Brian Rosenwald: They just wanted to entertain
Limbaugh isn’t solely or mostly responsible for conservatism’s decline, but he is partly responsible. He spent several decades running interference for whoever was leading the Republican Party, only to complain later that those same Republicans were corrupt swamp creatures. Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Trump differed greatly in their worldviews and policy agendas, but Limbaugh, always more a partisan warrior than an intellectual leader with independent convictions, aligned with each just at the height of his or her power in the GOP, even in years when fiscal profligacy under Republican leadership meant ballooning budget deficits and debt. Nor is fiscal conservatism the only core belief Limbaugh jettisoned.
In the 1990s, no one spent more time than Limbaugh insisting on the importance of character in a president. “This, ultimately, is why the issue of character is so important,” he wrote in his 1992 best seller, The Way Things Ought to Be. “Liberals wig out when character becomes an issue, because many of their candidates are of dubious character.” In the aughts, no one spent more time deflecting Democratic attacks against President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. But when Trump, a former Democrat and serial adulterer who lied constantly, became a Republican and ran for president characterizing Bush’s foreign policy as an unmitigated disaster, Limbaugh got on board as people with deeper commitments to conservatism went Never Trump. While never a RINO, he became a conservative in name only.
For Limbaugh, most standards mattered only as long as they were useful weapons in a given moment. “Without question there is a rising clamor for change, not only in our political institutions and establishment, but in the policies and directions which emanate from them,” Limbaugh wrote in 1992, when he was aligned with the establishment Bush family against the insurgent Ross Perot. “The key to change, though, will be found inside, not outside the system among politically experienced people who are ethical, honest, and moral—characteristics that do matter, despite how loudly they are pooh-poohed by the liberal elite. Outsiders, and those who present themselves as such, will ultimately end up as carcasses strewn across the countryside, false prophets of a false premise.” When aligning with Trump, he contravened all those ideas.
Limbaugh’s shiftiness applied beyond partisan politics to the culture war, in which he took glee in skewering what he saw as frivolous accusations of racism perpetrated by frequent foils such as Al Sharpton, even as the perennially color-conscious talk-radio host established himself as a race-baiter as promiscuous as any. Hired as an NFL commentator in 2003, Limbaugh immediately fixated on the race of a Black quarterback. In 2009, I wrote about how often he accused others of racism:*
Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates? “He’s a racist,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “He's an angry racist.” Sonja Sotomayor? “She's a bigot. She’s a racist,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “How can a president nominate such a candidate? And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That’s what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive.” President Obama? He’s “the biggest reverse racist in history.”
Democrats generally? “The racism that everybody thinks exists on our side of the aisle has been on full display throughout their primary campaign.” Liberals? “You know, racism in this country is the exclusive province of the left.” The media? “We’re witnessing racism all this week that led up to the inauguration. We’re being told that we have to hope he succeeds. That we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father’s black, because this is the first black president.”
“The days of them not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang. 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, it’s mistreatment of minorities. I know exactly what’s going on.”
In one particularly odious example of fueling divisive racial paranoia, Limbaugh told his audience, “It’s Obama’s America, is it not? Obama’s America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. 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.”