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?"