When I first conceived this blog, this certainly was not the inaugural column envisioned. Yet in the ample postmortem of the GOP primary, pundits and commentators tip-toe around the very large elephant in the room: Rush is the primary reason Donald Trump is the GOP nominee.
Rush Limbaugh IS Right-wing news and commentary. It is fact. It is common knowledge It is undeniable. Without Rush there would be no panoply of talk radio. His success in national, daytime syndication led directly to the explosion of similarly styled Conservative talk. From that subsidiary success spawned The FOX News Channel and the blogosphere. He began it all and he still sits atop the mountain as the highest rated program.
So shouldn’t his words have some bearing on the GOP primary? Aren’t his actions of interest when analyzing the results? Perhaps the conclusions are much too painful to bear for those who owe their success to Rush or his fans; often one in the same. The uncomfortable truth: Rush sold out and abandoned his Conservative principles and the Conservative movement he helped create has died as a result.
Now Rush would, no doubt, feign humility as he or other intellectuals point to the philosophical princes of the Conservative movement who came before: William F Buckley, Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, etc. Yet critical as these men were, it took Rush Limbaugh fusing a Top 40 Radio style with their ideology to thrust Conservatism from the halls of academia or intellectual debating circles into the popular culture and mind. Additionally, crucially, Rush championed Conservatism like no other by relating to the listener in a Main Street kind of way so Conservatism not only made sense but could be seen as having a tangible effect on everyday life; rather than relying on erudite syllogisms or lengthy citations of Burke.
So let’s not have protestations that Rush is just one man; he’s the top man in the entirety of political commentary. And let’s not have fallacious analogies to the election and reelection of a Democrat President; while Rush’s audience may not be large enough to crown a victor in the general election it certainly holds significant sway in the primary of the, supposedly, Right leaning party.
Now for those of you who listen, or perhaps former listeners after these last months, you may be able to hear the voice of Rush as he gasps and splutters and blusters and turns to seek validation from his voiceless staff. For those who have never heard these antics, it is a technique certainly not unique to Rush to feign offense and injury to deflect a rhetorical attack and lower the standing of the attacker. Rush just happens to play the part with much greater skill and in a far more entertaining manner than any other. To be fair, he has had to deal with far more than his fair share of lies and abuse. Some of it has spilled over into the mainstream media; for instance when he was part of a group attempting to purchase the St Louis Rams and media outlets presented racist quotations supposedly from Rush but which had been fabricated from whole cloth. I assume Rush was comforted by the innumerable personal apologies which, no doubt, inundated his office. Within the show itself, at times he must deal with what he dubs “seminar callers” who pretend fandom and inside knowledge but are really just attempting to bait Rush into saying things which can be taken out of context, passive-aggressively trying to make a contrary point, or attempting to pin Rush down on some “mistake” or “offensive” comment; the term for these callers stemming from a literal seminar which was conducted many years ago to help Left-wing agitators get on the air of Right-wing radio and discredit the medium.
Rush’s expert verbal fencing usually reveals such charlatans; most often when he presses for specifics. This is no seminar call, so let’s delve into the specifics.
First things first, let’s not pretend the media didn’t create Donald Trump. Despite the recent protestations of media personalities like Sean Hannity, Trump would not be where he is now were it not for overwhelming, effusive, and mostly positive media coverage. Of course dissatisfaction with the state of the country in general and Obama in particular helped set the stage, of course the GOP turning from an opposition party to a DC-centric party helped create an animus off which Trump could feed, but he never would have gained momentum and a broad appeal were it not for accomplices both willing and unwilling in the media. On March 15th, the NY Times placed a number on this media coverage: nearly $2 BILLION in free media, nearly twice all other Republican candidates COMBINED. On his fivethirtyeight blog, Nate Silver breaks down that coverage in exacting detail. Trump’s domination of the media began immediately and early on focused largely on the early polling which was both irrelevant (President Dean or President Cain, anyone?) and incredibly misleading since Trump’s high negatives were seldom mentioned in the beginning.
“Furthermore, these poll-based stories were almost always positive for Trump. Republican voters soon took away the message that Trump was not only their most likely nominee, but would also be a strong general election candidate, frequently naming him the “most electable” of their choices.”
Speaking of those negatives, there was never any time for specific negatives to gain traction with primary voters as the news coverage was “manic” as it shifted wildly to cover the frequent antics of Trump and his campaign:
“And yet, no individual story about Trump has led news coverage for more than two consecutive days. (See here for a more detailed breakdown of topics.) Some seemingly significant stories didn’t even make it that far. When Trump canceled a rally in Chicago after clashes between supporters and protesters, it led Memeorandum for only one day. The fact that Trump has frequently condoned violence against protesters has never led a day of coverage. Christie’s endorsement of Trump led the news for only about half a day, as I mentioned. Remember when Trump got into a fight with Pope Francis? That story also led coverage for only half a day.”
Rush was, by no means, running against this trend. When Trump pulled out of the GOP primary debate in Iowa, Rush’s praise of the move was gushing with Trump being a savvy mastermind “owning” the media and making them dance to his tune. This went on for two days in the lead up to that debate. Following the debate, Rush’s coverage was focused on what a boring letdown the debate was without Trump there to entertain us. It took quite some time before Rush even delved into the issues, spending most of the first hour covering Trump’s masterful moves and the “horse race” aspects of the race; something for which Rush has routinely criticized the media at large saying ordinary people don’t care about the inside the Beltway nonsense and want to know about the issues. Perhaps, like Hillary and Obama, Rush has “evolved” on some issues, as noted by The Atlantic back in January.
Along with being the lead, inevitable candidate as dictated by misleading polls taken far too early to matter, the other media narrative to take hold, within so-called Conservative media especially, placed Trump as the “outsider” versus the despised GOP Establishment. The fact that the Republican Party isn’t really a Conservative party should be common knowledge to anyone with a modicum of familiarity with the political landscape. From the party insiders fighting tooth and nail against Reagan in ’76 and again in ’80, to the repeated disdain heaped upon the Tea Party movement by the likes of McCain, McConnell, Boehner, et al, the Conservative base embarrasses the Republican Party. Yet, once again, as noted by The Atlantic piece, take note of how Rush twists a long-standing position of his to fit with the new Trump narrative. Trump hailed himself as the outsider who could “get things done” and the Conservative media bolstered the sentiment without ever critically analyzing whether or not it was so. As the headline on Rush’s site declared: Republicans Would Rather Lose Than See Conservatism Dominate the Party. True enough. Yet in his discussion Rush, as became his modus operandi with virtually any story, tied Trump into the idea without ever making the case Trump is actually a Conservative; which I suppose is better than the direct lies or glaring lies of omission which would have been necessary to do so. But for Rush’s vast listening audience, the message is crystal clear: if you want to vote against the GOP Establishment which has repeatedly betrayed you and the country for years, vote Trump. If you want to beat Hillary, vote Trump. More on this in a moment.
Defending the indefensible wasn’t always the case with Rush, however. If there is a smoking gun indicating Rush sold his Conservative soul to back Trump, it would have to be Rush’s defense of Trump’s bizarre, laughable, and intellectually and morally offensive gaffe on abortion. Rush becomes combative with the caller, begins putting words in his mouth, declares he’s just “ticked off” at Trump rather than having legitimate argument, and once again plays the Hillary card. Yet rewinding just a few years, and we once again have a bizarre, laughable, and intellectually offensive gaffe on abortion. This time, from a tea party movement candidate who won the primary in Missouri to challenge a corrupt and vulnerable Democratic Senator. This time, Rush was having none of it. This time, he stood firm against the backlash of both audience and party who were eager for a win against a slimy politician who used her position to enrich herself. This time, Rush declared the GOP candidate needed to step aside and “put the nation’s future first.” He also added:
“The…reason we assemble the firing squad is because, in this case, this guy really said something indefensibly stupid. Regardless his intentions. I know exactly what he was trying to say. But frankly I’m tired of stupidity in politics. I’m tired of it! I’m tired of being smarter than the leaders in this country. I want people I can look up to, not people that embarrass me. In both parties. I’m sick and tired of being smarter than all these people.”
Speaking of embarrassments, let’s return to those misleading polls. Thanks to the Conservative media, led by Rush Limbaugh, the Republican Party and its voters now find themselves with a nominee incredibly disliked by vast swaths of the American public. The Democrats are set to nominate one of the most disliked, unelectable candidate in history. Hillary Clinton has some of the highest unfavorable ratings in history, she has the highest negatives in this election cycle…except for Trump.
