How Rush Limbaugh Decides What Is True

The talk-radio star explains his epistemology: True conservatives are always right.

Something special happened Monday on the Rush Limbaugh radio program. Its host set out to explain why conservatives won't be defending New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during the bridge scandal in the same way that they rallied behind Clarence Thomas during his 1991 nomination to the Supreme Court. And in doing so, Limbaugh provided an unusually frank account of how he and his followers reach snap judgments about what is true and what isn't true. This monologue laid bare the epistemology of talk-radio "conservatism."

The backstory is straightforward enough: George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court; Democrats opposed the nomination; Anita Hill came forward to allege that she'd been sexually harassed by the nominee; he denied the charges, and he accused the Senate of subjecting him to a "high-tech lynching." Liberals and conservatives are still at odds over who was telling the truth.*

When the controversy began, Limbaugh reminisces, he didn't know who the nominee was. "I didn't know Clarence Thomas," he recalled. "I had never met Clarence Thomas. I had to read about Clarence Thomas to find out who he was." 

Nonetheless, "I began the biggest, full-throated defense of Clarence Thomas that there was, and I didn't know him. I'd never met him. I had to read and find out who he was and, you know, about his life, the things he'd done, where he'd worked, gone to school. Yet I didn't feel I was taking a risk at all in a full-throated, never-ending, full-fledged not only defense of Clarence Thomas, but an attack, a returned attack on Anita Hill and the Democrats. Now, how was I able to do this with such confidence, not having met the man, not having known the man?"

I'd begun to wonder that myself. Fortunately, Limbaugh goes on to explain himself, but first he underscores the degree to which he took Thomas's side immediately:

I was doing an appearance on Saturday when the Anita Hill stuff really hit, and all of the outrageous allegations, the "pubic hair on the Coke can" and all the sexual harassment stuff, and I can't tell you how livid I was. I spent the entire almost two hours on stage that night (it was a Saturday) talking about this, and how sick it made me and how angry it made me. The reason that I—and I have been fully vindicated, by the way—was able to defend Clarence Thomas with total confidence against this, is that I knew he didn't do it. 

But how? Having heard, amidst a live performance, about specific sexual-harassment allegations involving two people he knew almost nothing about, alleged to have taken place some years before in a private setting, how did Limbaugh instantly discern who was being truthful and feel "total confidence" in doing so?

I didn't think I was risking anything. I really didn't. If I'd had the slightest doubt of his innocence, I woulda never opened my mouth. If I thought that there was just a tiny thread of possibility that what Anita Hill was saying and what the Democrat witnesses were saying was true, I woulda stayed silent. But I didn't. I went to the equivalent of the mountaintops and started shouting. Now, why? Character, conservatism, and my knowledge of the left.

He knew that Thomas was a conservative, and that his political adversaries were leftists. And that's all it took to "know" that Thomas was innocent. Evidently, no true conservative would ever sexually harass anyone, and no leftists would tell the truth about being sexually harassed by a conservative.

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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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