Thursday, February 18, 2021

Rush Limbaugh and the Poisoned Heartland

How to write about Rush Limbaugh after his death? It is a time to learn more about his life, and tally the damage done by a misdirected talent. In reading descriptions in the NY Times, a few things jumped out. One was how closely his rise coincided with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which had "required stations to provide free airtime for responses to controversial opinions they broadcast." After the law was repealed in 1987 under the Reagan administration, a "liberated" Limbaugh moved to NY the next year to start his syndicated radio show.

Freed from legal constraints that had limited the use of public airwaves to spread falsehoods, Limbaugh was further liberated by his growing legion of fans, who "developed a capacity to excuse almost anything he did and deflect, saying liberals were merely being hysterical or hateful." This failure to take responsibility for his own errors, and instead deploy a "right back at ya" redirection of blame, is one of the classic narcissistic traits that, enabled and indulged by a loyal audience, laid the groundwork for the rise of Donald Trump.

Despite his physical challenges--deafness, addiction to painkillers, chronic obesity--the NYTimes describes his talent that shown most bright when immersed in the glee of mocking others:
"He moved with surprising grace when showing how an environmentalist skips daintily in a woodland. But his voice was his brass ring — a jaunty, rapid staccato, breaking into squeaky dolphin-talk or falsetto sobbing to expose the do-gooders with his inventive, bruising vocabulary."
Self-inflation, too, gave wings to his tongue:
“This is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth, destined for my own wing in the Museum of American Broadcasting, executing everything I do flawlessly with zero mistakes, doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair, because I have talent on loan from God.”

On occasion, Limbaugh used his talent and fame to raise millions for good causes, but one can ask what sort of God would invest such talent in someone primarily devoted to using dishonesty to get half the country to hate the other half. The old joke--"How can you tell he's lying? ... His mouth is open."--may be an overstatement, but Al Franken's close study of Limbaugh's program documented just how many lies could be packed into even a few minutes. 

At one time, lies were more commonly used defensively to hide bad behavior, but Rush Limbaugh and his best student, Donald Trump, showed how lies and relentless attack can be used boldly and openly to satisfy the human appetite for a despised Other and feed a sense of superiority, no matter how unearned. Anti-intellectualism and skewering the elites can become its own form of reverse elitism, manifesting for example in a proud denial of climate change that leaves the country increasingly paralyzed and vulnerable in the face of mounting threats.

What can be said? For 32 years on the air, he built a liar's empire, and lived long enough to see his marriage of ignorance and arrogance culminate in January sixth's invasion of the U.S. Capitol. He led a procession of transgression, cultivated schism and reverse elitism, facilitated an addiction to fiction, and remained to the end devout in his deviation from truth.

Liberated from constraints by the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, it was a career that led conservatism away from reality, and embraced a brand of freedom stripped of responsibility. Along with Joe McCarthy, Newt Gingrich, and Donald Trump, Limbaugh forged a rightwing that projected a superficial strength by being hard on others, soft on self. It was a career that taught listeners to direct all skepticism outwards, stirred artificial division, and left behind an American heartland poisoned by lies and corroded by resentment.

Many are the wounds that must heal.

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