Ignoring The Racial Demagoguery

by Conor Friedersdorf

Over at Commentary, I fear there has been a mistake. This essay on Rush Limbaugh purports to defend the man against wrongheaded critics. Try as I might, however, I can't find the paragraphs where the strongest arguments against the talk radio host are laid out. The refutations of those arguments seem to be missing too. It's awful when a site's content management system renders a piece so glaringly incomplete, especially when its author accusses others of existing in an information bubble.

Wilfred McClay does do a good job explaining El Rushbo's reach:

Like it or not, Rush Limbaugh is unarguably one of the most important figures in the political and cultural life of the United States in the past three decades. His national radio show has been on the air steadily for nearly 23 years and continues to command a huge following, upward of 20 million listeners a week on 600 stations. The only reason it is not even bigger is that his success has spawned so many imitators, a small army of talkers such as Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, and so on, who inevitably siphon off some of his market share.

That is a succinct explanation of why I spend so much time criticizing the man, despite the fact that if his words were judged on their intellectual merit, rather than their influence, he wouldn't be worth anyone's time. When pernicious content comes from his mouth, as it so often does, it actually matters.

We're also treated to a description of Limbaugh's talent as a broadcaster:

He is equipped with a resonant and instantly recognizable baritone voice and an unusually quick and creative mind, a keen and independent grasp of political issues and political personalities, andwhat is perhaps his greatest talentan astonishing ability to reformulate complex ideas in direct, vivid, and often eloquent ways, always delivering his thoughts live and unscripted, out there on the high wire.

There is just one factual inaccuracy here: the talk radio host does not have an "independent" grasp of political issues: as he has acknowledged, his habit is to carry water for the Republican Party even when he doesn't think they deserve it.

Here he is after President Obama's election:

I feel liberated, and I'm just going to tell you as plainly as I can why. I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don't think deserve having their water carried. Now, you might say, "Well, why have you been doing it?" Because the stakes are high. Even though the Republican Party let us down, to me they represent a far better future for my beliefs and therefore the country's than the Democrat [sic] Party does and liberalism.

And I believe my side is worthy of victory, and I believe it's much easier to reform things that are going wrong on my side from a position of strength. Now, I'm liberated from having to constantly come in here every day and try to buck up a bunch of people who don't deserve it, to try to carry the water and make excuses for people who don't deserve it.

It's as clear an admission of partisan hackery as you'll ever see. Anyway, the piece gives us one more passage of insight:

He has a deep-in-the-bones feeling for what is magical about radio at its bestits immediacy, its simplicity, its ability to create the richness of imagined places and moments with just a few well-placed elements of sound, its incomparable advantages as a medium for storytelling with the pride of place that it gives to the spoken word and the individual human voice, abstracted from all other considerations. He probably also understands why he himself is not nearly so good on TV, faced as he is with the classic McLuhanesque problem of a hot personality in a cool medium.

But what can we make of this?

Without Limbaugh’s influence, talk radio might well have become a dreary medium of loud voices, relentless anger, and seething resentment, the sort of thing that the New York screamer Joe Pyne had pioneered in the 50s and 60s“go gargle with razor blades,” he liked to tell his callers as he hung up on themand that one can still see pop up in some of Limbaugh’s lesser epigones.

The "lesser epigones" are apparent references to Mark Levin – better to gargle with razor blades than put a gun to your temple! – but is the substance of Rush Limbaugh's admittedly less angry sounding rhetoric any less noxious? Usually I'd revel in explaining why, but for once I'm going to outsource this portion of the talk radio dissection to Jonathan Chait, who gets it exactly right in this post.

The Commentary article tells us, "he is aware that every word he utters on the air is being recorded and tracked by his political enemies in the hope that he will slip up and say something career-destroying. Limbaugh the judo master is delighted to make note of this surveillance, with the same delight he expresses when one of his “outrageous” sound bites makes the rounds of the mainstream media."

Chait responds:

"Surveillance" is funny word to use here -- it is generally thought to apply to the unwanted monitoring of private conversation, not the practice of listening to political diatribes broadcast on national radio so as to rebut them.

And why do Limbaugh's enemies "surveill" his program in the belief that he will destroy his career? McClay won't come out and explain, so allow me: Limbaugh is a racial demagogue. He plays constantly upon the racial paranoia of his audience. If he were black, we would call him a "race man."

I illustrated that same point here, noting that he's frivolously accused so many people of racism in recent years he has likely surpassed Al Sharpton.

Chait continues:

Limbaugh is obsessed with race. In his telling, racism against whites does not just happen here or there, it has overwhelmed -- indeed, completely replaced -- traditional white-on-black racism. "Racism in this country is the exclusive province of the left," he says. In Limbaugh's world, minorities deploy racism endlessly and with impunity against whites, who are hamstrung by out-of-control political correctness. He presents Obama's agenda as the blacks' revenge against White America for slavery and Jim Crow. ("He's angry, he's gonna cut this country down to size, he's gonna make it pay for all the multicultural mistakes that it has made, its mistreatment of minorities.") Even such disparate events as a random school bus fight between a couple kids who happen to be black and a kid who happens to be white reveal, in Limbaugh's fevered mind, a widespread pattern of racial victimization against whites triggered by Obama:

You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama's America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, "Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on," and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he's white.

This is another interesting quality of Limbaugh's. He stands in stark contrast to the general pattern of a Republican Party that has steadily distanced itself from racialized appeals to whites. McClay, obviously, can't acknowledge that, either. Instead he offers up descriptions of Limbaugh such as "he reminds one of the affirmative spirit of Ronald Reagan and, like Reagan, reminds his listeners of the better angels of their nature."

In partisan politics, the knee-jerk reaction is to defend whoever on your side is being attacked in the media, whether they're right or wrong. What's happened lately is that Rush Limbaugh makes a remark that is intentionally racially provocative, knowing he'll be attacked in the media for it – the offensive mockery of Chinese dialect is the latest example – and true to form, many on the right defend him, no matter how outrageous his remarks.

Apparently they're oblivious to the problem: the knee-jerk instinct to rally around your ieological ally is problematic in this case because it entails rallying around a racial provacateer who consistently exploits America's fraught relationship with race in order to play on the anxieties and prejudices of his audience.

For all Rush Limbaugh's supposed brilliance and quick-wittedness, he would be terrified to debate a critic in a neutral written form – he knows that stripped of his broadcasting mastery, call screeners, and a medium where flawed arguments drift into the ether without rebuttal, his ideas would be shown for the weak, contemptible, indefensible nonsense that they are. A bully in the recording studio, he is too cowardly to test himself in direct debate on the Web.