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Rush, Trump, & Cocaine Mitch

Limbaugh's passing leaves Trump as his true heir -- but is that really good for conservatism?
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I was sorry to hear about Rush Limbaugh’s passing today. Having buried my sister, a victim of lung cancer, I know that it is an excruciating way to die. I hope his soul is at rest. I don’t have anything profound or interesting to say about his life and career. Rush wasn’t my thing. I don’t listen to talk radio. There were times when something he said offended me, but in all honesty, on the few occasions I listened to him over the years, he struck me as more amusing than the media’s characterizations of him had led me to believe. But I don’t have strong feelings about Rush Limbaugh one way or the other.

Even his enemies have to concede that his media career is one for the ages — that he was one of the most consequential broadcasting figures in American history. It is probably fair to say that without Limbaugh, there would have been no such thing as President Trump. It’s not that Limbaugh directly created Trump, but the Limbaugh populist-right style cultivated the ground that eventually produced Trump. Blame him or credit him, Limbaugh made that happen.

My feelings about Limbaugh are more in line with Michael Brendan Dougherty’s. MBD says Limbaugh was an obstacle to his becoming a conservative. I wouldn’t go that far, but I get it. MBD:

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.”

That’s how I came by my conservatism too. In 2009, John Derbyshire wrote an essay in TAC in which he praised Limbaugh and other right-wing radio talkers for good things they have accomplished, but he also lamented the down side:

Much as their blind loyalty discredited the Right, perhaps the worst effect of Limbaugh et al. has been their draining away of political energy from what might have been a much more worthwhile project: the fostering of a middlebrow conservatism. There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. It’s energizing and fun. What’s wrong is the impression fixed in the minds of too many Americans that conservatism is always lowbrow, an impression our enemies gleefully reinforce when the opportunity arises. Thus a liberal like E.J. Dionne can write, “The cause of Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Robert Nisbet and William F. Buckley Jr. is now in the hands of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. … Reason has been overwhelmed by propaganda, ideas by slogans.” Talk radio has contributed mightily to this development.

It does so by routinely descending into the ad hominem—Feminazis instead of feminism—and catering to reflex rather than thought. Where once conservatism had been about individualism, talk radio now rallies the mob. “Revolt against the masses?” asked Jeffrey Hart. “Limbaugh is the masses.”

In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year.

Here’s a good point by Derb:

If liberals can’t do populism, the converse is also true: conservatives are not much good at gentility. We don’t do affectless voices, it seems. There are genteel conservative events—I’ve been to about a million of them and have the NoDoz pharmacy receipts to prove it—but they preach to the converted. If anything, they reinforce the ghettoization of conservatism, of which talk radio’s echo chamber is the major symptom. We don’t know how to speak to that vast segment of the American middle class that lives sensibly—indeed, conservatively—wishes to be thought generous and good, finds everyday politics boring, and has a horror of strong opinions. This untapped constituency might be receptive to interesting radio programs with a conservative slant.

Even better than NPR as a listening experience is the BBC’s Radio 4. One of the few things I used to look forward to on my occasional visits to the mother country was Radio 4, which almost always had something interesting to say on the 90-minute drive from Heathrow to my hometown. One current feature is “America, Empire of Liberty,” a thumbnail history of the U.S. for British listeners. The show’s viewpoint is entirely conventional but pitched just right for a middlebrow radio audience. Why can’t conservatives do radio like that? Instead we have crude cheerleading for world-saving Wilsonianism, social utopianism, and a cloth-eared, moon-booted Republican administration.

Again, this was 2009, and Derb was complaining about how Limbaugh, Hannity, and the rest served as cheerleaders for George W. Bush. Former conservative radio talker Charlie Sykes is not wrong to say that Limbaugh ended his career by selling out principle to coddle Trump. Back in 2012, I wrote something critical of the way GOP leaders fall all over themselves to kiss Limbaugh’s ring. Rush was not a demi-god; he was a human being who sometimes said smart things, and sometimes said foolish things. But man, the power he had over Republican politicians was incredible.

Back to MBD: I agree with him when he says later in the essay that both the populist conservatives and the tweedy conservatives need each other. They might look at each other with disdain, but they can’t do without each other, whether they like it or not.

This is something that we are all about to learn in a very painful way. I would have seen Trump convicted by the Senate, and therefore forbidden to run for president again. This, not because I want to see a return to the pre-Trump status quo — I definitely do not — but because I want to see the rise of Republican leaders, including new blood in the House and Senate, who are capable of building on the good parts of Trumpism, and making it into an effective governing force that can also win elections by moving beyond the hardcore base. The GOP has to be able to appeal to middlebrows, to normies who are willing to vote Republican, but who will not vote for Donald Trump (certainly not after January 6).

