Rush Limbaugh: Resentment Fueled Gingrich's Rise

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Talk radio's biggest star unwittingly diagnoses the defining pathology of the ideological movement he helps to lead.

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Rush Limbaugh is coming around.

As early as 2008, I thought the conservative movement was endangering itself by reveling in the pleasure of causing pain to political opponents more than advancing its own agenda. In 2009, Julian Sanchez helped refine my thesis, arguing that the right wasn't engaged in a "politics of schadenfreude" so much as acting out "an inferiority complex in political philosophy drag." He labeled it "the politics of ressentiment," and astutely pointed out that "even if conservatives retook power, they wouldn't be able to provide a political solution to a psychological problem." This primary season, plenty of observers agree that something like this pathology nonetheless persists. Writing about Newt Gingrich's optics victory in the South Carolina debate and subsequent primary win, for example, Will Wilkinson explains it as follows:

Mr Gingrich's bristling retort to Juan Williams about race and his ferocious attack on John King's question about his ex-wife's allegations amounted to a sort of fantasy-fulfillment for many white, conservative Christians aggrieved by the erosion of their cultural dominance. Mr Gingrich took what indignant conservatives yell at their televisions, dressed it up in soaring rhetoric, and barked it at the business end of the TV camera. "Screw you and your superior P.C. bullshit, Juan Williams! Screw you and your sleazy anti-conservative, character-assassinating 'journalism', John King. You 'elites' are not better than us. This is our country, not yours. Our values set the standard, not yours." To all this, South Carolina's Republicans said "Woooo!"

What I find fascinating, after years of witnessing and experiencing conservative hostility to this line of argument, is that Limbaugh has now taken to his popular radio show and articulated essentially the same explanation for what happened in South Carolina. In his telling, Gingrich's victory is rooted in the cultural insecurity and resentment of conservative Republicans.

The only difference between his analysis and the folks I've quoted is that he regards this emotionalism as unproblematic and justified. In the transcript below, Limbaugh is referring to the South Carolina debate, and the question about whether Gingrich asked his second wife for an open marriage (emphasis added):

Why did those questions tee Newt up, and why did Newt know what to do with them? Very simple. I've been doing this show for 23 years, and one of my themes from the beginning, from 1988, has been that the American conservative middle class are the ones playing by the rules. They are the ones that obey the law to the best of their ability. They raise their kids. They try to shield their kids from cultural rot and depravity. They try to keep them off drugs. They try to get them into college. They follow as best they can all the rules and they're laughed at and made fun of and they are impugned everywhere they look.  They go to the movies, they're mocked and made fun of. They turn on the radio, listen to music, they're laughed at, mocked, and made fun of. They turn on television, watch an average television show, they are laughed at, mocked and made fun of. They open the newspaper, same thing. They've had it. They've been dealing with this for over 20 years, and nobody's fought back for 'em. Not one person ever has fought back for 'em.  

The last time somebody actually spoke up in this large a forum, a presidential forum, would have to be Reagan; and Reagan did it not so much by what he said (although he had his moments). He did it by winning. He did it by skunking these people! Since then, the Republican leadership has not seemed focused so much on winning and they sit there and they take it. Whenever their own voters are insulted -- when their own voters are laughed at and impugned and called racists, sexist, bigot homophobes -- the Republicans don't defend them nor themselves because they're scared to death the independents are gonna be upset, or the media is gonna be upset.

So the base of the Republican Party, the voters, have been bottling up for 25 years, a resentment -- an anger, if you will -- that their own party won't fight for them, won't fight for itself, won't fight for what's right. So when Newt gets teed up with these questions from Juan Williams and John King and whoever else and simply says what they've been thinking for 25 years, they say, "Finally!" What they want right now is fight-back, what they want is push-back, what they want is kick-back, what they want is smack-down! What they want is for these people who have been laughing at them and mocking them and impugning them, put in their place.

This is progress. Limbaugh may think this victim complex, and the desire for revenge and emotional catharsis it creates, is justified. He is nevertheless admitting that the behavior of the conservative base isn't grounded in principle or patriotism or a desire to advance conservative policy. 

That's something.

I'd ask Limbaugh listeners to decide for themselves if they're in fact as put-upon as the talk radio host implies -- or if he's indulging in the very sort of victimology that he criticizes when Al Sharpton or Occupy Wall Street is engaging in it. (Was anyone else struck by the similarity between Limbaugh's "the American conservative middle class are the ones playing by the rules" and Occupy Wall Street's "we indebted, unemployed college graduates did everything that we were supposed to do"?). I'd say that in the years since Limbaugh began his program in 1988, television, radio, and media generally have become a friendlier environment for conservatives -- if only because technological changes have permitted niche programming to thrive, and content aimed at the right has been a tremendously profitable niche.

And it is blatantly inaccurate to say, as Limbaugh does of the conservative middle class, that "nobody's fought back for 'em. Not one person ever has fought back for 'em." How can anyone fail to see the willful blindness in that assertion? Especially if "fighting back" entails Newt Gingrich-like attacks on the media and cultural elite, as Limbaugh defines it, there are whole shelves at Barnes and Noble filled with books wherein people "fight back;" there are whole talk-radio stations and Web sites and a cable news network and book publishers and political action committees and non-profit organizations and think tanks and newspaper columnists and... you get the idea.

Articulating the place conservatives have in American culture is complicated, but it's easy to see that they're much better off than Limbaugh says when he's in victim-complex mode (a mode he's often been in since 1988). This is nevertheless a very useful monologue from Limbaugh, because it permits the broader right a clear look at the mistaken narrative that is partly responsible for Newt Gingrich's rise. Even if Limbaugh were right about the place conservatives occupy in American culture, it would hardly make sense for folks aggrieved by the fact that only they "play by the rules" to elevate a corrupt serial adulterer who clearly feels  he's above them. But since Limbaugh is clearly wrong, the fact that so many conservative voters are reacting against his narrative as though it were true is a totally needless and pointless exercise. 

Image credit: 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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