However you may have felt about him, there’s no doubt that a lot of people will miss Rush Limbaugh, the arch-conservative commentator who died of cancer last week. Florida governor Ron DeSantis even ordered the state flag to be flown at half-staff.
Nevertheless, this time of mourning among Limbaugh’s followers will no doubt be brief. Inevitably, someone else is already preparing to take his place.
That’s just the way it goes. I spent quite a few years as a columnist for a daily newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, a job that required me to express my opinion on various subjects. Perhaps because I was a relatively young upstart from faraway Upstate New York, presuming to pontificate on the affairs of a southern city earned me a lot of flak at first.
“You’re worse than those people who killed Jesus!” a woman once told me.
Over time, though, I noticed that the pushback was gradually diminishing. Did that mean I was convincing people of my point of view? No, it meant that I had become something akin to an eccentric relative, that annoying uncle who always starts a political argument at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Those who disagreed with me began thinking: “Oh, that’s just him. Who cares what he thinks?” Or, they stopped reading my column altogether.
So it became, I think, with Rush Limbaugh. Considered outrageous in his early days in the spotlight, he was eventually overtaken by even more strident voices along the conservative spectrum. Compared to Alex Jones and the 4 Chan crowd, Rush began to seem almost mainstream.
Nevertheless, at least one editorial writer declared that Limbaugh “taught America how to hate.”
To me, that’s not only a copout, but gives the man too much credit. America already knew how to hate and had demonstrated that on many occasions. Limbaugh just told his listeners what they wanted to hear. Whether he actually believed some of the things he professed will now never be known.
Many of the e-mails fired off by Limbaugh’s detractors after his death made note of his almost daily jokes about AIDS victims and his incessant race-baiting. In one sense, it might be comforting to think that these were his thoughts and his alone. Instead, he was simply a mirror in which some people saw themselves.
But really, so what? I doubt if Limbaugh ever brought a single person over to the dark side through his arguments. People like him (and, on the flip side, Stephen Colbert) aren’t trying to change anyone’s mind. Their goal is to serve as an echo chamber for their followers and an annoyance to everyone else.
I remember a newspaper co-worker, a sports columnist, who would sit down at his computer every morning and say: “Now, who can I piss off today?”
Of course, that was during the relatively safe hurricane’s eye between challenging newspaper columnists to a duel and harassing them on the Internet.
Eventually, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump were saying pretty much the same things, with one very important difference — as president, Trump had the power to put his words into action; Limbaugh didn’t.
If you are an American liberal, Rush Limbaugh was simply part of the necessary fee for living in a democracy; for an American conservative, that role might be filled by someone like Colbert. Either way, I never understood why anything any commentator says is worth reaching for an anti-acid tablet. Why would Rush Limbaugh making fun of Michelle Obama be news?
True, Limbaugh at least attempted to make his conservative dogma interesting (sometimes, even amusing in a twisted sort of way). Ultimately, though, he proved to be less a political expert than an attack comic.
To that end, he often shot from the hip, based on minimal facts, feeling it more important to amuse than to inform. Sometimes he had to walk back something he had said, but that was always forgotten by the next day.
Maybe the hard right and hard left voices in our ears serve a useful purpose by acting as safety valves, expressing in full view what a lot of other people might only be saying in whispers.