Rush is a taunter and a braggart. The fury against him this generates is social, not intellectual or moral. It is the tribe perceiving itself as under attack, interpreting him as at least a status danger and maybe a physical threat, and reacting emotionally rather than logically to him. He is like a political cartoonist escaped to the radio and TV, doubly infuriating liberal print cartoonists and the radio and TV voices - who for so long were used to plying their wares without having to answer even mild critics. (More on that below.) Limbaugh invaded their territory – loudly, brashly, unashamedly. They have handled this by becoming childish. The talking heads speak in code pretty well (left or right - that's their job). But listen to the water-cooler talk, the forwarded emails, the HuffPo and other internet comments and notice how often blowhard, conceited, I can't stand to hear his voice... comes up. Those drive the anger.
You can always tell when the Democrats think they are in trouble. They start hinting that Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party. They challenge him only in venues where they are in no danger of having to answer him directly. I am thinking 1994, 1998, 2003, 2006. And last year, the Obama administration just couldn’t refrain from sparring with him. It pleases their base, and disquiets moderates who might be thinking of voting GOP. Limbaugh. Drumbeat : Doom, Doom, Doom. Dangerous. Braggart. Doom. Doom. Fires up those dangerous right-wingers, who we know are on a hair trigger to start getting violent. Doom, Doom. You don’t want Doom, Doom LIMBAUGH running the country, do you? It’s starting to have a bogey-man feel to it.
Rush is a constant on the American political scene. He originally encouraged a lot of conservatives, converted a lot of moderates, and infuriated a lot of liberals. That middle function is less in evidence now, though it still happens. His message hasn’t changed much, he just keeps finding new illustrations. And he finds those illustrations, over and over again, from the things prominent liberals do. You will not that his focus is almost entirely on liberals of prominence. He might generalize about that group as a whole, but he seldom picks out a small target of some obscure progressive saying something stupid. And because it is the rank-and-file who have put those big fish on the buffet, it is not especially unfair that Limbaugh lumps all of them in together, is it? It may feel unfair, even ridiculous, to the average Democrat to be called a socialist when they know they personally believe in the free market pretty strongly, but are worried about unregulated cheaters. But those fairly reasonable people elected folks who say some extreme things. And Rush loves to play the tapes of them doing it.
Rush says outrageous things, and then provides evidence for them. The usual criticism of him is to quote the outrageous statement and nothing more. Cue rolling of eyes, smirking, and sighing how ridiculous that is.
It is similar to Rush’s own tactic of playing the tape of some public figure, and then commenting at length about that. There is an enormous difference here, however. People quote or play a few sentences of Rush and then riff on it. Limbaugh plays much longer sections of those he skewers. I listened for two five-minute periods on Friday. He played a consecutive 20 seconds of Barney Frank’s press conference about financial reform. Maybe he picked the worst 20 seconds. Maybe if we had heard 20 minutes we might have a different impression. But if you are Barney Frank, calling the press conference and preparing your remarks beforehand, you might get to backtrack on an unwise phrasing or an imprecise sentence, but you can’t claim context when you get that much running time. You own it. It’s fair game.
Then Rush went on to play a song parody, “Banking Queen,” which was rude. Vulgar. Childish. Song parodies are easy, I wrote them in 6th grade. Similarly, he read the NYT report of the Armed Services Committee voting unanimously – he repeated u-na-ni-mous-ly as a taunt – to forbid trying foreign detainees in country. Is he that rude, or is it just a tactic? Maybe both.
He then went to the outrageous claim: that the Obama Administration had intended this all along. They had never intended for a moment to close Gitmo or try terrorists civilly in country. It was all just for show for his more radical base. Cue eye-rolls, shaking of heads, and accusations that Rush is crazy, divisive, and irresponsible. Rush, in reply, cues the tape from his archives. He predicted this a year ago. You may still think he’s overreaching, but the farther left, who cared deeply about the issue more than about electing Obama (Firedoglake, for example) is suspecting the same thing. Obama has been all talk and no action on this issue since day one. So. You can offer counterarguments if you like, and maybe Rush has got it wrong. But his case is plausible.
It has always been this way. I had a discussion a decade ago about Rush’s claim that the MSM was taking its cues directly from Democratic campaigns. Why, that’s ridiculous. That’s outrageous. And if you want to just leave it there, pretending that he claimed that the DNC was calling up journos and telling them what to say, you can just dismiss it. But he brought out the research, week after week, a steady drip, drip. No one mentioning gravitas, according to Lexis-Nexus. DNC sends out a fax – these things are always leaked – suggesting that Bush doesn’t have sufficient gravitas. That weekend fifteen separate journos mention gravitas, and Rush makes it into a montage (he loves montages). Repeat for months. No one told them to bring up gravitas, it’s not a collusion or conspiracy (Quelle horreur!). The journos just get played by the DNC, who can count on them to essentially agree and go “Hey yeah, y’know, it really is disquieting that Bush doesn’t have sufficient gravitas. Great word. Right on the nail.”
Okay, maybe there’s another side to this. Maybe the journalists openly reject 90% of what the DNC faxes, and Rush doesn’t mention that. Do the research and prove him wrong if you like. But the outrageous comment has some evidence behind it after all.
Blowhard. Windbag. Braggart. Smirking. Taunting. Maybe so. I react very badly to his tone myself. But those are social comments, complaints that Rush doesn’t address them in the proper way, not statements about his accuracy. Is he more of a blowhard than Ted Kennedy? Or Robert Byrd? Frank Rich? The braggadocio bothers me, but there are many notes of humorous self-deprecation as well. And the flip side is that Rush showcases and boosts others more than anyone. He quotes at length from columnists and bloggers he admires. He goes out of his way to note politicians and writers – even Democrats, liberals, progressives, Europeans, Ivy Leaguers – who he thinks make important points. No one else is coming to mind who does that as much. Except for bloggers, whose medium requires it. His expansiveness is general, whether he uses it positively or negatively.
This hits on Rush’s strongest skill, not as a funnyman, or a thorn, or even a persuader. He is an encourager of conservative ideas and thinkers and a discourager of liberal ideas and thinkers. He makes predictions, and often it’s a reach, but he hits a lot of those. And when he hits, he usually quotes someone else to illustrate it – some Democrat or talking head who has confirmed suspicions and made an ass of himself, or some conservative/libertarian writer who sums up the confirmation especially well.
Some ironies: As a political cartoonist of the radio, it was predictable that Gary Trudeau and Garrison Keillor would be particularly incensed by him. They are used to not having anyone answer back – that’s why one becomes a cartoonist or storyteller, after all. You can paint the picture the way you like, without anyone interrupting your beautiful fantasy. Both went after him and became deliciously unfunny. Folks who also hated Rush might encourage and say “yeah, that’s right, you tell ‘em!” and chuckle sardonically. This tricks you into thinking you are funny. But it just fell flat – and I was still half-liberal then and uncomfortable with Rush, so I don’t think that’s just home-team rooting. In fact, the lameness of their responses were part of the final push for me. Is this the best they can do? Weak.
Stewart and Colbert – as best as I can tell from clips – owe their show’s style to the original Limbaugh TV show. Those shows may appeal to an SNL audience and draw on some of the same cultural norms, but the news parody commenting style descends from Limbaugh. Onion Network News, which makes up stories based on current events, is the descendant of SNL.
I don’t see that they quote those they are lampooning at length, though.