Rush Limbaugh Is Cheating on Conservatism With Donald Trump

A case study in the civil war raging through Republican Party politics

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Jeb Bush now portrays his struggling campaign for the Republican nomination as a vehicle for defending conservatism. “I do think it's important that the conservative party nominate a conservative, and someone that understands the role of America in the world,” he said. “What I want to do is make sure that the conservative cause is advanced. Not just in talk shows and think-tanks and wherever conservatism is talked about in all sorts of different ways, but in governing.”

He took aim at one of his rivals in particular: “The pursuit of that, of protecting the conservative cause, it's being hijacked by Donald Trump, who's not a conservative.”

The same day, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who has spent years insisting that Republicans can only win with conservative candidates, said this to his many listeners:

The Republican Party doesn't like the Republican base. They don't like conservatism. But there's something else that we've learned… if you look at the coalition Trump has put together, it is everything that the Republican Party claims they want, and they don't want it with Trump in charge of it.  They don't want it with Trump being the guy that attracts it. So it's more than just anti-conservatism and anti-base.  It's also anti-Trump.

Now, why would they not like Trump?  

Well, on the surface it's that, believe me, folks, when we're talking the establishment, they don't like Trump not because he’s not conservative.  That doesn't matter. The fact that he's not conservative in their minds actually would be a plus. Now, they can concoct all the reasons they want for it, but what is apparently obvious to me now is that in addition to opposing conservatism or the Republican base, there's also this cliquish, elitist club characteristic here that, if you're not in it -- and the only way you can get in it is to be accepted, to be invited. You can't succeed your way into it. This is important to understand.

You cannot be an overwhelming success in whatever you do and have that be the reason you get into the establishment elite political club.  You have to be a certain type. You have to come from a certain place. You have to be invited. Trump does not qualify on a whole lot of grounds, in a lot of ways. So even though Trump has the largest bloc of voters made up of exactly the kind of outreach the Republican claims it needs to win, they're rejecting it and don't want it.  Now, they're characteristic of business involved here, the donor class and their demands. There's psychology involved in all this, too. But when you boil it down, it is that the Republican Party. Yeah, they want to win, but only one way. They are content to lose if winning means conservatives dominate the party.

Fifteen years ago, the Republican Party, the conservative movement, the Bush political dynasty, and Rush Limbaugh all united behind the candidacy of George W. Bush.

All explicitly supported him in the name of conservatism.

Now Jeb Bush says that Republicans have to stop Trump lest conservatives lose control of the GOP. And Limbaugh is rejecting a Bush who is no less conservative than his brother, insisting that establishment guys like him want to destroy Trump out of disdainful elitism, even though Trump has been uniquely successful building a coalition out of the ostensibly conservative voters that constitute the GOP’s core.  

What changed?

If Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz were fighting for the Republican nomination, the split between their supporters could be parsed as two competing visions of conservatism. This race may yet pit Marco Rubio or Chris Christie against Ted Cruz. But for now, Trump remains the man to beat, even halfway through January 2016, and that tells us something: A large part of the GOP base supports a man who has never been an ideological conservative, and is less conservative than many of his rivals, because ideological conservatism is relatively unimportant to it.

In this, they resemble their favorite radio host.

Without admitting it to himself, more fully than ever before in his long political-talk career, Limbaugh has abandoned conservatism as his lodestar. All else being equal, he still prefers the ideology. But it’s now negotiable. He’d rather have a non-conservative nominee who attacks and is loathed by the Republican  establishment than a conservative who is conciliatory and appealing to moderates.

And Trump was uniquely suited to bring him to this point.

* * *

When Rush Limbaugh says, “You cannot be an overwhelming success in whatever you do and have that be the reason you get into the establishment elite political club––you have to be a certain type, you have to come from a certain place, you have to be invited,” there’s some truth to the statement. But it’s a strange way to describe Trump. The billionaire grew up rich in New York City. He went to fancy schools, earned an Ivy League diploma, and inherited a ton of money. One can easily be invited into the “establishment-elite political club” from a place like that! And Trump was invited. He attended the 1988 Republican National Convention as a guest of George H.W. Bush, the sitting vice president and GOP nominee.

Later, he cozied up to Bush’s successor.

