How Rush Limbaugh Learned to Love Character Flaws

An illustration of the right’s self-conscious turn away from long-held values

Rush Limbaugh
Micah Walter / Reuters

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

Conservatives who spent their career decrying moral relativism are now openly embracing it. That’s the argument Jonathan Chait recently made, flagging articles by Roger Kimball and Henry Olsen as examples.

Days later, Rush Limbaugh offered a more naked illustration of the trend. In the erstwhile conservative’s telling, Mitt Romney, who criticized President Donald Trump’s character in The Washington Post, embodies an “out of touch” Republican establishment that is “unable to adapt.” They still think character matters. Limbaugh says he used to be like them:

I remember the 1992 campaign. I myself engaged in this. It was thought that if people would just learn about the massive character defects of Bill Clinton, that no way would they elect him president, because, at the time, it was widely believed that character was the most important qualification. I remember reading to you from The Federalist Papers, James Madison describing exactly why character was paramount in a president, in a chief executive of the United States. Without character and without the required morality stemming from a belief in God, that there is no way the job could be properly performed … Character in the chief executive was a central qualification for the Founders.

Limbaugh would tout that position for many years:

So back in the campaign of ’92 and all throughout the Clinton presidency, we harped on the deficiency in character. When he would show up in the Oval Office after a jog, sweaty, in ball cap and T-shirt—in the Oval Office!—with a bunch of floozies hanging on his arm posing for pictures, we said, “This is disrespectful to the office!” The American people said, “Pfft you!” When the Lewinsky stuff came up, we thought the American people would finally see what a character defect he had. In fact, in the ’96 campaign, there’s Bob Dole out there, and one of his major campaign phrases is “Where’s the outrage?”

What he meant was, Why aren’t people outraged over the character deficiencies of this guy? Everybody knew that he had cheated on his wife who knows how many times, the Whitewater stuff. He was a walking character defect. And you know what? Even though it was all true, it didn’t matter.

When Limbaugh kept going, it seemed at first that he would argue in favor of character despite voters’ indifference:

Well … the Never Trumper crowd and the conservative-literature crowd, they’re still back in those days. They still believe that the No. 1 way to overcome Cortez or Pelosi or Obama is with character. Good manners. Articulate. Compassion. Where are they? What kind of a factor is it, really? We can sit here and lament the fact that it doesn’t seem to be an important thing to a lot of people anymore. But that does happen to be the fact. It doesn’t mean you abandon it. Don’t misunderstand. It doesn’t mean you throw people overboard and yourself.

Yet Limbaugh began arguing in the very next sentence that conservatives should abandon their former concerns in the name of expediency:

But when the objective is winning elections, and if something comes along and doesn’t matter. And here comes Donald Trump, and there is nobody, even the people that vote for him, gonna tell you he’s a paragon of virtue. He’s a paragon of some kinds of virtues, but he’s not a paragon of character, and there’s nobody in the world who expects him to be and nobody voted for him hoping he would be.

It wasn’t the slightest bit of a factor for people who voted for him. Because the situation on the ground, the reality of life in America, is far more dangerous. Stopping Hillary Clinton was paramount. There’s nothing else that mattered. There was nothing else that got even close to mattering. Stopping Hillary Clinton and the continuation and the intensification of the Obama agenda meant saving this country.

Of course, the GOP electorate chose Trump in its primary, too. Limbaugh continued:

Well, the Romney crowd thinks that’s laughable. Country’s never threatened. America doesn’t need to be saved. America is America. There’s nothing that’ll ever happen to America, certainly not internally. They think the idea that America’s in some kind of crisis is literally laughable …

Many proudly announced they voted for Hillary, they were so repulsed by Donald Trump! It’s with all of that as the foundation that Romney wrote this silly op-ed in which he tried to say, Some Trump policies are really good, but I can’t support him because the guy is such a reprobate.

Here’s what Romney actually stated:

I will act as I would with any president, in or out of my party: I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not. I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault. But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.

