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Rush Limbaugh, RIP
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Rush Limbaugh, RIP

The pioneering communicator—and what he pioneered.


 So you may have heard I’m stuck in Austin, Texas, with my daughter.

I’ll have more to say on all that when/if I get out of here. The reason I’m not writing about it today is threefold.

  1. I am sick of people telling me, “At least you’ll get a good G-File out of this,” and such is my mood that I am inclined to refuse to write one out of spite.

  2. I really don’t want to jinx my chances of getting out by talking about it in the past tense. As it stands, I have minimal confidence that my plane tomorrow won’t be cancelled (if it is, it will be my fourth flight cancellation this week). Better to wait until I am clear of this place before tempting the gods to punish me further.

  3. This is the only really important reason: There are lots of folks in Texas having a much rougher time than me. The least I can do is wait until they have heat and power before I start my bellyaching and score-settling.

Rush Limbaugh, RIP.

Rush Limbaugh died today after a long fight with cancer. I was never a big Rush listener, even when I was more of a fan than I have been in the last few years. As someone who spends all day reading and writing, listening to talk radio for big chunks of the workday has never been very practical. But I think it’s absolutely clear that, whether you love him, hate him, or have more complicated views about him, it is objectively true that he was one of the most talented broadcasters of the last half-century. To fill three hours a day, largely without guests, and be as successful as he was is a huge feat.

I have many friends who were friends of Rush’s. They were, and remain, fiercely loyal to him. (Over at The Corner there are several testimonials worth reading.) I feel no desire to gainsay any of that and even less desire to contribute to the ghoulish celebrations his death is evoking from the left.

Still, this is the time to share my thoughts.

Limbaugh’s critics could never quite grasp the entertainment value of what he did, even though entertainment was central to his appeal. Rush himself said people “turn on the radio for three things: entertainment, entertainment, entertainment.”

Limbaugh could be very funny. It’s ironic: For years, the same crowd that loathed Limbaugh celebrated Jon Stewart as one of the greatest political commentators in American life. Media critics swooned over how Stewart was better at holding politicians—overwhelmingly Republican ones—to account than mainstream journalists. He won the Orwell Award and countless Peabodys, Emmys, etc.

Limbaugh and Stewart obviously didn’t do the exact same thing. But they were closer to each other than fans of either would like to admit. Long before Trump defenders exclaimed, “Take him seriously, not literally,” Limbaugh and Stewart defenders were saying something similar. Stewart was in some ways the more cynical of the two. When pressed about his biases and agendas, he’d put on his clown nose and claim to be just a comedian who was therefore immune from criticism. Rush left those kinds of defenses mostly to his fans. They would explain to liberals—who often just heard excerpts out of context—that Limbaugh was only joking, and often that was true.

But Limbaugh also knew what he was doing. He was a master at floating trial balloons—performatively bold but intellectually tentative statements—to see how they would play out. If they backfired, he could say that the joke was on the losers and fools who took him either literally or out of context. If it didn’t, he’d press ahead or he’d relish the liberal tears he evoked.

Not all of this is criticism. I’m not a big fan of playing rhetorical shell games, and both Stewart and Limbaugh could annoy me when they played them. But their respective audiences understood what both men were doing, and they liked it when the hecklers took the bait and paid the price. I’m also the last person to argue that commentators have to either be deadpan-serious or entertaining, but never both.

But there is criticism worth making. If Stewart liked to have his cake and eat it too by switching back and forth between funnyman and muckraker, Limbaugh did the same, alternating between entertaining bomb-thrower and “leader of the opposition.” 

There’s a tension between being a bomb-thrower and a leader, and the fact that so few people understand that today is emblematic of how dysfunctional our politics have become. Newt Gingrich, a creature of the Limbaugh era if ever there was one, never really figured out how to resolve that tension. But at least he tried when he was speaker (occasionally). Donald Trump, whom Limbaugh once said wasn’t a conservative, dismissed this tension altogether by simply redefining leadership as bomb-throwing. Trump was a piss-poor commander in chief, but he was the ultimate commentator in chief, hurling brickbats at the very government he ran.

Rich says Rush had an “absolutely unbreakable bond” with his listeners. Obviously, in the context of eulogizing Rush, that’s a fair comment. But it’s not entirely true. If that bond were unbreakable, Limbaugh would not have so often moved to stay on the good side of his audience. Like so much of the right Limbaugh helped create, when the people (or customers) moved, the “leaders” followed.

Of course, people change their views over time for all sorts of intellectually honest reasons, and I have no doubt many of Limbaugh’s evolutions can be explained in that light. But I also have no doubt that many can’t be. At the end of his career, Limbaugh was defending—or allowing himself to be understood as defending—political violence, conspiracy theories, and even secessionism.

If you want to defend that by saying, “We’ll that’s what a lot of right-wingers believe today,” I won’t argue with you. I’m just not sure it’s the defense you think it is.

When Rush started to make it big in radio, he told his audience, “As millions have tuned in, there is now incumbent upon me a responsibility to be honest, credible, believable, and to not do things that are perceived to be outrageous, or off the wall just for the purpose of being noticed or making a splash.”

In his 1992 bestseller, The Way Things Ought To Be, Limbaugh wrote:

This, ultimately, is why the issue of character is so important. Liberals wig out when character becomes an issue, because many of their candidates are of dubious character. Yet, it matters greatly to voters. The Perot “candidacy” illustrates just how important character is in choosing leaders, and I find it almost laughably ironic that it was his principles (character) that the Perotistas cited most often as the reason they supported him. He made promise after promise, then broke them all. I shouted till I was without voice that his entire campaign was based on the profound deceit of manipulating people into thinking they had created his candidacy, when in fact it was he who had orchestrated the whole thing for months before anyone knew what was really happening.

Without question there is a rising clamor for change, not only in our political institutions and establishment, but in the policies and directions which emanate from them. The key to change, though, will be found inside, not outside the system among politically experienced people who are ethical, honest, and moral—characteristics that do matter, despite how loudly they are pooh-poohed by the liberal elite.

Outsiders, and those who present themselves as such, will ultimately end up as carcasses strewn across the countryside, false prophets of a false premise.

I prefer this Limbaugh—not the one who unshakably followed his audience, no matter where he led it. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.