Rush Limbaugh and the Mobilization of White Male Anger in the Health Care Debate

11/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rush Limbaugh's critics have long noted the factual errors and tortured logic that are regular features of his radio program. Not surprisingly, little has changed over the past few months as he has put his stamp on the health care debate. But Limbaugh does not only distort arguments about complex issues like health care through deliberate falsehoods and bad reasoning. His persuasive power lies mostly in his emotional connection with his audience.

Any serious attempt to understand how Limbaugh has made himself into the nation's most influential conservative, and why he has been so effective in shaping the debate about health care, must account for this part of his appeal - especially to those in his primary demographic: middle-aged and older white men.

One of Rush Limbaugh's greatest strengths as a rhetorical alchemist is the way he turns fear into anger - especially men's fear. Limbaugh regularly takes (white) men's sadness, disappointment and apprehension - about a range of political and personal subjects -- and interprets it for them as anger. This is effective, in part, because for so many men, anger is much less treacherous emotional terrain than other emotions - and much more socially acceptable.

In fact, countless men deal with their vulnerability by transferring vulnerable feelings to feelings of anger. The anger then serves to "prove" that they are not, in fact, vulnerable, which would imply they are not man enough to take the pressure. This process affects millions of men in our society, but is especially pronounced in the lives of social conservatives, who are heavily invested in maintaining the tenets and practices of Father Knows Best masculinity.

Throughout his career, Limbaugh has honed an impressive ability to manipulate his callers emotionally. A good example is how he handled an obviously upset man on one of his shows last month. Limbaugh introduced the caller by telling his audience that "Tom," from Wichita, Kansas, "has been waiting on hold for two hours and twenty minutes." Thus the stage was set for a familiar script to unfold, where Rush patiently plays the role of sounding board for a person who is struggling, then explains to them -- and the audience -- how their troubles are caused not by the cold-hearted logic of the capitalist marketplace, the social policies of the Republican party, or their own choices, but by "big government" liberals and power-hungry "socialists" like Obama. Those of us who listen to Limbaugh have heard variations of this script for years.

Tom did indeed tell a tale of woe: He was an army veteran who lost his job early this year. For months he had been looking for work, sending out hundreds of resumes. He had gotten a few interviews, but no job offers. What will happen when his unemployment insurance runs out? "...We're into the red zone. We're cutting essentials: food...laundry, clothing, shoes..." He was clearly worried; in fact he openly admitted that he was "scared to death." Despite his pleas, he repeatedly told Rush that he was not "a whiner."

Tom wanted to know: What was President Obama doing to turn the economy around? Why was the president spending all of this time on health care when people are out of jobs? And what had the stimulus plan done to create jobs for people like him, with a family to support? Luckily for him and his kids, his wife had a job that provided health care for the family. But if something didn't change soon, he was going to have to re-enlist. He said softly, and haltingly, that he had lost his father in Vietnam when he was a young boy, and now at 43 years old he might be going off to war, potentially leaving his own kids fatherless.

The savvy talker saw his opportunity and seized it. "I didn't hear you as whining," Limbaugh reassured him, building to one of his characteristic conversational pivots. "I hear you as mad." It didn't matter whether anyone else heard anger in Tom's voice. I didn't, and it would have taken a considerable amount of auditory acrobatics to do so. What I heard was an anxious, needy man, reaching out for help. Limbaugh let him continue, because although Tom got a chance to speak much more than the typical caller, the master narrative was securely back in Rush's hands. He could twist the distraught caller's plight and emotional vulnerability into an attack on Obama.

Limbaugh is successful because he not only knows how millions of white men think - he knows what pushes their emotional buttons. Better yet, he knows how to steer those men toward conservative political positions that appear to address those concerns, even if the "solutions" they provide are at best woefully inadequate or even counterproductive.

Consider the conversation with Tom. In one clever rhetorical turn, Limbaugh was able to validate the caller's manhood ("you're not a whiner."), and reinterpret the man's "soft" feelings of loss and fear into "hard" feelings of anger and resentment. And he offered the caller scapegoats for his problems: the Democrats! The public employee labor unions! All of Obama's friends who benefited from the hated "porkulus" bill!

A central feature of Limbaugh's appeal is his over-the-top performance of white masculine certitude. The ditto-heads believe that Rush embodies old-fashioned white male authority, the loss of which, many conservatives believe, lies close to the heart of our cultural decline. To many of his critics, Limbaugh is a cartoonish vaudevillian showman. To conservative true believers, he is an authentic "man's man," a cigar-smoking, NFL-watching, red-meat right-winger who's offended by the "feminization" of American society.

His pretense toward patriarchal authority might be compromised by revelations of his drug dependency, his three failed marriages, his use of Viagra, his avoidance of military service during the Vietnam era due to an anal cyst, and the fact that he does not have children. Nonetheless, he talks a great game. He is, after all, the King of Talk Radio. Millions of people tune into his show on a daily basis because, as he constantly reminds his audience, Rush Knows Best.

Tom from Wichita seemed well aware who he was talking to, which explains why he kept insisting that he was not a whiner. Real men don't cry on Rush Limbaugh's lap. But then again, Tom was not a typical dittohead. He was either naïve enough -- or brave enough -- to say "...my self-esteem is right now at its lowest that I've ever had it....I'm getting choked up."

"I know," Limbaugh replied in a well-timed display of empathy, the kind he reserves for callers whose heartfelt testimonies put flesh on his ideological pronouncements. "I've been there."

Since Rush often mentions that he, too, was unemployed much earlier in his career, he had the standing to say that he felt Tom's pain. But what he didn't say is as revealing as what he said. He affirmed Tom's frustration that the stimulus bill hadn't provided enough "shovel-ready" jobs. But he never mentioned that he was ideologically opposed to the stimulus bill in the first place. He attacked it daily for weeks. Limbaugh's answer to the plight of unemployed working people such as Tom? Stimulate the economy with yet further tax cuts for the wealthy.

Limbaugh's conservatism has nothing to offer working and middle-class people, especially those whose jobs have been downsized and outsourced as capital flees in search of cheaper labor markets. Limbaugh's empathy is solely rhetorical: for twenty years he has consistently opposed progressive efforts to use government to improve people's lives through public policies such as increased spending on public higher education, job retraining, and health insurance reform. Let the market do it!

Throughout the entire call, Limbaugh studiously avoided offering any information or analyses that might disrupt his tidy little narrative, such as the fact that the very unemployment insurance that had been Tom's life-blood for months had come about during FDR's New Deal, and was passed by a Democratic congress with strong pressure from organized labor over the objection of pro-business Republicans and conservatives of both parties. If Limbaugh's predecessors had had their way, Tom would never even have received any unemployment insurance to help him through these tough times.

Of course Limbaugh also never brought up Obama's contention, which is shared by the vast majority of Democrats and the dwindling cadre of fiscally responsible Republicans, that health insurance reform is part and parcel of economic recovery, because one of the reasons for huge job losses in the U.S. over the past couple of decades, especially in the manufacturing sector, is that American companies can't compete with foreign corporations whose countries provide free health care as a right of citizenship.

The only way an elitist multimillionaire like Rush Limbaugh can appear empathetic with self-described "average Americans" like Tom is to avoid talking about any of this. Instead, in the health care debate "el Rushbo" has chosen once again to use his formidable rhetorical skills to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful as a master propagandist, one who can channel the emotions of vulnerable, out-of-work family men (and women) away from the source of their anguish - rapacious health insurance companies and their conservative mouthpieces in Congress - and turn them against the one U.S. president who's gotten the closest to providing quality health care for all Americans.