When Michael Steele, the hapless chairman of the Republican Party, lost his bearings and called Rush Limbaugh's style ugly and incendiary, everyone knew it was the truth. But it was a perfect example of an inconvenient truth. The right wing has long used ugly, incendiary speech the way baseball players use steroids: to artificially pump themselves up. Limbaugh has taken to saying that he wants Obama's policies to fail because they spell the end of an America based on personal freedom. This isn't just a grotesque exaggeration; it disguises the very thing the right wing has been doing when it curtailed civil liberties in the name of national security.
Yet I know people who listen to Limbaugh every morning. They don't believe a word he says. They deplore his rhetorical sins. They detect the whiff of hypocrisy. Basically, they tune in out of sheer incredulity.
Limbaugh has been plowing the field of moral outrage for decades, but unlike Billy Sunday and the other hot-headed radio preachers who cashed in on social resentment in the Great Depression, Limbaugh threw out God. With no religious tradition to anchor himself, he can swing wider. Anything Limbaugh judges against is condemned, not by scripture, but simply by him being pissed off. Whatever Limbaugh hates -- however petty, personal, and arbitrary his animus -- is ipso facto wrong.
This represents a huge social shift in American values. Before the Eighties there were a handful of right-wing outlets on the air; now there are well over a thousand. They exist purely as steam vents. The common citizen gets to be pissed off by the millions, unrelentingly, without cease or solution, and in return, he is praised. To be outraged is to be morally superior.
The Limbaugh effect fueled the anti-morality of the Bush years. Under ordinary morality, the wretched plight of illegal immigrants, for example, must be considered along with the fact that they are breaking the law. Being poor, illiterate, and desperate, their human condition makes them more sympathetic than ruthless lawbreakers would be. But under anti-morality, if you hate immigrants because they are foreigners who don't look American enough, the argument is over. Your anger strips away tolerance, sympathy, and regard for "the other." Hence the almost imperial bearing of Limbaugh, the bland certainty that because he never stops being angry, he never stops being right.
The same goes for a wide range of "others" who mightily tick off Limbaugh's listeners: Muslims, feminists, people of color, gays, and environmentalists. There's no need to understand them or try and accommodate their views. Just put them through the wringer of Limbaugh's perpetual judgment and, poof, there's no problem anymore. Of course, the whole scheme is delusional. Problems aren't solved by remaining perpetually ticked off. Accords can't be reached when you demonize the other side.
By any sane account, Rush Limbaugh is dead weight when it comes to finding a solution to anything. Like Sarah Palin, his spiritual bride, he lurks in the shadow of the human psyche, expressing the dark anger, resentment, jealousy, and vindictiveness that society can never escape. And yet, the next time you tune into Limbaugh's censorious circus of insensitive scurrility, give him a kind thought. As far back as Mark Twain, the American character has been ornery. We secretly love rascals, bank robbers, tricksters, swindlers, hell raisers, and outlaws. And when we feel so inclined, we laugh at them. Rush Limbaugh may represent a toxic form of entertainment -- and the bile he spews bears no resemblance to true morality -- but the fact that America makes room for him is something to be proud of. I don't pray that he goes away. I pray that we can keep laughing, even if our grin is crooked, at the pranks of the eternal shadow who is our companion for life, whether we want him or not.
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more