Rush Limbaugh had an excellent radio voice and manner. He spoke with a rare combination of mellifluousness, somewhat ironic pomposity, and down-home charm. He was the Johnny Carson of talk radio hosts — no one built a brand entirely around his own unique persona with more ease, humor, or confidence.
At the peak of his rise to fame as a conservative talk radio host — a descriptor that was more or less invented by and for him — the Republican Party elite did not quite know what to make of this new “grassroots” trend, and many of them hated what he represented: cheeky vulgarity as political rhetoric, and an appeal to populist sentiment over intellectual acuity. (Those criticisms were essentially true, by the way — leaving aside the problem that the alternative rhetorical model represented by his elite critics themselves was, in many ways, much worse than his model.) Nevertheless, bucking the trend of his own movement, Mr. Conservative Intellectual himself, William F. Buckley, liked what Rush did, presumably appreciating his ability to leap past the Sunday television talking points and appeal directly to “the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory,” by whom Buckley famously said he would prefer to be governed than by the two thousand members of the Harvard faculty.
The problem with the wider media enterprise Limbaugh spearheaded, however — “conservative talk radio” — was that what Rush really was gradually got lost in the fervor of the huge new audience (and profit opportunity) he had created, such that, as he came to be taken more seriously as a kind of power player in electoral politics, his voice veered ever more decisively toward the banal mainstream of political discussion. The truth is that at heart, as he would have admitted himself in earlier days, Rush was an entertainer, a political comedian who worked a room populated with those Republican voters who had become disenchanted with the GOP’s direction during the post-Reagan years. His bread and butter was Bill Clinton, on whom he could riff for hours every week in a manner that was both funny and incisive, partly because Clinton himself was such a laughable figure that he was tailormade for any comic with the politically incorrect instincts to take on a popular Democrat without fear of reprisals. (You have to listen to Norm MacDonald’s regular run of lacerating Clinton jokes as Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” host during Clinton’s second term to hear Rush’s only rival on that score, though MacDonald focused mostly on the personal rather than the political.) And Limbaugh’s voice impersonation of Clinton was probably the best around, because he understood the Democratic political operation well enough to capture the president’s ideological intonation even more accurately than his vocal intonation.
What Limbaugh was not, however, was a serious political commentator, a man with deep historical or constitutional understanding, or a principled thinker who could stick to his iconoclastic guns in reality as well as he could pretend to do in performance. His instinct, therefore — his means of protecting his reputation and his credibility with the widest possible audience — was to play it safe, meaning safely within the Republican Party nest. Hence, although he had good “gut instincts” about many issues of the day, when it came to election years and the presidential nomination process, he always claimed not to be endorsing anyone, until finally coming down plainly on the side of the party establishment’s choice. He thereby effectively made himself the GOP establishment’s unofficial liaison to its grassroots voters, and never even hinted at bucking the party in any important way — which, of course, explains why the party elite finally softened on him and his similarly controllable peers in talk radio (most obviously Sean Hannity). In this sense, he was probably more responsible than almost any identifiable individual (Matt Drudge and a couple of Fox News executives being his only possible rivals) for the successful perpetuation of the “binary choice” charade that has allowed the GOP to maintain its suffocating stranglehold on conservative voters, right up to the establishment’s greatest coup ever, the Trump bait-and-switch fraud of 2016.
In sum, Rush Limbaugh was a smart and innovative entertainer who discovered a hitherto largely unserved audience, one suited to his temperament and instincts, and gave them what they craved in a manner calibrated for the widest possible listenership, i.e., for the most “obscene profit,” to borrow a favorite Limbaugh expression. As a business model, it was brilliant. And it even had some political value, in that the galvanizing influence of his unstoppable popularity, over the heads of the mainstream political media and in defiance of the Washington establishment’s status quo messaging, revealed to his listeners that they were far from alone, and indeed that they could, collectively, have a meaningful voice in national affairs.
The problem, unfortunately, was that this meaningful collective voice never really matured into a serious political movement unto itself, instead remaining inextricably tied to its popular spokesmen — Limbaugh above all, but also the various secondary stars of the conservative media firmament — as though these spokesmen themselves were the conservative movement, rather than merely an initial galvanizing influence. The danger — the fatal danger in fact — with this reduction of millions of concerned conservatives to the status of a “loyal following” rather than an independent-minded citizenry, was that the leaders being followed were not really political movers at all, but essentially, as noted above, profit-seeking entertainers. Not one of them has proved to be willing to stand firm on any principle that would put them ultimately at odds with the GOP establishment, since every one of them has made “conservative opinion” his career, rather than his passion, and the careerist’s interest will always fall on the side of holding or expanding one’s audience, one’s revenue stream, one’s ratings or readership or contract renewals. For the upper echelon of the conservative media, by definition, political principle is never a hill to die on. On the contrary, political principle is a selling point — a self-contradictory position if ever there was one.
Rush was good at what he did, arguably the very best at it. And in the beginning, it had a real value in American politics. But his impetus to do it being primarily monetary, it was inevitable that the practical necessities of the profit motive would eat away at the thing precisely to the extent that it began to be taken seriously by the powers that be. More importantly, and more dangerously as it turns out, the audience that was attracted to Limbaugh’s form of “infotainment” became far too emotionally invested in it — thanks largely to Rush’s talent for channeling his listeners’ own attitudes in the faux rhetorical style of a forceful leader — to see the inherent weakness in tying their and their nation’s political direction to men motivated first by a supply and demand model of personal success.
The best conservative talk radio program I ever heard was a short-lived local show in tiny Brainerd, Minnesota, hosted by an equally mellifluous-voiced man, Guy Green, along with his thoughtful and beautiful-souled friend and “sidekick,” Tony Bauer. They made no money, had a very small audience, and never sold a principle to anyone or anything. They just spoke like intelligent, informed, and deeply concerned adults trying to figure out what had gone wrong with their country, and to reach out to a few kindred spirits to see what they could do about it. That is what talk radio could have been — or rather what it could never have been, at a national level. In fact, this comparison — the nationally-syndicated star-driven behemoth versus the sincere small town political conversation — is an object lesson in the republican principle of decentralized power, and the moral and political importance of prioritizing local communities over “national leadership.”
Rush Limbaugh became “America’s conservative voice” of the post-Reagan era. As such, he was really no one’s voice, but merely a good entertainer whom a lot of people, both fans and enemies, mistook for a leader of some sort of movement, though in truth he was never any such thing. He was a very talented radio man and a supremely talented businessman — and the latter talent used the former talent to great advantage, which also trickled down to the financial benefit of many lesser lights who gained profitable careers of their own in his jet stream.
But political philosophy is not about a career or business model. It is about truth and the public good. That, in the end, is what America has lost. Limbaugh cannot be blamed for that, for he was only the beneficiary of an essential deterioration in genuine citizenship (and statesmanship) that had been occurring for a long time before he arrived on the national scene. He was an excellent radio host. The rest, the “leadership” part, was merely foisted upon him inappropriately, and he rode with it for longer than anyone else has ever done.
Should you prefer your country to be governed by two thousand Rush Limbaughs rather than by the faculty of Harvard University? Unquestionably. But it does not follow that this would be the best option. It decidedly would not, as the past several years have more than amply proved. Give me the concerned citizens of Brainerd, Minnesota over the popular millionaire media showmen any day. Entertainment is entertainment. It is all well and good, but a nation confusing good entertainers with sober thinkers and strong leaders — or worse, good citizens ceding their own reason to the false leadership of mere entertainers — is part and parcel of what has gone wrong in America.