A provocateur, or an opportunist

Rush H. Limbaugh – 1951-2021

MY FIRST INTERACTION with Mr. Limbaugh came a few weeks after my family and I came home to Hawai‘i from living in Asia for three years. Just weeks after arrival, I started my college career at a community college about 20 miles away from our newly rented home in Wai‘alae Gardens.

In tuning the radio for what was on, I came upon a talk radio station that was featuring him. I thought “what is this?” and listened more.

It was entertaining, edgy, asked a lot of questions, cited the number of days before he thought (then) President Clinton would be voted out of office (he just got sworn in around that time). And at the time I thought “okay, let’s see what this is all about”.

What I wasn’t aware of at the time was that I was listening to the genesis of what became the backbone of today’s politics. And because the rules that allowed for a balance of voices had been thrown out the door, it allowed for someone like Limbaugh to come in and command that center stage until the day he died.

While I will say he was influential, and surely a provocateur, to call him one of the greats, as one of my friends posted “GOAT”, yeah, not so fast.

Rush Limbaugh was a radio voice with a large capacity to ham it up, that saw the opportunity to do just that, thanks to the change of the rules that regulated radio.

For you see, until 1987 as enforced, with it being erased from the books in 2011, radio by and large was regulated by a non-written law called “The Fairness Doctrine”. It was enshrined at the Federal Communications Commission who oversaw the licensing of radio stations. In it, the regulation sought to ensure that discussion over the airwaves of controversial issues did not exclude any particular point of view.

A broadcaster that violated the rule risked losing its license.

In removing the doctrine from practice, it allowed licensed radio stations to provide whatever voice they wanted, at whatever angle they wanted. From being measured by how balanced their portrayal of an item was, the FCC was now relegated to just being sure the stations didn’t say the seven dirty words on the radio.

From there, the era of the “shock jock” and provocative radio talk came to be. And Rush Limbaugh was right there, complete with the voice and the ability to tell a tall tale in politics that, in some ways, sounded believable.

Rush Limbaugh
“You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character,” ~The American President, 1995
That is exactly what Rush Limbaugh did, and got rich doing it.  
“Rush Limbaugh” by Fresh Conservative is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wrap all that up in the American flag and a monogrammed leather chair, with a gold mic, and Limbaugh became the voice of what was on the mind of so many. His time had come, the opportunity presented itself, and he became the voice of half of America faster than getting a four-year degree in college.

And good for him, I am glad to see that he took the opportunity and ran with it. God knows there are so many opportunities that have laid at the feet of deserving people that were never picked up.

BUT I THINK the serious question that I want to pose here is whether Limbaugh was right to do what he did on the radio, and to America.

If you were to ask me before the Presidency of Donald Trump (2016-2020), I would have probably told you that he was a directional voice among all the over voices clamoring for attention in the political realm. I would have told you that he was influential and that he had become something of a totem pole of where conservative politics stood.

With the Trump Presidency though, I am not so sure if I would now be deferential in my opinion. Instead of being a spokesman for conservativism as a philosophy, I now see him and his legacy as being a member of the “founding fathers” of modern binary politics that promoted the “ideas” of conservativism right after he licked his finger, and stuck it out the window to see where the breeze of opinion was from that half of the country.

No problem in promoting the ideas of the plebs it was quite profitable for him to do so. However, when just spouting off on things converts people from mere listeners to active participants – to the point where they take up arms and proclaim that they are adherents – that is when I say Limbaugh’s successful resourcefulness reverted to political aggravation, with violent results.

IT DAWNED ON ME after the January 6 riot at the Capitol in Washington DC that Limbaugh has done more to this country than I ever realized before.  As mentioned at the start of this piece, he not only became an opportunist who used vexing language to promote himself. Instead, as it dawned on me, that he was the “founder” if you will of today’s polarized politics.

Rush Limbaugh
At times in the last 30 years or so, one had to wonder who was the real President of the United States, the guy sitting in the White House, or Rush Limbaugh
“Rush Limbaugh” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Going back to when I first heard him, Limbaugh was barking and moaning about the liberals, and how they were destroying the country, etc., etc. What that converted to mere months later was to back a mid-term election plan, hatched by a Georgia House member, Newt Gingrich, to flip the House to the Republicans for the first time in four decades of Democratic control.

The plan worked, and what ensued then was the creation of a relationship between conservative Republicans and mouthpieces on talk radio. This relationship literally dictated what would happen in Congress, and if the Republicans there didn’t do what was “right”, the radio folks would come on, and bash away until the right things in their minds, were done.

And Limbaugh was right there, center stage, with his gold microphone, ready to lead the charge. And this has been happening now for the last 27 years (even longer if you count the years before the 1994 flip of the House), with a flurry of similar voices was created, everyone from Joe Pags to Sean Hannity, to our homegrown conservative broadcaster, Rick Hamada on KHVH.

This, unfortunately, has fed the thinking that the only way to combat whatever one side was doing was to go big, go extreme, to fight for the ideas on the other side. Again, Limbaugh was right there, and never deterred even during a spell where he went through a nasty divorce and was arrested on drug charges. When the House flipped back to the Democrats and then the Senate and Presidency, Limbaugh again could be counted on to be that voice on the right that would, in many cases, dictate terms of the legislative challenges to come.

And he was the dependable general that kept the conservative movement in line, even when many moderates had to hold their nose when Trump was elected in 2016 and even to this day.

Rush Limbaugh
So, who takes up the gold microphone, the monogrammed leather chair, and continues to promote a certain story of America?
“Rush Limbaugh” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

SO WHAT NOW of the political theater Limbaugh built, and put his name on its stage? As mentioned, many have been inspired to also take up the microphone and parrot the same lines Limbaugh created. Many of them even say that if it wasn’t for Limbaugh, they would not have had a chance to do what they do, today.

All nice and honorable, but these “pretenders to the throne” better know one thing – the only reason why they can do what they do, like Limbaugh, is because American society and its government deregulated the airwaves to the point where they can almost say what they want without being silenced. Yes, Limbaugh might be the radio talk show avatar that started it all, but it’s only able to continue because the American people allow it to be so.

It will be interesting to see 1. Who does take over the microphone at Limbaugh’s radio show (and if they keep the name, like how the news site Breitbart kept the name of the founder after his passing); and 2. Whether the American people are going to continue to tolerate this very-one-sided conversation on politics especially after January 6, or does the Fairness Doctrine come back into vogue.

Whichever happens, Limbaugh has already reached epic, if not infamous status upon his departure from this mortal coil. It will be how history writes him that will dictate just how holy, or shameful, he was for America.