Don't Call Rush Limbaugh a Racist

The talk radio host is no earnest bigot. He's a cynical businessman who plays on the anxieties of his listeners.

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If the troops are not paid by their commander in chief -- I have a question. If the troops still engage in battle, if they go to war and they execute the orders issued by their commanders, if the troops are thus not paid by their commander in chief, are they his slaves? ...I mean, it's one thing, folks -- and we can all agree on this -- it's one thing to have to pick cotton. But to be forced to risk your life overseas without being paid, that's the worst kind of forced labor to me... if these guys expect these troops to stay on the job, it sure sounds like Obama has more in common with President Jefferson Davis than he does with President Lincoln. ~ Rush Limbaugh, discussing the prospect of a government shutdown last week.

This is a perfect passage for understanding Rush Limbaugh.

His object is to provoke outrage and garner attention. And so he calculates. How to spin the day's news in the most offensive way imaginable? Let's see, we've got a black president, and I've been implicated in several racially tinged controversies, so why not compare him to a slave holder? Plus I can riff off his Abraham Lincoln complex by adding that he's actually more like a Confederate. Ha. Comparing our first black president to Jefferson Davis! That will get 'em going.

The usual outcome when Limbaugh says things like this is that he is accused by someone of being a racist. It allows him to go back on the air, feign outrage - as if a man genuinely wounded by being accused of racism would constantly frame his political commentary in the most racially provocative terms imaginable - and play on the anxieties of his audience, many of whom see accusations of racism as little more than a cudgel used by the left to discredit conservatives. They've occasionally been used that way, and the talk radio host exploits that fact. What some of Limbaugh's critics misunderstand is that he isn't someone who is prejudiced against minorities so much as a man who cynically plays on the racial anxieties of others in order to boost his ratings. Its arguably more odious than the rhetoric of an earnest bigot.

Cynical provocation isn't a new strategy for the talk radio host: