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The title of the late Jerome Tuccille’s book about libertarianism was called It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. For conservatives, the same could be said of Rush Limbaugh. Neocon or paleo, white advocate or “movement conservative,” Christian or agnostic, capitalist or protectionist, it’s hard to find anyone on the Right who didn’t spend some time listening to the EIB Network.
I began listening in high school. No one told me about Rush Limbaugh. I wasn’t politically active. I just found him scanning the stations, as I imagine most others did.
Rush (I can’t help calling him “Rush”) was always on in the background during my first job in the conservative movement. Later, I’d go to work for the man who helped write his second book, See, I Told You So. For more than a decade in “the movement,” someone would email me at least one Limbaugh clip a week. These people would have wildly divergent views, but they all listened to him. I never thought about it at the time, but Rush Limbaugh shaped the ideological sphere that I worked in. Without him, no conservative movement, and without a conservative movement, no me — or those like me.
However, I never read Rush’s books, I never considered myself a “dittohead,” I wasn’t a dutiful listener, I never called in, and I didn’t even know Rush Limbaugh had a TV show until, for some reason, I read Al Franken’s subtly titled Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. But he was just always there. For those who truly were fans, it must seem as though a planet has vanished.
When I heard he had died, I was astonished that it actually hurt — as if I knew the man. Rush had the skilled host’s ability to forge a real connection with his listeners. It felt like I knew him. He was the soundtrack for a young adulthood spent in conservatism. Older conservatives must feel this more intensely.
It wasn’t about ideology. His ability to inform and entertain was why, during any long drive between the hours of noon and three, I’d find myself desperately searching for whatever station was carrying Rush. He had to be there somewhere. He’d make a road trip bearable.
Radio is hard work, and Rush Limbaugh was a master with a voice made for it. He somehow managed to use brutal humor with just enough irony that he didn’t sound angry. He sounded like he was having a good time, and therefore, listening to him was a good time.
You truly appreciated his artistry if you tried the competition. When Al Franken tried to start liberal talk radio with “Air America,” it was embarrassing. The message was awful, of course, but that wasn’t the problem. It was the dead air, awkward pauses, and lack of preparation. Bad radio, just like bad conversation, is painful to sit through.
But it wasn’t just talent. Radio seemed to come so easily to Rush because he clearly worked hard for every program. That in itself is a lesson for success no matter what your calling.
Still, we have to ask two questions: What did Rush Limbaugh do with his incredible power and what will happen to the conservative movement now?
On race, Rush Limbaugh went about as far as you can go and stay on the air. I recall several attempts to get him kicked off or go after his advertisers because of “offensive” comments. He always survived. It wasn’t just because his assistant “Bo Snerdley” (James Golden) was black, but because Limbaugh had a way of talking about racial differences that was politically incorrect but dodged the core issue.
Rush would cover racial double standards, crime, drugs, and immigration (the last, far too late in his career), but would rarely talk about race explicitly. Part of his mastery was an ability to shift a conversation into “safe” territory after a dangerous beginning. He knew the limits. That’s a gift, but also a failing. What’s the point of having a platform if you won’t use it for something important?
What kept Rush Limbaugh from being truly mainstream was pointing out that the media were rooting for a black NFL quarterback. In 2003, he lost his job as a commentator at ESPN after he said black quarterback Donovan McNabb wasn’t that great. Now, journalists regularly tell us that Colin Kaepernick, who isn’t nearly as good as Donovan McNabb, should be on the field as a kind of moral duty. Some even compare the thoroughly mediocre Mr. Kaepernick to Tom Brady, arguably the greatest NFL player ever. If anything, Rush’s observations and the reaction to them were prophetic.
Despite his timidity on race, Rush Limbaugh drove people our way, especially in his later years. When, during the 2016 campaign, he read a Sam Francis essay on the air, it was like a gear shift for the movement. I felt goosebumps as I wrote a news story about Rush reading Sam Francis. Suddenly, this wasn’t “conservatism” anymore; we were “nationalists.” I can’t imagine someone like Sean Hannity making that shift.
There was the occasional offensive comment or culture war skirmish, but Rush Limbaugh never explained to listeners that the real issue is race. This is ironic because he lost his job at ESPN because of the race taboo. I suspect he really wanted to be “mainstream.” He made it and then lost it; maybe this cowed him.
Once you have nothing to lose, you’re free. We’ve all known for a long time that Rush Limbaugh was dying, and he knew it too. It’s to Donald Trump’s credit that he honored the man when he could. We all knew it was goodbye.
I’m forgiving (perhaps too forgiving) of those in prominent positions who see but don’t speak, because they think they need to build a platform, bank account, or professional credibility before they can tell the truth. I don’t tell people to charge the machine guns.
