For almost a decade, I’ve been angrily documenting the way that many right-wing talk-radio hosts betray the rank-and-file conservatives who trust them for information. My late grandmother was one of those people. She deserved better than she got. With huge platforms and massive audiences, successful hosts ought to take more care than the average person to be truthful and avoid misinforming listeners. Yet they are egregiously careless on some days and willfully misleading on others.
And that matters, as we’ll come to see.
Rush Limbaugh is easily the most consequential of these hosts. He has an audience of millions. And over the years, parts of the conservative movement that ought to know better, like the Claremont Institute, have treated him like an honorable conservative intellectual rather than an intellectually dishonest entertainer. The full cost of doing so became evident this year, when a faction of populists shaped by years of talk radio, Fox News, and Breitbart.com picked Donald Trump to lead the Republican Party, a choice that makes a Hillary Clinton victory likely and is a catastrophe for movement conservatism regardless of who wins.
“Rush Limbaugh, no matter his protestations otherwise, is one of the main reasons Donald Trump is the nominee for the GOP today,” Caleb Howe writes at Red State. “Like Fox News and other Republican media, he has cheered for Trump and Trump's rhetoric and Trump's rise all along.” And he failed to warn his listeners about what would likely follow if Donald Trump won the Republican primaries.
Had Limbaugh merely failed to foresee the future that would be forgivable, especially if he took responsibility for the failure. Instead, Limbaugh betrayed his listeners. And a call this week on his program is the quintessential illustration of his betrayal.
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The caller was named Rick and lives in Los Angeles. The subject: various positions Trump has staked out on illegal immigration, particularly a recent reversal where he suggested he may not deport everyone. Why didn’t the conservative media inform voters about the unreliability of Trump, who had only recently criticized Mitt Romney for being too harsh on immigration, during the GOP primaries, when he pledged a course that was politically and logistically impossible?
Rick broached those questions in his call:
Rick: I just wanted to comment on your comment that you just made about Trump and his deportation shift. I just distinctly heard you say that it’s not considered a flip flop. You’re doing a disservice to all of us Republican primary voters who didn’t vote for Trump, who are struggling with whether or not to vote for Trump, when you diminish the impact of his single policy that he ridiculed all other candidates for...
I mean, John Kasich classically said on the debate stage, he laughingly said, “Come on folks, this isn’t serious, he’s not gonna deport everyone.” And Trump went ahead and ridiculed everybody who wasn’t for deportation. For all of us who were saying that it was a con job, a snow job, that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that he’s unqualified to be president—for you to sit here and say, when he adopts the positions of everybody he ridiculed as not even being a flip flop and it’s no big deal?! This is why so many Republicans have such a hard time going to the con man.
Rush Limbaugh: Well, in the first place, I don’t think Trump has actually changed that much from what he said. And I’m also not aware that he told every Republican that they had to agree with him or else whatever he was going to do to them…
Rick: With all due respect, Rush, on Chuck Todd’s show, he specifically said, when asked the question, “You mean you’re going to rip the families apart?”
He said, “No, I’m not going to rip the families apart, they all have to go, even the U.S. citizen children.”
He then got into the middle of the debate, and the argument between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, when Ted wanted legalization and Marco wanted citizenship as part of a comprehensive plan. He said that they were both wrong, that they were both being absurd, that they all had to go “or we don’t have a nation of laws.” Come on! You were watching the debates as well as the rest of us were. You know exactly what he said and you know exactly the way he ridiculed everybody on that stage.
Rush Limbaugh: Yeah, well I guess the difference is—well not the difference, I guess the thing is, this is gonna enrage you. You know, I could choose a path here to try to mollify you, but I never took him seriously on this!
Rick: 10 million people did.
Rush Limbaugh: Yeah, and they still don’t care. My point is they still don’t care. They’re gonna stick with him no matter what.
Rick: But this is why Trump is going to get annihilated. Because nobody called him out early on about his absurd policies.