As the New York Times reported, “the Clintons attended Mr. Trump’s wedding to his third wife, Melania. Mr. Trump also donated $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation, and Mr. Clinton is a member of one of the developer’s golf courses.” The two men even talked on the phone just before Trump announced his candidacy.

And in 2012 Mitt Romney sought Trump’s endorsement.

Of course, it’s unlikely that George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Mitt Romney all respected Donald Trump. Some or all of them likely regarded him as a gauche publicity-hound-turned-reality-TV-star with a sideline in beauty pageants. They just wanted to use Trump for his wealth and later for his fame. I doubt that Trump cared––he was using them, too, and he has long understood which Americans he most appeals to. Here’s what he told Larry King  in 1988, while attending that Republican National Convention as a guest of Bush the Elder:

“Are you a Bush Republican?” King asked.

“No,” Trump answered. “The people that I do best with drive the taxis,” he explained. “You know, wealthy people don’t like me because I’m competing with them all the time. And I like to win. I go down the streets and the people that really like me are the workers.”

It’s no wonder that Limbaugh likes Trump. The talk-radio host also got fantastically rich selling ego, bombast, and brazenness to the masses, elitist tastemakers be damned. They’ve both been used by politicians who don’t, in truth, have much respect for them. Limbaugh seems to identify so much with Trump that he has now conflated their respective stories. Read his quote about the GOP again:

You cannot be an overwhelming success in whatever you do and have that be the reason you get into the establishment-elite political club––you have to be a certain type, you have to come from a certain place, you have to be invited.

That isn’t Donald Trump’s story nearly so much as it is Rush Limbaugh’s story. Here it is as told by my colleague James Fallows in this magazine way back in 1994:

As recently as June 2, 1992, Limbaugh was free-swinging even against some Republicans. During the Republican primaries early that year Limbaugh had been very hard on George Bush for his recklessness and his deviation from the conservative line. Pat Buchanan's truculent campaign seemed matched to Limbaugh's outlook—and Limbaugh supported it on the air.

“Rush was a big help to us during the primary campaign,” Buchanan told me recently. “We used to travel around New Hampshire in the car, and Rush would come on the radio telling everybody that it would be a good thing to vote for Buchanan and shake Bush up.” When Ross Perot first entered the race, Limbaugh was sympathetic to him, too. Paul Colford quotes Limbaugh's comments about Perot on June 1, 1992: “I think Perot convinces people that they matter again.... Say what you want about his lack of specificity, he's also the one candidate who doesn't run from a problem.” Limbaugh criticizes Perot in his first book, but in the second simply ridicules him as a “hand grenade with a crewcut” and a “ubiquitous irritant.”

What happened?

On June 3 George Bush invited Rush Limbaugh to Washington. The two had dinner and took in a show together. Limbaugh stayed overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom—where, according to Colford, he placed calls to his relatives saying, “You'll never guess where I am!” and "remained awake into the wee hours so that he could study and savor every detail of the Lincoln Bedroom.” This kind of buttering-up may seem too obvious to be effective, as when Bill and Hillary Clinton started their “charm offensive” last summer by inviting White House reporters to dinner at the White House. But it generally works, and it worked miracles in Limbaugh's case.

From that day forward Limbaugh never said one word on his show that could be construed as hurting Bush's re-election effort (or at least none that I heard, and I was listening a lot at the time). Having proclaimed for years, and with good reason, that his show was so entertaining that it didn't need guests, he had both Bush and Quayle on the air and listened to them reverently. The significance of the change is not that Limbaugh backed Bush for re-election—millions of people did—but that one visit seemed to turn him around permanently. At the risk of pop-psychoanalyzing, something Limbaugh does every day on his show, let me suggest that his pliability is rooted in a strange insecurity.

The life story hinted at in Limbaugh's books and spelled out in Colford's is a familiar one for people who end up as either comedians or disc jockeys. Limbaugh's father, Rush Limbaugh Jr., was a prominent small-town lawyer who looked down on his son's infatuation with radio. Indeed, Limbaugh says that his father never took his career seriously until he saw Rush Limbaugh III on Nightline. The years of youthful wallowing in pop culture that make a good comedian or DJ often mean a troubled school career. The on-air bravado and effusiveness of Limbaugh and other born DJs is very often accompanied by shyness and uncertainty in normal life. The DJs who sound so suave and confident were usually not seen that way when they were growing up. Even the most successful disc jockeys have usually had to move from city to city every few years. Limbaugh's early life sounds as if it fit this pattern. Moreover, he was by objective standards a failure well into his thirties. He was fired from several DJ jobs, had two short and unsuccessful marriages, was chronically broke, and spent five long years as a public-relations man for the Kansas City Royals, fearing that his radio career was over.

