson is desperate to assure us that even though his main gigs are conservative blogger and cable news commentator, which fall outside the new Limbaugh definition of conservative, Erickson still technically qualifies under the new, increasingly narrow definition. Why weigh in on the argument about whether it's in fact absurd to define conservative media to disqualify Fox News and National Review if you're still safe yourself?

Talking timelines, Erickson writes that the post I link of his expressing concern about Gingrich went up after the Rush Limbaugh monologue denouncing Gingrich criticism. He thought my item implied otherwise, and I apologize to anyone who got that impression. Paying explicit attention to the true chronology, the analysis doesn't change: by attacking Gingrich critics in mass, mentioning those who write on conservative blogs in particular, and dismissing that medium as outside the real conservative movement, Limbaugh was challenging people like Erickson.

As soon as he wrote his Gingrich post he fit the criticism perfectly.

Limbaugh and Erickson are both very influential people in the conservative movement. But neither is comfortable arguing with the other with anything like the full force of their rhetoric and logic. Limbaugh refuses to engage in direct debate at all. Erickson is desperate to minimize the idea that there is any sort of daylight between what he thinks and what Limbaugh thinks. When the most influential people in your movement are so pathologically reluctant to engage in forceful debate against one another, even when they have contrasting perspectives, it does a disservice to the movement itself. Papering over these conflicts is the opposite of clarifying.

But disagreements are minimized and obscured because figures like Limbaugh and Erickson have trained their audiences to have hair-trigger sensitivity to disloyalty or heretical observations. Inside a family like The Atlantic, colleagues can disagree with one another on some issue or other, and it's to be expected. We're a big tent. People disagree. But inside conservatism? Were Erickson and Limbaugh to forcefully disagree and go at one another, it would be major news, which is itself telling. The way they disagree with people -- angrily, with personal insults and inflated rhetoric -- perhaps makes them less able to have productive differences of opinion.

Too bad for the right that forceful differences of opinion and sometimes intense arguments are how ideas get fleshed out. Both because Limbaugh is too cowardly to participate himself, and because people like Erickson enable his evasiveness and have no incentive to challenge him, the conservative base is less informed than they could be and currently inclined to nominate a terrible candidate. Think about it. Wouldn't the rank and file learn a lot if Limbaugh and Erickson both exposed themselves to direct debate about Gingrich, or even debated one another?

So much would get aired. Instead they're both being painfully cautious. After all, they know better than most what it looks like when the guillotines are out. They've been the guillotine operators.

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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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