Rush Limbaugh — the great Maharushi — presides as the proprietor, dean,and star faculty member of the Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies. Or so he says.
But how is Rush himself to be understood? For help in understanding Rush we can draw on the sympathetic study Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, by Zev Chafets. Chafets “relished [Rush’s] bravado, laughed at his outrageous satire, and admired his willingness to go against the intellectual grain.”
David Frum was not amused. In his judgment, Rush’s success as a spokesman of conservatism “was American conservatism’s problem.” (And Frum was American conservatism’s savior.)
Now comes Wilfred McClay to the study of deep Rush. In one of the featured articles in the February Commentary, now available online, Professor McClay explains “How to understand Rush Limbaugh.” Professor McClay holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He brings a scholar’s temperament to the critique of pure Rush.
Professor McClay describes Rush’s shtick: “Limbaugh’s use of comedy and irony and showmanship are integral to his modus operandi, the judo by which he draws in his opponents and then uses their own force to up-end them. And unless you make an effort to hear voices outside the echo chamber of the mainstream media, you won’t have any inkling of what Limbaugh is all about or of how widely his reach and appeal extend.”
He expands on this point: “[Limbaugh] conducts his show in an air of high-spiritedness and relaxed good humor, clearly enjoying himself, always willing to be spontaneous and unpredictable, even though he is aware that every word he utters on the air is being recorded and tracked by his political enemies in the hope that he will slip up and say something career-destroying.” Professor McClay adopts the case study approach to the critique of pure Rush:
There are countless examples of his judo skills at work, but perhaps the most spectacular was the one in the fall of 2007, in which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sought to humiliate Limbaugh only to have the humiliation returned to him threefold. Limbaugh had a caller who complained that the mainstream media would not interview “real soldiers” in Iraq but instead sought out the disgruntled. Limbaugh, in agreement, cited the case of Jesse MacBeth, an Army enlistee who had failed to make it through boot camp but lied about his lack of real military service in order to speak credibly at anti-war rallies. Limbaugh called MacBeth, accurately, a “phony soldier.” But his statement was quickly pulled out of context by Media Matters, one of the Democratic groups that monitors Limbaugh’s every word, and was reframed as a swipe at all soldiers who had misgivings about the war. Limbaugh was denounced in the House for “sliming” the “brave men and women.” Reid used the occasion to address the Senate and deplore Limbaugh’s “unpatriotic comments” for going “beyond the pale of decency” and then wrote a letter to Limbaugh’s syndicator demanding that the talk-show host be repudiated.
But Reid overplayed his hand. Far from running from the controversy, Limbaugh embraced it. He read Reid’s letter on the air, revealing it for the dishonest and bullying document it was, and then, in a stroke of pure genius, announced that he would auction it on eBay and give the proceeds to a military charitable foundation. The letter was sold for $2.1 million, and Rush matched the contribution with his own $2.1 million. Reid could only express his pleasure that the letter had done so much good. He had been flipped onto his back.
Professor McClay recounts the birth of political talk radio with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. It was Rush who seized on the opportunity presented by the new freedom. What did he have to offer:? Here Professor McClay explains:
[W]hat he gave talk radio was a sense of sheer fun, of lightness, humor, and wit, whether indulging in his self-parodying Muhammad Ali-like braggadocio, drawing on his vast array of American pop-cultural reference points, or, in moving impromptu mini-sermons, reminding his listeners of the need to stay hopeful, work hard, and count their blessings as Americans. In such moments, and in many other moments besides, he reminds one of the affirmative spirit of Ronald Reagan and, like Reagan, reminds his listeners of the better angels of their nature. He transmutes the anger and frustration of millions of Americans into something more constructive.
At the heart of the phenomenon McClay sees a revolt against the elites:
[A] problem of long-standing in our culture has reached a critical stage: the growing loss of confidence in our elite cultural institutions, including the media, universities, and the agencies of government. The posture and policies of the Obama presidency, using temporary majorities and legislative trickery to shove through massive unread bills that will likely damage the nation and may subvert the Constitution, have brought this distrust to a higher level. The medium of talk radio has played a critical role in giving articulate shape and force to the resistance. If it is at times a crude and bumptious medium, it sometimes has to be, to disarm the false pieties and self-righteous gravitas in which our current elites too often clothe themselves. Genuinely democratic speech tends to be just that way, in case we have forgotten.
Professor McClay’s essay is the prolegomenon to any future study of Rush that will be able to present itself as a science.