Rush Limbaugh, Funny How? What Was It You Liked About Him, Conservatives? Please, Be Specific.
Conservatives are mourning the loss of Rush Limbaugh, who died Wednesday. I don't begrudge their sorrow or their affection for the radio host, who the Associated Press claimed "laid waste to political correctness with a merry brand of malice." Like Belize from Angels in America, I believe everybody's got to love something. But just out of idle curiousity, how exactly did he brighten their lives?
That's been a little unclear. The tributes have poured out like rancid milk. They look fine from a distance but smell off upon closer examination.
Republican Chuck Grassley from Iowa tweeted:
Sad abt Rush Limbaugh's death he was a gr8 American patriot who really helped the conservative cause & will hv a decades long impact on the movement I kno listeners will miss him gr8ly.
“Patriot" is an interesting description. Bob Hope was a conservative Republican and undeniably a patriot. He performed for troops stationed overseas for 50 years. It was an act of kindness that extended beyond politics. Limbaugh described servicemen and women who spoke out against the Iraq War as “phony soldiers."
How did Limbaugh help the conservative cause? What was his actual impact on the movement? Matthew Gertz from Media Matters noted how vague rightwing remembrances of Limbaugh are. They're "curiously short on quotes from the show that he did for several decades." Chadwick Boseman died tragically young yet social media was flooded with clips that highlighted his work and demonstrated his generosity.
It's not a coincidence that those who remember Limbaugh less fondly are the ones filling his virtual scrapbook with direct quotes and videos from his career. Limbaugh was born in Missouri, and that state's former Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, tweeted this tribute:
He was a Missouri institution. We rarely agreed, but no one can deny his influence. My best to his family, especially to my law school buddy, his younger brother Doc.
One of their many differences of opinion, I assume, involved Michael J. Fox, who started trending on Twitter around the same time Limbaugh's death hit the news. Back in 2006, Fox appeared in a political ad for McCaskill, who supported embryonic stem cell research. Fox has Parkinson's disease and has devoted his life to finding a cure and helping others who share his condition. Limbaugh accused him of faking his symptoms in the ad. It was repulsive but illustrative of how both men lived. Fox's guiding philosophy is unwavering optimism and humble gratitude despite whatever challenges we face. Limbaugh's was cruelty.
Conservatives have struggled to reconcile this truth. Republican politicians rationalized their support for him, no matter how grotesque his latest comment, by claiming he's “just" an entertainer, a funny guy ... but funny, how? His “humor" was mean-spirited, always punching down even when his targets were powerful people. Yet Limbaugh also spoke at CPAC and presidential candidates curried his favor, afraid of what he'd tell his “dittoheads" at home. This dynamic is one that the GOP would maintain with the former White House squatter.
So many conservative tributes hailed Limbaugh as a humorist, you'd think he was a pro-racial-discrimination Mark Twain. Once again, few examples were shared of his comedic artistry. It reminds me of Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, where we were told how funny the sketch comedy within the series was but we were never shown any compelling evidence.
Rich Lowry tweeted:
Liberals who didn't listen to Rush, and just read the Media Matters accounts, never understood how *funny* he was. What set him off from his many imitators was how wildly entertaining he was, and the absolutely unbreakable bond he formed with his listeners.
I'm not sure “making fun of someone with Parkinson's" would play any better if you actually saw it. Lowry suggests that liberals never listened to Limbaugh, yet they were the ones sharing his “greatest hits" Wednesday. Like most of Limbaugh's defenders, Lowry told us that he was “wildly entertaining" but, even during a lengthy Twitter thread, never got around to including any LOL moments. That's what usually happens when legitimately funny people die, but there is no good in Limbaugh's career to be interred with his bones.
Limbaugh was a bully and a coward (his entire show was a “safe space"). He taught a generation of white people that it was OK to laugh at the vulnerable and ridicule the already despised. He never articulated a coherent philosophy other than liberals and minorities bad. One of his most enduring contributions to the political discourse is calling feminists "feminazis," presumably because feminists support abortion rights, although that's ascribing too much nuance to his name calling.
RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said that Limbaugh “inspired millions of conservatives," but she doesn't say if it was the “Homeless" or “AIDS" updates that moved them. Conservatives romanticize Limbaugh as a fearless truth teller, but the reality was more sinister. If someone trips and falls, the human impulse is to go and help. Limbaugh would point and laugh. That's not fearless. It's petty. And there's no truth in calling a law student a “slut."
I think the true appeal of Limbaugh's show was like Pleasure Island from Pinocchio. Visitors were given permission to indulge their worst impulses and over time they lost their humanity. Grassley is tragically correct that Limbaugh had a lasting impact on modern conservatism. Marjorie Taylor Greene was a designer imposter Limbaugh on social media, and now she's in Congress.
Kayleigh McEnany described herself as “the definition of a Rush baby," and her performance as White House press secretary — the lies, the insults, the childish taunts — bears his mark. Cruelty is Rush Limbaugh's legacy and unfortunately, it shall endure.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."