t has been almost a half-year since “El Rushbo,” as he liked to refer to himself on his radio program, died of lung cancer. Over 15 million listeners, a significant portion of whom religiously tuned in every afternoon, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., CST, have by now found other radio or social media resources to stir their outrage, shape their passions, and reinforce their views, but it is unlikely that they have found any single figure who was so skilled and so entertaining as Rush Limbaugh: a man with a talent so large that it led him to accrue a net worth, at the time of his death, of about $85 million.
Who was this man? How did he do it? Does he look differently now, when one can take a more measured view of his career, than when his formidable presence inevitably skewed one’s reactions and perspective, pro or con? My answer is: yes and no. Yes, one can have a more objective overview without reacting to his latest provocation; but no, because who Rush was, was on display five days a week for many, many years, and there was nothing chameleon-like about him. He was no Tucker Carlson, molding his public self to whatever seemed at the moment to sell the best. His listeners knew him and found him authentic.
Whether or not the public persona of Rush Limbaugh was in fact “authentic,” that is, reflective of his private self and of beliefs that he truly and deeply held, is impossible to know. His public authenticity was formed by his consistency — he was true to the image that his listeners formed of him through listening, regularly or even on-and-off, over years. What was that image? First and foremost, he was a master at skewering those he held in opposition, which is to say “liberals.”
For Rush, anyone who voted Democratic, or even failed to support the most right-wing Republican viewpoints, was a liberal. Rush did not originate, but provided a huge megaphone for, the derisive term, RINOs — Republican in Name Only. Secondly, Rush had a wicked sense of humor, and his skewering of liberals often had a nasty but funny edge that delighted his followers and stung his opponents. “Feminazis” is a perfect example.
Thirdly, Rush’s views and pronouncements consistently demonstrated the psychological defense mechanism known as “projection,” which is at the heart of paranoia. There is no evidence of which I am aware, and I personally never gained the impression, that Limbaugh was himself suffering from the mental disorder — paranoia — in any of its various syndromes. But he exemplified what sociologist Richard Hofstadter, in 1965, defined as the “paranoid style in American politics”: Rush would attribute attitudes and feelings that were transparently evident in his own stated opinions to those he opposed. Examples abound: Rush would frequently comment, off-handedly, that “the left” politicized everything. Limbaugh, in fact, politicized everything — it was his bread and butter. Scientists weren’t engaged in an attempt to determine objective, material truth; they were paid minions, in thrall to the governments and universities who paid them. The same was true of academicians.
Another: liberals are inherently racists. They need people of color to see themselves as victims, so that they will become dependent on government programs, keeping Democrats in power to provide for them. And alas, he would say, huge numbers of people of color keep falling for it.
A third: liberals are angry. They are hateful people, who will not compromise, who will not negotiate with the other side, who believe that they must win no matter what the cost or the method — and this sometimes in virtually the same sentence that would continue … and that’s why they’ve got to be politically destroyed. Not just defeated, but destroyed. There can be no half-way measures.
A large percentage of Rush’s devoted listeners — angry, believing that minorities are getting unwarranted advantages, from welfare to special privileges, feeling looked down-upon and threatened, found Rush’s projections enormously soothing and reassuring. It’s not us! It’s them!
We are, they believed, happy, patriotic Americans who love our country and who would do just fine if only these Democrat and RINO governments didn’t promote these immigrants and black folks at our expense! They are the only reason we’re somehow not making it very well in this life, and why we’re feeling so pissed! Sock it to ’em, Rush!
What liberal listeners often didn’t get about Rush was his use of self-deprecation and humor to bond with his base, and provide a sense of being “in on the joke,” and thus part of a special group. Trump borrowed extensively from this schtick, without the self-deprecation. Part of the in-joke was that Limbaugh’s base knew he was just trolling the libs when he would spout outlandish, exaggerated self-aggrandizing remarks. This is Rush Limbaugh, with talent on loan from Gawd …
Meaning to those who understood: Look, I have a talent, but I can’t take credit for it — it’s something God has blessed me with. Or: Welcome to the Limbaugh Institute for the Advanced Study of Conservative Thought (something like that, I haven’t got it quite right). His audience knew perfectly well he was just a radio celebrity with a popular show, not the head of some so-called “institute,” and they knew that he was perfectly clear about that as well — but if it riled up the liberal listeners, great!