In savaging Romney’s op-ed, Limbaugh was not merely standing against character criticism in a binary election against a Democrat who he thought would be worse overall for the country. He was standing against any character criticism of Republican presidents, even criticism coupled with explicit support for conservative parts of their agenda. To support Trump as Limbaugh thinks conservatives should, it isn’t enough to vote for his worthy ideas. One must hold one’s tongue.

Limbaugh said:

Well, none of us is clean and pure; none of us is impeccable. I don’t care what image any of us have created for ourselves, and I don’t care what buzz we’ve got the media reporting. There’s not a one of us that does not have character defects. The idea that superior people are defined by their character and nothing else is one of the greatest political lost opportunities because these people are—in fact, I actually think this devotion to character they have is simply an excuse.

It’s simply a way for them to constantly say they are better people than Trump. The most amazing thing—and I say this to anybody who will listen—these are people, the conservative intelligentsia, the conservative Never Trumpers, the conservative intellectuals, they have devoted their lives ostensibly to the implementation of conservative ideas because of their importance, because they work, because they’re good for America.

And here for the most part they are watching the things they’ve devoted their lives to be implemented, and they hate it! And they’re opposing it! And they’re trying to stop it! And it doesn’t make any sense.

In the space of a few paragraphs, Limbaugh went from recounting his own bygone stance that liberals should’ve removed Clinton from office, despite agreeing with his substantive agenda, because of his character; to asserting that conservatives should still care about character, even if no one else does, even if they hold their nose to win elections; to asserting that it doesn’t make “any sense” for conservatives to criticize a sitting president when he is implementing policies they like. The self-contradiction was glaring, yet he didn’t recognize it.

Amazingly, Limbaugh then circled back through the whole cycle, resurfacing his attitude about Clinton, only to end with an even more contradictory position––that Trump’s character flaws might be a good thing:

It’s what we tried to say about Clinton. It didn’t work then. Now we can lament that it didn’t work and we can wish and hope that character mattered. But, frankly, what would you rather have right now? Obama’s character was said to be impeccable, folks. I mean, let’s just cut to the chase. Obama’s character was unassailable. And by character, I mean the guy wasn’t a philanderer. He lied, yeah, but they were political lies, and you know how people look at political lies.

But in terms of being a rogue or being a dubious cad, he wasn’t. And the guy was just as destructive as anybody we’ve had in the Oval Office in terms of policy. And that’s what these people can’t get past. They look at Obama as the model! Well, the problem is that most Republican voters these days do not accept this premise that Trump’s character is more important than what he’s doing. Because what he’s doing trumps everything as far as his voters are concerned, and Romney cannot fathom this, nor can the Never Trumpers.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that a lot of Trump voters find his character, his tweeting, and his direct, on-point talk at people as part of his virtue. The guy’s willing to say it like it is. The guy’s willing to get outside the normal political boundaries and call these people out, and we’ve been wanting that. And not to be gratuitously attacking, just tell the truth about it to people. To some people this is a character virtue. It isn’t a defect.

But to people like Romney and the Never Trumpers, it’s get-the-vapors time. They want him to tweet less; they want him to speak less. But these people are just oblivious. They are 25 years behind times. It’s almost as though it’s a self-promoting thing. We are better than Trump. We’re smarter than Trump. We have better character. We should be the ones being listened to. It’s a sign of all the division in the party that, man, if it weren’t there, we could really be scoring some big gains.

And that’s where Limbaugh ended up: Maybe Trump, whose character flaws he acknowledged moments before, is in fact a virtuous truth teller. Maybe his critics are disingenuous virtue signalers, and Republicans could get a lot more done if people would stop talking about character.

As ever, the talk-radio host’s thoughts were an inconsistent mess. But they can be boiled down to partisanship-driven moral relativism. Character critiques are legitimate or even noble when aimed at Democrats, but naive, suspect, and even illegitimate if they might constrain elected Republicans from exercising greater political power.