Coming of Age in Rush Limbaugh's America

On the lessons you learn when everything is dumb and mean

Note: There are a ton of good mutual aid and harm reduction efforts currently supporting Texans who’ve been let down by their government. A lot of folks I love and trust in Austin respect the work of the Little Petal Alliance in particular. I just tossed some money their way and I hope some of y’all can do the same.

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Rush Limbaugh died yesterday.

There is this thing we do, when famous people die, where we talk about it being “an end of an era.” Goodness knows we can’t do that right now. As I write this, two dozen people have already died in Texas due to that state’s blackouts (a number that is sure to rise). Millions of people remain without power or heat. It is both an immense tragedy and a stupid mess, one that was preventable on so many levels (even ignoring the not-insignificant global warming layer). Energy grids are infrastructure, after all, and infrastructure can either be built and maintained for the public good or allowed to decay and rust due to either apathy or over-worship of market forces.

The State of Texas chose the latter path. Just as its Executive and Legislative branches have seemed all-too-disinterested in formulating an effective Covid-19 response, so too has its unregulated electrical grid provider (ERCOT) been unbothered by matters such as effective weatherization or modernization.

This isn’t to say that Texas’ State Fathers haven’t been busy. As has been well-documented, the Republicans who control that state have had plenty of time for picking various fights: with Pennsylvania over its elections, with their airports over Chick-Fil-A or with the Dallas Mavericks over the National Anthem. In a way, they HAVE been passionate about providing services to their constituents. The problem is, they’ve accepted the same logic that the rest of us have: that the primary service that the First, Second and Fourth Estates provide is a narcotizing validation of your existing worldview. The job of “our leaders” (however we define them) is to hate the same people we hate, to score rhetorical victories over various culture war banshees such that we feel seen and heard and keep on tuning in, clicking “like” and pulling the lever.

At the time of his death, Rush Limbaugh was no longer the most influential conservative media figure on the airwaves. This is still Rush Limbaugh’s America though— in so many ways. And for folks who came of age in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, it’s the only America we’ve ever known.

I started listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show in the mid-1990s. This was Peak Limbaugh we’re talking about here— smack dab in the middle of the first Clinton administration, when the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine was fresh enough that conservative media was still surprised and delighted by its newfound power. I was in middle school and was already an outspoken, self-righteous leftist. I guess that I was hate-listening, but I’m still not quite sure why. My family was living in Maryland at the time, Rush’s show was on the same station that I already tuned into for Orioles games… and… well… I just didn’t change the dial. I’d listen for hours in the afternoon while doing my homework— neither being persuaded nor pretending to do a strategic “know your enemies” thing. Rush made me mad and sad and confused but I kept on listening, perhaps hoping that if I paid careful enough attention he’d shut up and I could go back to hearing about Joe Orsulak’s slugging percentage. As it turns out, sometimes eighth graders make stupid decisions.

The game at play was not so complicated, however, that a middle schooler with suspect critical-thinking ability couldn’t figure it out fairly quickly. Rush offered his listeners a singular message, namely that everybody who challenged their worldview was a dangerous, misguided idiot: Black people were thugs and criminals. Women were feminazis. Gay people were sexual menaces. Liberals as a whole were deranged. America had been truly exceptional before all those groups started complaining, which meant that if they could be sufficiently humiliated, mocked and driven from power, the City on A Hill could shine once again.

Those of us on the Left frequently mock the ridiculousness of this worldview, the sad smallness of people whose contemporary politics amounts merely to “owning the libs.” The thing is, Rush’s target audience weren’t the only ones learning a lesson from all this pettiness. If Limbaugh reduced conservative ideology to mere bullying, so too did liberalism become merely about principled opposition to individual bullies. There were millions of people like me who were deeply Rush-Concerned back then, but the primary outlet we were given for that anger was to buy Al Franken books that made fun of his weight or to support Air America’s flailing attempts to be “like Limbaugh, but for the Left.'“ We weren’t asked to rebuild a Labor movement or to support tenant organizing or to ask “wait, why DIDN’T we ever pass the Equal Rights Amendment?”

I soon learned that politics was nothing but insult comedy. The other side had their malevolent zingers, which meant that our job was to parry them with our righteous jabs for justice.

This pattern, so well established in the 1990s of my youth, then formed the template for all politics over the next two-and-a-half decades of my life. The political value proposition on the right (in particular for white people) has basically been nothing but worldview-coddling and schaudenfraude since Limbaugh first took the air. In response, Liberal/Left politics has been one of Demagogue Whack-a-Mole. We keep jumping from one Singularly Evil Figure to the next, acting as if taking them down will seal the deal for justice and liberation. Rush Limbaugh became George W. Bush became Bill O’Reilly became Donald Trump became Mitch Mconnell became Marjorie Taylor Greene. “Hilarious” novelty books became Daily Show roasts became Epic Twitter Clapbacks.

The problem with all this is that you can’t build a better world solely through picking a more justifiable target for your hatred and vitriol. Am I MORE in the right because I save my enmity for reactionary grifters instead of directing it towards women and Black folks? Well yes, without a doubt. But where does my comparative right-ness that actually get us? It doesn’t keep the lights on in Texas. It doesn’t keep a family from being evicted in the Bronx. It doesn’t keep a Navajo elder from getting poisoned by Yellowcake uranium.

As we bury Rush Limbaugh, my dream is that we also bury all the ways that his distractible, personality-driven approach to politics has permeated both the Left and Right. I hope that we become far-less interested in how powerfully we can dunk on assorted vainglorious misanthropes than I’m concerned with why so few Democrats seem interested in reparations or universal healthcare or an infrastructure and energy-conversion plan sufficient to take on global warming. I hope that just as we become less distracted by the pyyric victories of the individual villain take-down, we also become less satisfied with symbolic rather than susbstantive stabs at progress. I hope we care less about whether the Biden administration does land acknowledgments before meetings and more about whether they are fully prepared to respect treaty rights. I hope that we demand not only that Biden’s cabinet more fully “looks like America,” but that they stop locking up their fellow Americans in Federal prisons and immigration detention centers.

There have already been a metric ton of “don't forget that Rush Limbaugh was bad” pieces. And they’re all true. The long tail of his politics and influence hurt people immensely. He’s not the sole reason that people are freezing in Texas right now, but goodness knows that particular tragedy serves as one hell of a rusty button on his already-tarnished legacy. But pointing all that out again, in and of itself, doesn’t do anything to build a better world. If we are to reimagine the project of American government as one of effective, reparational service provision for the common good, it’s not just conservatives who have to recalibrate the dumb game they’ve been playing. We’ve all been living in Rush Limbaugh’s America. Let’s take his passing as an invitation to finally break out.


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This week’s song: “Off That” by Jay-Z.