Once upon a time, you could drive to the most remote reaches of the United States and escape Rush Limbaugh. But from the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico to the Badlands of South Dakota, where only the delicious twang of a country tune or the high-pitched pleadings of a lone lunatic came over the AM dial, there is now the Mighty El Rushbo.Apart from a couple of unconvincing conclusions that Egan reaches later in the piece, this seems a pretty decent analysis of a current political/media sideshow (that I confess I haven't been following very closely). Egan correctly identifies the 'straw-man' technique that has for the last 20 years or longer been one of the GOP's most consistent and elegantly executed tactics. The key to pulling it off -- and the reason why the Democrats hadn't been any good at it in the pre-Obama era -- is doing it with a sense of humor. Why is a sense of humor so important?
As someone who spends a lot of time on the road, I used to find Limbaugh to be an obnoxious but entertaining companion, his eruptions more reliable than Old Faithful. But now that Limbaugh has become something else — the face of the Republican Party, by a White House that has played him brilliantly — he has been transformed into car-wreck-quality spectacle, at once scary and sad.
The sweaty, swollen man in the black, half-buttoned shirt who ranted for nearly 90 minutes Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He reiterated his desire to see the president of his country fail. He misstated the Constitution’s intent while accusing President Obama of “bastardizing” the document. He made fun of one man’s service in Vietnam, to laughter.
David Letterman compared him to an Eastern European gangster. But he looked more like a bouncer at a strip club who spent all his tips on one bad outfit. And for the Republican Party, Limbaugh has become very much a vice.
Smarter Republicans know he is not good for them. As the conservative writer David Frum[*] said recently, “If you’re a talk radio host and you have five million who listen and there are 50 million who hate you, you make a nice living. If you’re a Republican party, you’re marginalized.”
Consider that in the past, Limbaugh-hatred was either (1) shrill and way too earnest or (2) holier-than-thou and self-congratulatory. The first tendency had the effect of expanding Limbaugh's power and influence because it rewarded him for cloaking his run-of-the-mill intellectual dishonesty in an aura of mischief and insouciance. This insouciance, at once contagious and 'empowering' to his audience, was applied to the task of caricaturing ever-more-outrageously various Democratic Party sacred cows (feminism, multiculturalism, political correctness etc.). This seemed a particular thorn in the side of the Democratic Party throughout much of the 90s (in fact, perhaps beginning with Michael Dukakis's failed 1988 presidential bid): the Dems were the squares, who -- in the eyes of many a country bumpkin and many a Wall Street trader alike -- didn't "get" it. In that era, the Dems allowed Rush to frame discourses in his own increasingly ludicrous (and, spiritually, racist and fascistic) terms. The Dems lacked the savvy to respond in a way that is disposed structurally to draw attention to the very 'straw man'-ness of his 'straw man' criticisms.
Circumstances have changed. It is this very savvy that the intuitive politician Barack Obama possesses in spades. Our new president wields this powerful weapon deftly, and thus, he exposes convincingly the hysterical patchiness of the rantings of Limbaugh and ilk, and he manages to do so in such a way as to charm your mother's pants off! The talent of the Republican Party for 'messaging' and propaganda has long been superior to that of the Democrats. But, ever since the majority of the public turned against the Iraq War, it's been painfully clear that its effectiveness has run its course.
The GOP sloganeering- and outrage-machine is fueled not on ideas but on sound-bites that serve as stand-ins for ideas. Once its pattern of rhetorical brinkmanship is exposed in all of its fraudulence -- as was done spectacularly in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq -- there's no recourse to a coherent set of underlying principles or ideas. In other words, it, like Fox News, is all smoke-and-mirrors.
Obama knows how to deal with smoke-and-mirrors. All you have to do is pucker up and blow the smoke away. The Elephant will then see its own naked reflection. And it will be ashamed.
