For millions of decent people, Rush Limbaugh was their political lifeline. He was the only thing keeping them sane during the Clinton years. The Fairness Doctrine had disappeared in 1987, and Limbaugh stepped in to the new market that could now emerge in talk radio. Very quickly, he became a one-man opposition to the rest of the press: Time, Newsweek, NBC, ABC, CBS, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. They all burnished the Clinton legend. But standing athwart them all was Rush Limbaugh. You no longer had to wait for Pat Buchanan or Tony Blankley to interrupt Eleanor Clift for a sentence or two in a McLaughlin Group segment once every Sunday. With Rush, you got three hours of media counter-programming every weekday. The psychological effect on the right was sharp and sudden. If Nixonism had been the politics of the silent majority, Rush Limbaugh was the politics of a voluble insurgency. Rush’s program, beamed into cars sitting in traffic across the nation, was a beacon telling millions of people, “You are not alone.”
Many conservatives who have loathed the Donald Trump era will look back on Limbaugh’s success with regret, realizing that the talk-radio revolution was the giant leap from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump.
For millions of other people, Rush Limbaugh was the largest impediment to embracing conservatism. I count myself in this group. I’m not Rush Limbaugh’s target audience and never was. At 14 years old, I bought and enjoyed Al Franken’s book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. I don’t think I would enjoy it now because I simply don’t care about mass-media figures the way I did then. I vividly remembered the controversy when Rush Limbaugh called Chelsea Clinton a dog. She was about my age. And I was a child! How evil could a guy be?
I had to overcome Rush Limbaugh to become a conservative. Or at least overcome that image of Rush Limbaugh, which was always exaggerated. Years later, I would tune in and Limbaugh was a more relaxed, more light-hearted, nimble-minded, and obviously happier person than the rabble-rouser he was accused of being. Still, I haven’t met anyone who didn’t say dumber or meaner things than normal when filling up the demanding content maw of broadcast media for hours a week.
I would find my conservatism in books and magazines, not on talk radio. My English teacher gave me George Orwell to read. Public-spirited liberal family members bought me subscriptions to The New Yorker and Harper’s. A book of the best political writing from the 1990s introduced me to people such as Andrew Ferguson, Christopher Caldwell, and Tucker Carlson in The Weekly Standard, and Thomas Fleming or Bill Kauffman at Chronicles. The first “contemporary” political book that really lit me up was Roger Scruton’s mostly neglected The Meaning of Conservatism. It was a supple text defending a primordial Tory veneration of a mixed civilizational inheritance. It amounted to an unsubtle conservative critique of Margaret Thatcher. Scruton saw markets replacing institutions as the object of right-wing veneration and he resisted it. He began that book with his terms: “Conservatism is a stance that may be defined without identifying it with the policies of any party. Indeed, it may be a stance that appeals to a person for whom the whole idea of party is distasteful.”
Well Amen. Irish-American, I hated Roger’s Tories more than he did. The Republican Party? I agreed with the anti-abortion stuff and I didn’t see anything worthwhile in socialism, but I’d have been happy seeing Newt Gingrich and the Bushes tossed in a burlap bag with the Clintons and a dozen cats then dropped into the Missouri River.
For millions of Limbaugh listeners, someone like Scruton or one of his lesser disciples would be too deferential, too polite, and not up to the fight. Too boring. Just as with my exaggerated-for-effect image of Limbaugh, this tweedy and ruffled image would not capture the whole reality of the man or what he was about. It would miss Scruton’s moral and physical courage leading seminars in the Eastern Bloc. It would miss his sometimes-acid humor. Scruton once wrote about the moral philosopher Peter Singer: “It has been said of him, as he indelicately reminds us in the preface, that he is ‘the most influential living philosopher,’ and this is perhaps true. But the influence has been purchased at the cost of the philosophy. After all, there was a sense in which Mao was the most influential living poet, and Hitler the most influential living painter.”
I’m not sure Limbaugh ever achieved an insult so insulting as that.
It is obvious that voting blocs of 70 or 80 million Americans cannot be adequately represented by one face or one type of character. They can’t be represented by one class type. To the extent that the populists like Limbaugh and Donald Trump have become the face of conservative politics, they have driven away people who are otherwise conservative but cannot imagine trucking along with people who say “Feminazis.” But similarly, too much dramatized retching and sniffing at populism among the bow-tie wearing, Edmund Burke-quoting intellectual weirdos that make up conservative intellectuals will drive the dittoheads into rebellion or into political non-participation. This relationship between these factions will never, ever be comfortable, and only rarely will it be fun. And yet it is necessary.
If anything, considering the place of Rush Limbaugh in his nation’s political life is to realize that conservatism has been late to develop a voice that cuts in somewhere between its aloof intellectuals and aggro broadcasters. Conservatism is still searching for a middlebrow voice. Perhaps it is starting to emerge on the podcasts like those hosted by Ricochet and National Review. The effort to conserve, Limbaugh well knew, was an effort to build something new.