When it comes to ginning up paranoid anger on the right, there is a difference between Rush Limbaugh and the average yahoo on the internet. Rush is much better at it.
A few days back I wrote about the outrage going around the intertubes regarding the first person to win a gold medal in Rio, American sharpshooter Virginia Thrasher. One website—which wasn’t going to let the truth get in the way—complained that the mainstream media ignored the fact that her victory came in the women’s 10 meter air rifle competition because, apparently, the mainstream media hates guns. Another lamented some tweets that reacted to Ms. Thrasher’s win by snarkily mentioning gun violence in the U.S. Then Rush Limbaugh took aim. He raised the temperature—and lowered the discourse—to a whole new level.
He starts by asking, innocently enough: “Did you see where Hillary Clinton praised a fencer on the US Olympic team for being the first to wear a hijab?” His website for the segment includes the image that appears below:
Rush includes only a part of Clinton’s text, the words. His image also shows Ms. Muhammad in a tight shot, unsmiling, in which only her (covered) head appears. Ms. Thrasher, on the other hand, is smiling and waving, and we see not only the gold medal but her red, white and blue uniform. Limbaugh’s image depicts Ms. Thrasher clearly as an American, while lacking any outward sign of Ms. Muhammad’s status as a U.S. Olympian. Granted, not every listener also goes to Rush’s website, but the juxtaposition is obvious nonetheless. Now, would you like to see the actual image of Hillary’s tweet?
It certainly didn’t hurt the contrast Limbaugh was trying to draw that Ms. Thrasher is white and blond. That’s not to criticize her, or anyone else who happens to share those characteristics. In fact I want to make clear that I’m just as proud of her victory as that of any other American at the Rio Games. That she won the first gold medal for our country is absolutely worthy of the public praise and recognition she got. She deserved every bit of it. But we know what Rush Limbaugh is. While he might have delivered the same diatribe if an American of color had won the medal Ms. Thrasher did, let’s not pretend that her picture didn’t make Rush’s job of inflaming his audience against “them” that much easier. That’s on him, not her.
Now let’s look at what Rush said next:
Hillary Clinton praised a fencer on the US Olympic team for being the first to wear a hijab. She tweeted a photo of her with this comment: “In Rio, Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American Muslim athlete to compete while wearing a hijab.”
[snip] So that’s what Hillary’s tweeting, that’s the most memorable thing that’s happened. Of all the things that have happened at the Olympics, that’s what Hillary wants to tweet out?
Unfortunately, just an hour or so after Hillary’s tweet Ms. Muhammad lost her first match and was eliminated. [NOTE: Rush got this simple fact wrong. She actually won her first match, before losing in the second round.] So she’s the first American Muslim athlete to compete while wearing a hijab who lost at her competition. Why celebrate a woman wearing something that’s been forced on her by a religion? A religion run by men. Is that impolitic to say? It is accurate, but, you know, I may be skirting on the edge there with that comment. I will admit this.
But what in the world? Maybe “celebrate” is the wrong word, but why call attention, why honor, why talk about what a great thing it is, a woman is wearing something that’s forced on her by her religion? She may actively agree to do it, don’t misunderstand, but it’s a religion run by men that subjugates and subordinates women. You know, the contradictions in American liberalism and socialism are just overwhelming.
I mean, American socialism features American feminism, and yet look at how it bows down to other religions which really mistreat and disrespect women. Does that not register with anybody else? Or is it something you’re not supposed to say?
Note also this. Hillary Clinton did not tweet congratulations to the first gold medal winner at the Olympics, the first American gold medal winner….It happened to be an American woman who won the gold for marksmanship...it means shooting...the first gold medal of the games. An American won it. Did Hillary send any kind of a recognition tweet? Nope. Didn’t even probably occur to her.
[snip] [Ms. Muhammad] lost her first match as a fencer. Hillary Clinton tweeted out how honored she was, this first American athlete to wear a hijab. So traditionally American, Hillary wanted to acknowledge it ― while ignoring the first Olympic gold medal winner: A woman marksman who blew everybody’s lights out with a rifle. Well, the target. She didn’t hit anybody.
There’s so much to unpack here. We’ve got Rush attacking sexism in Islam, which of course is real and serious, but also much more differentiated than a 15-second rant would allow—just as is true regarding the level of gender equality found in many forms of Christianity.
We’ve also got him slamming Hillary specifically and feminists as a whole (whom he lumps in with socialists, somehow) for their supposed unwillingness to stand by their own principles when it comes to Islam. Conservatives here and abroad love to spew this sort of tripe, which Laurie Penny rightly characterized as “white patriarchy trying to make excuses for itself: ‘If you think we’re bad, just look at these guys.’”
The focus here is Limbaugh’s use of identity politics, defined broadly as political arguments and/or activity built around membership in a particular racial, cultural, religious, etc., group. Identity politics has real value, and is a necessary part of how we as a society combat historic, systemic inequalities. However, it can also, at times, blind supporters of a political figure to his or her flaws (something extreme partisanship can do as well), and has the potential to prioritize the politics of representation and recognition over the common good in ways that have a negative impact both on the group being represented and the broader society.
Separate from its positives and negatives, identity politics is too often incorrectly identified as being solely as a phenomenon practiced in the U.S. by people of color, LBGT folks, and members of religious minorities. In reality, identity politics is just about as old—and as white—as the Republic itself.
The first “third party” in American history was formed in direct opposition to a specific group. And no, I’m not even talking about the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. Twenty years before they crawled out of the muck we had the Anti-Masonic Party of the late 1820s and 1830s. Identity politics is also part of how white ethnic groups gained power in cities big and small. And, of course, the most powerful form of identity politics this country has ever seen is the one most likely to be ignored—or denied—by those who benefit from it: white supremacy. And that seems an appropriate point to return to Mr. Limbaugh.
The form of identity politics Rush practices in the relatively brief segment described above is simple, but powerful: Hillary thinks it’s so great, so “traditionally American” for a U.S. Olympian to wear a hijab that, to her, it’s “the most memorable thing” about the Olympics to that point. In Rush’s presentation, Hillary is so in thrall to Islam that she will betray the feminist principles she claims to hold so deeply.
Additionally, this charge implies that Hillary will also betray the country she claims to love so deeply, that she will prioritize Muslim interests over American ones—a claim that bears directly on her fitness as commander-in-chief at a time when ISIS and other jihadist groups are committing or inspiring acts of terrorism on our shores and all over the globe.
Rush is telling his audience that Hillary Clinton cares more about the hijab-wearing Muslim who lost than the Americans who won—and, in particular, more than the white, blond young woman who showed she knows her way around a rifle. That’s how whacked out Hillary is, Rush is saying. But he assures the good people listening that they—conservatives who know real Americans shoot guns and do not wear hijabs, despite what President Obama said recently—know better.
When your candidate can’t win on issues, or qualifications, or character, this is the kind of swill you traffic in. You use identity politics to divide a nation.