Rush Limbaugh: Yes they did! For crying out loud, 15 candidates called him out. Everybody was calling him out. Everybody was calling him an idiot and a charlatan and a phoney-boloney plastic banana—everybody was.
Rick: Except unfortunately the number one place where Republican primary voters get their news.
Rush Limbaugh: Oh no, it’s on me and we’re out of time––
Rick: Which is Fox.
Rush Limbaugh: Oh, he said Fox, I thought he was dumping on me.
Caller Rick should have concluded by calling out Rush Limbaugh. The Chuck Todd interview from August 16, 2015, is just as Rick characterized it, with Trump declaring that he wouldn’t split up families because the whole unit would be deported. The next day, August 17, 2015, here is what Rush Limbaugh said on his program:
He goes on Meet the Press yesterday and, have to tell you, the establishment is shocked, angry, saddened. He came off as presidential. He had a serious immigration plan. And the key to Trump's immigration plan is that it almost dovetails exactly with public opinion on immigration. You know, it's kind of stunning. We got 16 Republican candidates now, and there's only one of them—only one—with a unique view or different view on immigration. It's Trump.
It's obvious that that issue is the foundational issue for Trump, and I think for Trump to blow this he would have to change immigration. He'd have to backtrack, which he's not gonna do. But I'm just saying, all the other stuff … You know, "Is he conservative/is he liberal?" I still don't think that people in what we call the establishment (some call it the ruling class) inside-the-Beltway get it.
Here is Limbaugh a few sentences later:
Sixteen people are running for the presidency, and 15 of them are perceived … I know they would argue with this, but 15 of them are perceived to have essentially the same policy on immigration. One of them is entirely different from the other 15, and he's the one who's leading. Now, don't you think people inside the Beltway should be able to look at this and put two and two together and figure out what is causing this?
They can chalk it up to celebrity, they can chalk it up to pop culture, they can chalk it up to circus. But it's not. It is due to substance and it is due to immigration, and with Trump releasing this comprehensive immigration plan yesterday … You know, all these questions of who's a real conservative have been obviated here. Even that question, "Who is that a real conservative?" is up for grabs now.
As if that wasn’t clear enough, Limbaugh goes on to excoriate Arthur Brooks of AEI for suggesting that voters who believe Trump on illegal immigration are being duped:
Arthur Brooks yesterday is talking about (are you ready for this?) the low-information voters supporting Trump. I saw that, and I really stopped on a dime and did a double-take. Look at who they think low-information voters are inside the Beltway!
...The point is, look who they think the low-information voters are. Look who the inside-the-Beltway people think the LIVs are. You people! According to Arthur Brooks, you who support Trump are the mind-numbed, uneducated, uninformed low-information voters, and they are confident that you're gonna see the light at some point. That's what I meant about this been a barnburner weekend … Now, there are pieces being written by conservative intellectuals explaining who the real conservatives are and who the real conservatives aren't and what makes a real conservative and what constitutes a fake conservative. And if you support Trump, you are a fake conservative, and you are dangerous, and somehow you're gonna have to be rescued and brought back into the fold here. But you are under the spell of some Svengali (i.e., Trump).
That is outright mockery of the notion that Trump is duping conservatives.
It would be absurd for a listener to come away from the segment with any conclusion other than that Limbaugh believed Trump was taking an earnest, substantive position on deporting illegal immigrants; that other Republicans should follow suit; that Trump wouldn’t reverse himself; and that it is, in fact, an insult to Trump voters to even suggest they are being misled by the billionaire’s candidacy.
After another break, Limbaugh told his audience that the Trump position on immigration was both the only rational position for a Republican Party that wants to avoid an influx of illegal immigrants that end up voting for Democrats, and a position that an outright majority of Americans actually support. He said that if not for Beltway elites, it is the immigration policy that the United States would have, and speculated that Trump might cause everyone to adopt something similar.