“Clinton’s average “strongly unfavorable” rating in probability sample polls from late March to late April, 37 percent, is about 5 percentage points higher than the previous high between 1980 and 2012. Trump, though, is on another planet. Trump’s average “strongly unfavorable” rating, 53 percent, is 20 percentage points higher than every candidate’s rating besides Clinton’s. Trump is less disliked than David Duke was when Duke ran for the presidency in 1992, but Duke never came close to winning the nomination. In fact, I’ve seen never anything like Trump’s numbers heading into a general election for someone who is supposed to be competitive.”
At this point, Trump’s dismal unfavorable ratings among Hispanics and women should be widely known and obvious. Yet the idea that he is tapping into a broad spectrum of appeal with “average” Americans is also a media invention as the polls show a slight majority of non-college educated whites view Trump unfavorably. And as the National Review points out, again what should be obvious, “What sells to a plurality of the GOP primary electorate is not necessarily compatible with the general-election marketplace,” so don’t expect as miraculous a sweep through the general election as Trump managed in the primary elections. Moreover, Trump is incredibly unpopular with his own base–those Conservatives whom Rush used to be so concerned about when it was the party establishment abusing them–with polls showing 40% of Republicans will not support him if Trump is the nominee. Given the strong, public feelings of a number of Conservative thinkers and pundits, it is increasingly likely these 40% will have a viable third option for whom to vote.
Yet the repeated drumbeat from Rush and those who followed his lead, was that Trump was wildly popular, tapping into broad-based resentment against DC, because he is a Washington outsider; and those on the Right who opposed him were not real Conservatives but sell-outs to the Establishment. A curious place to find the likes of Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Eric Erickson, and William F Buckley’s National Review. To be fair, perhaps Rush started out simply trying to soft-play Trump and his supporters so as not to alienate both listeners and potential voters. That would seem to be what he told a Cruz supporter back in August when Rush, essentially, said, “Trust me. Everything I do is for a reason, and I would never betray you.” Yet even if those were truly Rush’s original intentions, even if he only made a strategic error rather than an intellectual one, his listeners should still feel betrayed since they look to Rush to be their leader in, as he puts it, “the arena of ideas.” Rush might try some revisionist history, another thing he’s decried in the past and appears to have evolved on, as he did when Cruz tried to engage with Trump agitators during the Indiana campaign. He’s not saying these ideas about Cruz are right, mind you, he’s just observing what the perception is and perception is reality; as if Rush doesn’t hold a very large role in shaping that perception. Moreover, even if that were the absolute truth right now, it is a verifiable falsehood that it has always been so. At the beginning of the campaign season, before things became nasty and voters started to either become rigidly locked in or apathetically drop out, Cruz had numerous encounters with voters who disagreed with him or just plain agitators looking for publicity; and in each case Cruz was able to calmly establish a dialogue and even if he couldn’t turn the debater to his side was at least able to sway the crowd.
In March, Rush bemoaned, “I am convinced people cannot listen anymore,” yet it wasn’t always so and it appears he never really tried talking to them in the first place, and, in fact, gave up altogether declaring, “it’s apparently impossible to be correctly, properly, understood.” Which seems an odd thing to say for someone who climbed to unprecedented heights in the communication business. Rush is the master communicator. Rush brought the Conservative movement into the mainstream and has been cultivating it for nearly three decades now. For Rush to now subordinate that movement for a populist takeover by a vocal minority, sadly calls into question everything his fans thought they knew about him and everything he has claimed about himself in particular and the Conservative movement in general these many years. And that subordination has utterly destroyed the Conservative movement. Not Conservatism as an ideology, of course, but the movement lies dead in the streets and Rush drove home the last nail. With the capitulation of Ted Cruz, the movement has lost its political leader; and barring a viable third candidate a new leader will not and cannot arise until the next presidential election cycle. With the capitulation of Rush Limbaugh, the movement has lost its inspirational leader; and barring a mea culpa and return to principles on his part, or the highly unlikely rise of a new talk leader, Conservatism has returned to a state of fractured groups lacking the political or cultural power of a unified movement.