The first time I heard Rush Limbaugh was on my father’s car radio decades ago. Rush was lecturing away on some topic, I think illegal immigration and the horrors thereof, and went on and on. At some point there was a commercial break and I asked my dad who he was. Dad, a lifelong GOP stalwart, corporate executive, and Navy veteran leader, just laughed and said “He’s just a joker, a comedian, nobody with any brains should take him seriously.”
But apparently many did, in fact, up to 20 million at a time. He became the biggest man on radio. I only heard him in passing after that first impression, but increasingly people I knew, including some friends in the GOP stronghold of Orange County, California, started referring to him as if he were some sort of oracle. “Rush says….” became an intro I had to let go by, as if an otherwise nice and intelligent enough pal was quoting Mickey Mouse, but about sometimes important issues. “Global warming? Oh I can demolish that in 30 seconds. Rush says….” If they didn’t actually quote Rush by name, it was easy enough to deduce where their opinion on complex political, scientific, historic, sociological, you name it issues was coming from. They tended to leave out all the personal nastiness, much of it so reprehensible it would have been beyond the pale to air it before Rush came along. Some started to affix “Rush is Right” bumper stickers to their cars, but what exactly he was right about was often quite fuzzy. My Rush, right or wrong, but never wrong.
As it turned out, this was not a good thing. When Limbaugh died recently, the Wall Street Journal, still the house organ of the GOP but now a much milder one than the legion of other right-wing outlets, published a tone-deaf defense of him by another conservative radio “personality.” This fellow said no, Rush was actually a nice guy, only lapsed into personal attacks and nastiness once in a great moon, and was hated only because he “had the number’ of the Left, whoever they might be. It reminded me of when some folks I sorta knew had an audience with Syrian dictator/mass murderer Assad and came back saying ‘But he was very polite to us!” The worst people in the world are almost invariably polite to people when it serves their purpose. I once had dinner at the Marcoses and it was delightful, as long as one didn’t think or feel very much at the time.
Of course many people were indeed offended by Limbaugh, but that was not limited to any political persuasion. Twenty million was about 10% of America when Rush peaked. Some of the other 90% hated his act, but most ignored him. Problem was, those who loved him really loved him, calling themselves “dittoheads,” a telling term about how they didn’t think, just re-spouted, but they also acted on his words at times, calling, writing, yelling, threatening, some of them even voting. As the New York Times obit said, Rush “turned talk radio into a right-wing attack machine,” quite an accomplishment unless one thought much about what that meant. Weak-livered politicos paid attention and feared his rants. Thus, he gained “power” along with all the cash he was raking in as he laughed to the bank. For a guy who failed out of college, he did pretty darn well, and an armchair psychologist might speculate that much of his vitriol directed at those more educated than he would ever be came from at least some sense of inferiority.
After the Fairness Doctrine was dissolved as “censorship” by Ronald Reagan in 1987, all bets were off. One could say most anything in the media, and then challenge others to “prove me wrong,” or more usually, just ignore any objections. Along with Newt Gingrich, Rush brought us not only the huge surge of “low information” voting, but, arguably, the short but messy and destructive reign on Donald Trump. They had so much in common, and one striking visual illustration among many was how Trump, in mocking a disabled reporter, uncannily copied Rush doing the same thing years about Parkinson’s sufferer Michael J. Fox years earlier. One could list a litany of other examples of how Rush put ‘locker room talk” onto the air, normalizing attacks on women, children, minorities, immigrants, taxes, warfare, you name it. By the time Trump became a candidate, nothing much was shocking anymore, and standard for decency had eroded to the lowest base’s nonexistent standards. The McCarthy-era question “Have you no decency?” meant nothing anymore, as the answer was no, even proudly so. And folks would forget it anyway, for tomorrow was a whole new show. Rush had a base for whom anything went, no matter how vile, even unChristian, even though they thought of themselves as almost saintly in their version of patriotism. For all this, of course, Trump awarded him a big medal, while the rational nation gagged aloud.
What Rush thus amounted to most of all was a further dumbing-down of America. Some might say that would be hard to do, but nobody before had made it big by being so bad. My dad, again, was wrong. There was some pushback at Rush’s nasty man gig, such as when even the NFL denied him purchase of a team due his rampant racism (among many other things, he had said pro football looked like a battle between “Bloods and Crips”). Health and medical groups denounced his calling a young woman who advocated for birth control a “slut” and his calling for death for drug addicts, especially when he turned out to be one himself. His hypocrisy was vast. But he and his base thought that was no problem, even a strength. Thus he hung on to the Obama-as-Kenyan “birther” babble long after most anybody else had let it go, and at his death, was still supporting Trump’s big lie about the “stolen” election. And on and on, ad nauseum. Why expect evidence or consistency? Or even decency? Whatever sells.
Rush created what in essence was a “safe space” for those who didn’t care. As in Trump’s locker room, they could say what they really felt. If challenged, though, they’d get nasty quick. On air, Rush controlled the mics, and he was merciless, knowing his often lonely, powerless, marginalized listeners loved such a display of power. Like FOX News, which also owes much to him, when attached, even sued, he could always retreat and say he was just “entertainment.” But at what cost to civil, informed discourse in our country? What huge mass error in judgement made Ruch Limbaugh any kind of hero to anybody?
Sometime after my first exposure to Rush radio, Dad and I were again driving somewhere, late at night, with what I think was him again on the air. The topic was, again, “illegals,” a term I’ve long seen as easy indication of a non-thinking mind. It was call-in time, and listeners were ranting about them stealing job, stealing other stuff, everything up to eating white babies. Then a soft-spoken man came on, saying he had a confession to make. Back when he was a marine, stationed at Camp Pendleton on the Southern California coast, where many migrants trekked through once they’d made a successful border crossing just south into San Diego, he and others sometimes practiced firing mortars out towards the coastal cliffs. Late one night, he said, they observed a campfire down near the railroad tracks, and decided to have some fun by scaring them with a well-placed lob of explosive. But being trainees they weren’t so accurate yet, and dropped the shell right onto the camp. “I don’t know how many people were there, but we could see at least a few,” the man said quietly. “Maybe even some kids. The three of us just sat silently for a long time. Then we packed it up and left there, not saying anything to anybody ever. In fact I’ve never told anybody about this until now.” The caller than began sobbing. And that’s all we heard, until Rush, or whichever protégé right-wing shock jock it might have been, just said “Commercial break time!” THAT shut him up, at least for a moment or two. But any remorse, apology, deeper thought and discussion about things? Thanks to Rush Limbaugh, had already become too much to ask.