Or he would explain from time to time: Look, the purpose of you callers is to make the host look good. That’s why I take your calls! Or, regularly: We have to take a break, folks, to make obscene profits. Don’t go away! These sorts of remarks didn’t turn off his audience; they endeared him to them. They were in on the joke: Look, folks, I’m an entertainer and a businessman, and a damned good one. You know that and I know that, but let’s have the outsiders think I’m an arrogant, rapacious jerk whose listeners are too dumb to know they’ve been conned.
That is not to say that Rush thought of himself as only an entertainer and businessman. He believed in himself and his powers of analysis to a degree that was indeed arrogant; if his “common sense” told him that the climate has changed repeatedly and dramatically over the eons of time, then he was certain the scientists had some ulterior, political motive to claim that humankind was responsible for the change we now saw happening. What were their claims based on? Computer models! Nothing more! And that’s not science! Science is experiments, not predictions based on numbers that your own predilections lead you to put into the program! Or: This sounds complicated, folks, but that’s why you’re here. I, the peerless Rush Limbaugh, with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair, will explain it to you. And so he would: revealing yet again, how something that sounded complex was in fact nothing more than one more liberal ploy to gain power and deprive you, the good and decent people, of your God-given rights and freedom.
The source of Rush’s enormous success was ultimately, however, his love and respect for his audience. They were his family, and they knew it. He often derided critics who claimed he was shaping his audience’s opinions, warping their attitudes into an “us-against-them” mentality. They think you are mindless sheep, he would say, who just ask, “how high?” when I say “jump.” What they have never realized is that the secret of my success is that I started saying out loud, and on the air, what you were already thinking and feeling. My talent has been to help you articulate more clearly those thoughts and feelings. But the idea that I put them there is ridiculous.
He treated every caller, with the exception of the occasional naïve liberal who thought s/he could challenge Rush and get away with it, with complete respect. If the caller voiced a far-out conspiracy theory or some preposterous theory to explain events, he would listen respectfully, make sure he understood what they were saying, and then possibly just express his disagreement. Or find the kernel of a quasi-rational argument that he could agree with.
His listeners did often sound like robots, beginning their conversation with monotonous regularity saying some version of, “Mega-dittos, Rush, from Canton, Ohio.” But this was an expression of their affection and respect; they more often than not would go on to say something that may indeed have echoed Rush, but had their own creative spin on the topic.
I never thought most of his listeners sounded dumb. They usually sounded thoughtful and “rational,” albeit expressing opinions that were steeped in the inaccuracies and twists of right-wing dogma and views. And when Rush regularly began his program saying, “This is Rush Limbaugh, having more fun than a human being ought to be allowed to have,” they knew he meant it — that he thoroughly enjoyed talking to, and with, them.
This was their time in the day to be together. One family. Of believers. Not like your own family where your kids were being brainwashed by all those left-wing professors at their college, and the young ones didn’t want to go to church anymore, and that goddamn brother-in-law of yours kept calling Trump a phony. This was a couple of hours during the day — or a half-hour, or three hours, whatever you could manage — when you could get pissed off together, laugh together at inside jokes, and sharpen your sense of certainty in your own rightness.
And if it was all primarily for the purpose of making Rush Limbaugh an impossibly rich man? What the hell. As Rush would say, I’m the mayor of Realville, and he never denied that his program was essentially a very successful business model. So what? I, his average devoted listener might say, buy the products that advertise on his show, he gets rich, and he makes me feel good on a daily basis. It’s win-win. Rush, we miss you.
Ron Moline is a longtime Oak Park resident.