Like I said, I would have seen Trump convicted to free the party to build its post-Trump future, but most Senate Republicans felt otherwise. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell led the votes to acquit Trump on grounds that the impeachment was unconstitutional, but he also gave a strong speech denouncing the former president’s conduct. Now Trump has started a civil war within the GOP against McConnell, one that threatens to keep Democrats in power for a long time. Politico writes:

McConnell, who voted to acquit Trump in the impeachment trial but lambasted his behavior surrounding the insurrection, has already threatened to wade into GOP primaries to fend off candidates he believes can’t win in a general election. In response, Trump, deplatformed on Twitter, released a lengthy statement Tuesday bashing McConnell and claiming that Republicans who stick with him should be prepared to lose.

It’s not an unfamiliar position for elected Republicans, who have had to deal with Trump’s diatribes against their colleagues and competing interests within the party for the past four years — including spending the two months before the Georgia runoffs claiming, falsely, that the November election was stolen from him. With Trump out of the White House and no longer trying to advance legislation through a McConnell-controlled Senate, it remains an open question whether the GOP can quell the in-fighting this time — or whether Trump even wants to.


But Trump is making it harder for candidates to toe the line. Earlier Wednesday, while paying tribute to the late conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh on Fox News Channel, Trump repeated the false claim that he won the election and again went after Republicans for not backing him up.

Democrats looking to expand their incredibly narrow Senate majority in 2022 think they can benefit from the push-and-pull between Trump and McConnell, which they see as dividing the party in key battlegrounds where control of the chamber will be decided.

What an ingrate Trump is! The only reason anything got done in his Washington is because of Mitch McConnell. Trump knew nothing about making laws, and had to have his hand held by McConnell. One of Trump’s greatest accomplishments — three Supreme Court justices, plus a wealth of conservative appointments to the federal bench — were McConnell’s doing. Through his audacious maneuvering, McConnell held a court seat open (the one that might have gone to Merrick Garland) for a Republican president to fill. Democrats loathe McConnell for good reason: because he is very, very effective.

Trump cannot do squat without people like McConnell in his corner. To the extent that the Trump administration was effective, it was in spite of Trump, not because of him. All he knows how to do is to cause chaos and give speeches that fire up the hardcore. He doesn’t persuade. Trumpism could succeed in expanding the party and charting a new course for the post-Reagan GOP — if not for Trump constantly getting in his own way.

I personally know of a case in which the Republicans lost a winnable seat because the potential GOP primary candidate who stood a good chance of unseating the incumbent Democrat chose not to run, because he had said some things mildly critical of Trump, and that was enough to get him blackballed by the president. Trump blocked his entry into the campaign by endorsing a weak rival, who won the primary but had his head handed to him by the Democrat. Trump didn’t care. He doesn’t actually care if the Republican Party wins or loses. He only cares about Trump.

Though Republicans — thanks to Trump’s foolishness — lost the Senate, and are now out of power in Washington, Henry Olsen explained last week that they are poised for a big comeback. You watch: Trump is going to screw that up like he screwed the pooch in the Georgia Senate races. I cannot for the life of me understand why so many conservative voters think Trump is effective. Again, much of the substantive things Trump got done in Washington were made possible because of Mitch McConnell and other stalwart, capable Congressional Republicans who took their jobs seriously. If the Republican masses are going to toss them over to follow loser Trump down the rathole of narcissism and QAnon conspiracy, then they deserve to be ruled by President Kamala.

Moreover, as Angelo Codevilla wrote last month, Trump talked a good game about opposing the oligarchy that runs the US, but he did little or nothing to stop them:

He acted similarly with other agencies. His first secretary of state, secretary of defense, and national security advisor mocked him publicly. At their behest, in August 2017, he gave a nationally televised speech in which he effectively thanked them for showing him that he had been wrong in opposing ongoing war in the Middle East. He railed against Wall Street but left untouched the tax code’s “carried interest” provision that is the source of much unearned wealth. He railed against the legal loophole that lets Google, Facebook, and Twitter censor content without retribution, but did nothing to close it. Already by the end of January 2017, it was clear that no one in Washington needed to fear Trump. By the time he left office, Washington was laughing at him.

Nor did Trump protect his supporters. For example, he shared their resentment of being ordered to attend workplace sessions about their “racism.” But not until his last months in office did he ban the practice within the federal government. Never did he ban contracts with companies that require such sessions.

Thus, as the oligarchy set about negating the 2016 electorate’s attempt to stop its consolidation of power, Trump had assured them that they would neither be impeded as they did so nor pay a price. Donald Trump is not responsible for the oligarchy’s power. But he was indispensable to it.

Read all of Codevilla’s essay. I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s provocative and challenging. His main point is that the conditions that led to the rise of Trump are still in effect — but Trump was a disappointment. Codevilla doesn’t put it this way, but it’s clear to me that as long as we still have to deal with Donald Trump and his drama, the oligarchy is only going to get more powerful.

Anyway, may Rush Limbaugh’s soul rest in peace. May God help all those suffering from cancer, especially lung cancer.