The second tendency that I outline above -- that of self-righteousness -- made the Democrats fall into the trap that their antagonist had set for them: that of embodying the very caricature that America's favorite squishy-necked pill-popper had spent all of his hate-energy expounding. This not only appeared to Limbaugh's audience to confirm the validity of what he was saying, but it simultaneously further endeared him to his fanatical audience. Remember: this is an audience that has lived through its Savior vicariously. Rush's audience couldn't help but take personally any and all insults/slights that were directed against him. His not inconsiderable talent is that of making his devoted listener feel that he has something at stake in Limbaugh's treatment among the chattering classes. The egomaniac's egomaniac, el Rushbo beckons his avid listener to see the world through Rush's beady eyes. As Limbaugh would have it, the politician or journalist who behaves dismissively toward Rush is, in fact, behaving dismissively toward them and 'their kind', however narrowly circumscribed this category (racially, for instance) might be.
Even worse for the Dems of the 90s: self-righteousness is the character flaw that conditions the ugly act of scolding, and the best way to provoke somebody's irrational fury against an amorphous 'enemy' -- especially when the somebody in question has an inferiority complex to begin with -- is to scold him.**
Now the GOP is at last forced to come to terms with its ideological incoherence, the fracturing of the myriad marriages of convenience that were holding together its recent political alliances. Inevitably, this involves lots of finger-pointing. And, sure enough, it is not now the Democratic Party, but indeed Rush Limbaugh who comes across both as shrill and as taking himself way too seriously. As Egan observes correctly, the Dems have done a masterful job of exploiting this situation, and are reaping considerable benefit. The vast majority of voters identify the Democratic Party as the party of competent adults.
True, it is primarily Obama's administration -- and not Congressional Dems -- that enjoys this deserved reputation. But with George W. Bush's parting gift, the economy, in a free-fall -- the unemployment rate, an astounding 8.1 percent, is the highest it's been in twenty-five years --, all of these idiotic "no" votes among Republicans on any and all Obama-sponsored stimulus or spending packages are likely to come back to bite the GOP in the ass.
The continuing series of callow, nakedly partisan whine-fests from the likes of House Majority Leader John "Indignant Hillbilly" Boehner contribute to the stiff scent that's in the air: that of a major political party marginalizing itself seemingly out of existence... The Democrats, as long as they don't fall back into the traps of moral righteousness, multiculturalism as practiced in the early 90s,*** and so-called political correctness, will continue to reap benefits from turning the spotlight in the direction of the GOP airing its own dirty-laundry.
Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, like him or hate him (why bother choosing?), is a good mouthpiece for talking trash about Limbaugh precisely because Emanuel's a dick and doesn't pretend otherwise. Counterintuitive as it might seem, the fact that there is obviously something calculated behind the Dems' going after Limbaugh is actually what makes it work so well. This is because it is precisely the interaction between calculation and execution that makes this and any non-news story so damned entertaining. It's like watching a baseball team pull off a sacrifice fly to score an RBI.
A brief note on moral righteousness. It is true that certain species of moral righteousness play a role in Obama's shtick, but that's not the part of his shtick that is in any way partisan. Obama reserves this righteousness for affirming values about which there is near-unanimity -- values that are no less significant for their universality.
Obama will denounce torture, for instance, but opposition to torture is still -- THANK GOD -- a defining moral principle held among the vast majority of Americans, the exceptions including some truly slimy, invidious creeps like William Kristol and Alan Dershowitz. Anyway, as long as Dems don't start to press so hard as to actually create sympathy for Limbaugh, they'll benefit from this approach.
Actually, I take that back. It occurs to me that as soon as things get to the point at which Limbaugh becomes an object of sympathy, his relevance is at that moment forever demolished.
* For the record, while I'll concede that David Frum is probably a little bit smarter than Rush Limbaugh (although certainly nowhere near as successful -- by any measure), in no way should this be confused with acceptance of the completely fallacious notion that David Frum is smart.
** See Hitler, Adolph.
*** Mind you, I'm not against multiculturalism as such. I simply dislike some of the idiotic excesses that came along with it when middle school principals, etc., started getting their unenlightened paws on it. Uh, if that sounds a little wooden, I'll just say that I do actually espouse a principled criticism, but I'm not in the mood right now to go into the details of it.