He could not be more clear that Trump meant what he said:
The American people haven't seen anything like this. It's a teachable moment here. Standing up for what you believe after you say it and doubling down on it is rewarding. All of this so-called political correctness has been a myth.
Oh, it's there. But the fact that the American people on a majority basis buy into it has been a myth. So that's why the me-toos are now going to start springing up.
And he was clear that he agreed with Trump.
“It's a validation of what common sense has always thought. Fight back against some of this stuff! You'll be rewarded,” Limbaugh said, before characterizing the hardline on immigration as a principled stand that amounts to an endorsement of America: “And not just for the sake of the fight. That's not what this is all about. The inside-the-Beltway people are even mischaracterizing this. The purpose of the fight is what it represents, the standing up for principles, the standing up for the American way of life, the standing up for the very way the country is founded.”
This is the man who now has the chutzpah to claim, “I never took him seriously on this!” And he says it’s not a flip-flop as Trump adopts the positions of his erstwhile opponents.
As a different caller even later in that August 2015 show said, raising questions about Trump’s reliability, “I don't know how you can believe anything he says to begin with. He changed his position on every issue, including abortion, you know, even immigration, he was attacking Romney a few years ago. So trust is a big thing, but also I think his immigration policy would be a disaster, and I think it’s really un-American.”
To which Limbaugh replied, “Okay. Explain why his immigration policy, because that is policy by the way. His immigration stance is now codified as policy. It's not just hyperbole or performance art or whatever you want to call it, but what is un-American about it?” The next day, August 18, 2015, Limbaugh noted that Trump praised his show on Twitter, and acknowledged that—as Fox News apparently speculated—it could be because of his prior praise for Trump’s position on immigration.
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Caleb Howe didn’t go back and look up all those Limbaugh segments. But his memory of the talk radio host’s behavior was accurate enough to sum up what happened:
“I never took him seriously on this.”
Seriously. What a dick.
The caller is right that millions of people absolutely did take Trump seriously. Earnestly. Fervently. And Rush, despite the mealy-mouthed protest he followed up with (more transcript below), is part of the reason.
He never said "Trump doesn't intend to do this. Trump won't follow through on this. Don't take him seriously on this."
He never said that.
He can lay patter for hours about not endorsing or not interviewing candidates, but his listeners do think he's there to tell the truth. If he never took Trump seriously on immigration, which everyone in possession of the slightest amount of political savvy knew was the issue making Trump's candidacy, then the truth would be to tell the listener that he never took him seriously. Anything else, anything less, it just weaseling.
The poetic justice in all this is that some of the movement conservative intellectuals who surely feel angry at the consequences of the host’s inexcusable betrayal never took Limbaugh totally seriously, but never shared that publicly either. They empowered Rush Limbaugh just as Limbaugh empowered Donald Trump.
Will this do lasting damage to the talk radio host? I’ve certainly never seen Red State commenters go after him like this before:
“When millions of your listeners heard you explain away Trump's idiotic positions and vile attacks on real Republicans as ‘brilliant’ tactics, they interpreted that as your approval and support,” one of those commenters wrote, “and you have known this from day one. When he lied every day, you co-signed the lies by focusing only on how brilliantly he was manipulating the media narrative. When he engaged in unscrupulous tactics that you've spent decades criticizing the Dems for, you cheered.”
Said another, “There should be no amnesty for those messengers who have spend decades preaching conservative values, only to abandon us when we actually had viable candidates who represented all that Rush and Co. had long promoted. No forgiveness.”
Said a final commenter on that Red State post, “We had a golden opportunity to defeat Democrats this year and you along with Hannity, Ingraham, Drudge, and others built up Trump throughout the entire primaries. You folks had that magical tingle up your leg every time he uttered his immigration nonsense. The Wall is also another Trump made up fantasy just like the deportation of 11 million illegals. You clowns made him and now you clowns own him. Conservative talk radio is gone.” If only that were so—it would be the best thing to happen to the conservative movement in years.