But what about Rush Limbaugh? The jackals are spitting on his grave and calling him racist anyway. Why not go out fighting? Why not call on his listeners to battle for their people and the birthright that was stolen from them?
I suspect that Rush, with that optimism of his, really believed in colorblind conservatism, though he may have had some misgivings. Just before the election, the last time I listened to him, he said that perhaps “we” had lost the country. Rush was usually so optimistic that this struck me, but it was only a passing comment. To admit that the issue was race, not “conservatives” versus “liberals,” would have been a repudiation of everything he’d preached for decades. Few men can do that. I don’t blame Rush.
Over the years, I’ve heard countless conservatives say we have “lost” the country. I always ask them what do we do now? They have no answer. They are wedded to a system that is destroying us. Rush didn’t have an answer, either.
What will conservatives do now? Conservatism will probably be worse without him. Charlie Sykes, a supposed conservative whose career consists of bashing conservatives, said on state media outlet NPR that Limbaugh’s legacy was “playful bigotry.” At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf said Limbaugh hurt conservatism and fueled “divisive racial paranoia.” Peggy Noonan, incredibly, is using Rush’s death to suggest bringing back the “Fairness Doctrine” because America is now “more polarized, more bitter, less stable.” This would drive conservatives off the air.
We’re getting different variations of “The Conservative Case Against Conservatives,” with Regime mouthpieces telling whites that we have a moral duty to surrender our country in the name of social peace. The surrender always goes one way. Conservatives are willing to increase censorship, thus denying the GOP base even symbolic victories, even as elected Republicans push unpopular economic policies.
Some say that Rush Limbaugh dumbed down the conservative movement, but he was a talk show host. It wasn’t his job to promote intellectual conservatism. He delivered simple, solid messages with humor and skill, and that’s more important than writing another weighty tome only your friends will read.
The real problem is that conservative intellectuals are cowards who have no theory of power, no answers for contemporary problems, and no program except nostalgia. There are plenty of American intellectuals on the Right with sharp insights, but they are mostly castaways from “the movement.” The American conservative movement is defined by its purges of interesting, original, and brilliant intellectuals in favor of gelded embarrassments desperate for a pat on the head from journalists.
Raw populist energy, and even inchoate opposition to “liberal elites” is more productive and intellectually defensible than almost anything National Review has produced since it purged Peter Brimelow and Joe Sobran. The concept of the political is defined by the difference between friend and enemy, and Rush Limbaugh helped Americans make that distinction, at least partially. I’ll take Rush over self-described “intellectual conservatives” any day. A rant from one of his callers is more insightful than a typical National Review editorial.
There may be some hope. I note with satisfaction that one of those who may inherit the golden EIB microphone is Mark Steyn, another writer too good for National Review. Mr. Steyn is no Rush on the air (no one is) but he’s a great writer and is at least aware of the demographic crisis facing the West. Perhaps he can help steer his audience in a good direction.
On television, we have the lonely voice of Tucker Carlson attacking our hostile elites and broaching topics no one else will. We also have some movements and platforms emerging from the wreckage of the Trump Presidency, including Revolver and a revitalized Chronicles.
On social media, the Right has been held back through deplatforming. If there were no corporate repression, media podcasting would belong to the Right; Patreon-socialists like Chapo Trap House are a stale echo of pioneers like TheRightStuff.biz. With free speech, we win.
It’s not just because we have something to say. It’s because those on the Right aren’t trapped by political correctness or victimhood competition. We’re free to be funny. Rush’s slashing, scornful, sarcastic approach that mocked respectability turned him into America’s Anchorman. It’s how he won an audience of millions. We all draw on his approach, even without realizing it. Rush was devastating on the attack, but he did it with a smile. Instead of a crazed man ranting about the world going to hell, Rush had you roaring with laughter as he casually dismantled his foes — having done careful research in his few hours off the air.
Ultimately, I don’t think Rush could reconcile his beliefs with what is necessary. America will not be saved by conservatives. Conservatives can’t win. I wonder if they even want to win. The best among them, such as the late Roger Scruton, want to live in a certain kind of society but lack the will to do what is necessary to create or preserve it. They are content to lose politely.
I’m not. You’re not. We’re nationalists for a nation not yet born. We’re soldiers in a political war for civilizational survival. We’re not staffers in a moribund movement trying to get a lobbying job. Rush Limbaugh influenced me. He influenced all of us, even if you don’t fully realize it, but he was never part of what we’re building.
I’ll always remember how Rush would make my friends and me laugh, I will marvel at his skill, and admire his bravura. I wouldn’t be here were it not for him. White advocates have a lot to learn from his rhetorical approach.
Rush Limbaugh, RIP. I didn’t expect to say this, but I will miss him.
Credit Image: © SMG via ZUMA Wire.