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.
Limbaugh offered all this to make a point about Christie and the dearth of people defending him:
Christie may well be worth defending, is my point. I don't know. He may well be worth a Clarence Thomas-type defense, but notice that nobody is coming forth with one. They've all got that caveat. "He's home free IF he's not lying." This is not a comment about Governor Christie, so please don't misunderstand or be confused. I'm trying to illustrate (What's the word?) the emptiness of the Republican ... I'm trying to make the point that over there in the RINO Club, the Republican establishment, the wildebeests, whatever, there's not an ideology. There's not a belief system. There's not a foundation on which to base a defense, as I had with Clarence Thomas—and, by the way, he's not alone.
Got that? Were Christie and his supporters all true conservatives, they would be assured that Christie is in the right. Whereas as non-conservatives, the only way to ascertain the truth is a dispassionate analysis, qualified with hedges such as, If he's lying about everything, then he isn't blameless after all. Christie may well be innocent, Limbaugh argues, but no one can know for sure because he isn't a conservative.
Then he introduces another wrinkle:
It's just every Republican who has entered the fray defending Christie has to put a caveat out there "if he's telling the truth." Now, if there were a fervent ideological foundation, if there was a substantive reason of believing in Governor Christie, then whether he lied wouldn't matter. They'd be out there defending him left and right just to make sure the Democrats don't get away with this. And I'll admit that was part of the reason that I jumped into Clarence Thomas. There was no way they were gonna get away with this if I had the ability to have a little bit of something to do with it. There's no way. I wasn't gonna sit there and put up with this. I'd done enough to find out he was a fine man and know this was a witch hunt. They were out to seek and destroy.
But if Christie lied, then his accusers wouldn't be "getting away with" anything, would they? Their attacks would be accurate. Unless, Limbaugh seems to be saying, Christie was a true conservative, in which case the attacks on him would be illegitimate, because attacks on true conservatives are by definition illegitimate, at least when they're coming from leftists. It's sort of like the Richard Nixon/John Yoo theory that if the president does it, then it isn't illegal,—except applied to misconduct and true conservatives. I can't say that Limbaugh is the only commentator who conducts himself as if this ideological method of deciding what to believe is sound, but I've never seen anyone embrace it openly and self-consciously.
True conservatives cannot fail, they can only be failed. They cannot sexually harass leftists. They can only be falsely accused. That is Rush Limbaugh's ideology. I'm not sure what to call it. But it isn't deserving of the name conservatism.
*If it matters, I am agnostic as to what transpired, believe that Clarence Thomas is qualified to sit on the Supreme Court, and wish his default mode was safeguarding liberty rather than selective, idiosyncratic originalism.
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