Why Is the Editor of National Review Elevating Rush Limbaugh?

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Rich Lowry hasn't just failed to call out the talk-radio host -- he has whitewashed his indefensible statements.

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National Review's editor ought to be an intellectual leader of movement conservatism, using his position to offer something different than the populist entertainers on talk radio and cable news. An ideological coalition cannot flourish when a man like Rush Limbaugh is its thought leader. (Limbaugh isn't making the Republican Party's job any easier either, turning Sandra Fluke into a martyr, regularly broadcasting racial provocations, and indulging WorldNetDaily pathologies.)

Does Rich Lowry, NR's current editor, understand that?

I used to think so. There are so many movement conservatives who regret the prominent role that Limbaugh plays in their coalition, even if they're reticent to challenge him publicly. And Lowry presides over a magazine with a stable of writers that, however uneven, includes some brilliant conservatives with penetrating insights into the political past, present, and future.

So what is Lowry up to in his latest Politico column? Pegged to President Obama's Second Inaugural Address, it's headlined "Rush Was Right." Yes, the editor of National Review, afforded an opportunity to reach beyond the right to an audience of general readers, decided to use the opportunity to associate himself with and elevate America's most polarizing talk-radio host. In his capacity as a figurehead, that alone constitutes gross negligence and malpractice.

Here's how the column begins:

There should have been something for everyone in President Barack Obama's second inaugural address. For liberals, a full-throated call to arms. For conservatives, vindication. Obama settled once and for all the debate over his place on the political spectrum and his political designs. He's an unabashed liberal determined to shift our politics and our country irrevocably to the left. In other words, Obama's foes -- if you put aside the birthers and sundry other lunatics -- always had him pegged correctly.

If you listened to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, you got a better appreciation of Obama's core than by reading the president's friends and sophisticated interpreters, for whom he was either a moderate or a puzzle yet to be fully worked out. Rush, et al., doubted that Obama could have emerged from the left-wing milieu of Hyde Park, become in short order the most liberal U.S. senator, run to Hillary Clinton's left in the 2008 primaries and yet have been a misunderstood centrist all along. They heeded his record and his boast in 2008 about "fundamentally transforming the United States of America," and discounted the unifying tone of his rhetoric as transparent salesmanship. They got him right, even as he duped the Obamacons, played the press and fooled his sympathizers.

Yes, where could anyone have gotten the insight that Obama is a liberal determined to shift the country to the left but for Limbaugh, Hannity, and Ingraham? Wait, what's that you say? There were people at all points on the political spectrum who always understood that, including numerous National Review contributors? 


The decision to elevate the talkers here makes no sense.    

That's especially true because, while the talk-radio set definitely didn't mistake Obama for a conservative, it's only possible to credit them with giving their audience an accurate impression of Obama's core if you totally ignore all the indefensible analysis they've broadcast.

Why does Lowry ignore it? Why does he whitewash their commentary, as if Limbaugh never said things like:
  • President Obama's inherited Kenyan anti-colonial ideology is at the root of his deep hatred for America, which he is trying to dismantle brick by brick.
  • In Obama's America, black kids are beating up white kids on school buses and everyone thinks it is okay.
  • "When I look at Obama, I don't see black. I see a socialist. I see a Marxist. I see a guy who's got this country in his crosshairs."
  • "As far as Obama is concerned, the original flaw of slavery still exists, and this is what he and Bill Ayers are busy trying to teach as many young people in America as possible."

Do you still maintain, Rich, that Limbaugh listeners got an accurate distillation of Obama's core? Regarding Obama's intentions, do you actually believe that "Rush Limbaugh never mistook them in the first place?" Or do you think maybe you could have name-checked someone at your magazine who came closer to grasping Obama's core and understanding his intentions?

Someone who never trafficked in the idea that he was on a Kenyan-anti-colonialism-inspired effort to destroy America? Someone more deserving of a wide audience than Limbaugh, and  more capable of persuading non-Dittoheads? Isn't it at the core of your job to elevate those people?

****

On a related subject, James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal has responded to an item of mine titled, "Rush Limbaugh: 'You Know How to Stop Abortion? Require That Each One Occur with a Gun.'" That's one of several Limbaugh statements I quoted without much in the way of commentary. I merely remarked at the end, "With this guy as the most popular conservative entertainer in America, I can't imagine why the movement is having trouble reaching out to young people, minorities and women."

Says Taranto:

Can he really be this clueless? He reminds us of one of those sci-fi aliens or androids struggling to understand the mysterious human concept of "humor."

To be clear, he's questioning my sense of humor while defending the humor of the guy making abortion jokes. Now, my admittedly bizarre sense of humor isn't for everyone. But I find it so tiresome and inane when Limbaugh's apologists act as though the mere assertion that something is a joke is all that's needed to persuasively defend it. Believe me, Limbaugh critics understand that he frequently attempts a sort of humor. In fact, I rather think we have a more sophisticated understanding of it than Taranto, unless he is just playing dumb in his web column. 

Limbaugh's "joke" helps explain why he is so radioactive to so many women, as I suggested in my item, not only because of its subject -- abortion is arguably the hardest subject to joke about, full stop -- but because his particular joke is the sort that turns partly on the image it creates in the listener's head. In this case, that image is a gun being fired into the womb of a pregnant woman.   

Even apart from that, the joke isn't very good.

The fact that liberals would in fact oppose abortion if it involved firing a gun into the womb of the mother doesn't illuminate a hypocrisy or an unexamined liberal belief -- it's only "funny" insofar as you think there's humor in pointing out the fact that liberals hate guns and don't hate abortion. Conservatives are free to argue they're both killing, but it's a difficult place to find humor.

It's possible, in this instance, that Limbaugh didn't intend to create the aforementioned image in the mind of his audience. But if he did, that would be perfectly consistent with his brand of "humor." Here's how it works. He creates a parody, like his "Barack the Magic Negro" song, knowing that it's going to provoke liberals. They get mad and call him a racist, at which point he says, "But a liberal said it first -- I was satirizing the liberal." In fact, Limbaugh's actual aim is provoking a situation where he can do all of these things: (1) titillate the small subset of bigots in his audience; (2) titillate the larger subset of his audience that revels not in bigotry, but in transgressing against political correctness; (3) elicit from liberals the accusation that he is a bigot; (4) self-righteously insist that it's those liberals who are guilty of race obsession; and (5) elicit attention from everyone, including conservatives like Taranto, who foolishly enable Limbaugh by defending him.

What Taranto should understand is that the core problem with Limbaugh isn't that he's racist, or that he hates women; it's that he constantly, deliberately plays on American anxieties about race and gender to aggrandize himself. When his fly-by critics predictably react, exactly as he knows they will, he feigns martyr status, which conservatives inexplicably grant him, even after all these years. They don't just enable his cynical ploys, they also create in the minds of casual observers the impression that the conservative movement bends over backwards to defend skits like "Barack the Magic Negro" and terms like "Femi-nazi" and "jokes" like the one about how to get liberals to abandon abortion -- that conservatives put more energy into those defenses than opposing actual bigotry in America, or showing even modest sensitivity to various demographics that, no surprise, wind up voting overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party.

What's more android-like in its cluelessness, not seeing the humor in Limbaugh's latest abortion joke, or not grasping why the host is so reliably alienating to so many Americans?

Hint: Their sense of humor isn't the problem. 

__

Addendum for the inevitable comment about how "one of the trademarks of modern liberalism is its lack of a sense of humor." (1) I am not, in fact, a "modern liberal." (2) Chris Rock. Louis CK. Woody Allen. Mitch Hedberg. Ricky Gervais. Tina Fey. Jon Stewart. George Carlin. Stephen Colbert. Etc.

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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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