Limbaugh tells a version of this story on the air and in his books to make a point about the need to hold on to your dream. That's a good point, but his bumpy life story seems to have left Limbaugh inwardly vulnerable to the respectable world he mocks on-air. I remember being amazed two years ago when Limbaugh on his show described his excitement about having lunch with Peter Jennings. Limbaugh by then had more impact on U.S. politics than any anchorman, yet despite his “talent on loan from God” bombast he was clearly grateful for attention from someone he considered famous. The same tone came through in a profile of Limbaugh by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. Limbaugh could mock liberals and “feminizes” on the air, but in person he was (Dowd made clear) very eager to be liked.

George Bush, or someone near him, clearly figured out the political benefits of being nice to Limbaugh. There was an intellectual counterpart to this wooing process. As Limbaugh became more and more a party operative, his subject matter shifted too—from positions he'd developed to those he had obviously been fed.

Limbaugh was invited to visit the White House during both Bush presidencies. National Review, the Heritage Foundation, and the Claremont Institute have all honored him.

But at some point he figured out that the Bushes don’t value him for his intellect; that while he has some real fans at conservative think tanks, large factions of their conservative staffs regard him with the same embarrassment that Archie Bunker's daughter, Gloria, felt when her dad would go on one of his rants in front of company; and that his tremendous success on the radio didn’t translate into the sort of respect or influence or deference or validation that he had once imagined it would. I don’t think lack of pedigree is high on the list of reasons that Limbaugh is disliked so intensely by so many, but I can see why he would tell himself that story. And he seems to care more about this stuff, to have a bigger chip on his shoulder, than Trump.

Of course, breaking up with GOP elites hasn’t been hard for anyone to do.

Even apart from any personal factors, Limbaugh, who is very intelligent, couldn’t help but observe the ways in which a series of Republicans he championed, from Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush to Tom Delay, cynically exploited movement conservatives, only to disappoint them time after time after time. Recall what Limbaugh said in 2006 when the Democrats won the midterm elections: “I feel liberated, and I'm just going to tell you as plainly as I can why. I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don't think deserve having their water carried.”

Call it a portent of the Tea Party.

But rather than carry no water this cycle, Limbaugh is carrying a lot of it for Trump, as if seeking validation from him will go any better than it did when he sought it from Bushes. (We’re all a single criticism away from The Donald calling us a yuge loser.) In doing so, his appeals to conservatism ring more hollow than ever before.

On the right, everybody is always throwing around the world conservative. It polls well. The connotations are positive among Republicans. It has a strong brand.

And Limbaugh is right that Bush doesn’t dislike Trump due to a lack of conservatism. Bush dislikes Trump because he’s a crude, twice-divorced bully with no sense of propriety or noblesse oblige. Trump is antithetical to Bush’s values and manners. As a kid, Barbara never would’ve allowed him to play with a boy like that!

At the same time, Limbaugh doesn’t believe that Trump is more conservative than Jeb Bush. Trump’s heresies against movement conservatism are too numerous and significant for a man as intelligent as Limbaugh to be credulous on the subject.

But Limbaugh seemingly no longer believes in the Buckley rule. He no longer considers conservatism the most important factor in elections. The impulse to destroy the establishment drives him more than any constructive vision. If Limbaugh can antagonize the Bushes, the mainstream media, the Hollywood liberals and the GOP establishment all at once by aligning himself with a Sarah Palin or a Donald Trump, the opportunity is too good to pass up, because Limbaugh is less invested in winning some ideological battles than fighting a culture war.

Limbaugh finds the billionaire particularly validating because although Trump is a coastal elite from Manhattan––a mainstream media elite, even, who had his very own show on NBC––he really has succeeded in spite of elite tastemakers, not because of them. And even though Trump could’ve chosen to assimilate to their norms, behaviors, and aesthetics at any time, he’s chosen to flip them the middle finger instead before walking back into his skyscraper with his name written in gold at the top.

Like all successful reality TV, half the audience is watching in horror and the other half in aspiration.