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Rush haters don't like the dittoheads either

By W. James Antle III
web posted October 20, 2003

Gallons of ink and a like quantity of electrodes were expended commenting on Rush Limbaugh's disclosure that he was addicted to painkillers and going into rehab for 30 days. With all the braying about "hypocrisy" in the ensuing weeks, you would get the impression that Rush is despised by his critics.

Rush LimbaughYet it isn't just the bombastic radio talk show host they loathe. To be sure, Limbaugh emerged as one of Bill Clinton's most effective critics – perhaps the most effective – in the 1990s and remains the bane of liberals everywhere. Plenty of talk radio's voices have little reach beyond the studios they fulminate in, but when Rush makes a statement even Democratic congressional leaders often feel the need to respond.

But many anti-Limbaugh jeremiads are not aimed solely at Rush; indeed, they drip with contempt for his roughly 20 million listeners. Ever since he burst onto the national scene, liberals and elitists of every stripe have spoken derisively about the "dittoheads" that form his adoring audience, casting them as deluded masses that have been deceived into supporting a nefarious right-wing political agenda. Limbaugh himself has picked up on this, with his famous quips referring to his listeners as "mind-numbed robots."

Of course, much of the mainstream press would have you believe that his fans aren't in on the joke. In Newsweek, Evan Thomas likened Limbaugh not just to Elmer Gantry but also the "Wizard of Oz," implying that he had his audience fooled into believing he is something that he is not: "The man behind the curtain is not the God of Family Values but a childless, twice-divorced, thrice-married schlub whose idea of a good time is to lie on his couch and watch football endlessly."

As harsh as this may be toward Limbaugh, at least he is given a certain amount of backhanded credit for being able to pull off this act. What can be said for the listeners dumb enough to believe it? Thomas helpfully explained, "When Rush Limbaugh declared to his audience that he was ‘your epitome of morality and virtue, a man you could totally trust with your wife, your daughter and even your son in a Motel 6 over night,' he was acting." The average Limbaugh listener would have to choke back the impulse to say "no s—t." But Thomas (in what was incidentally a straight news story to which Eleanor Clift contributed, not an opinion piece) proclaims in the penultimate sentence, "Limbaugh's long-running act as a paragon of virtue is over."

It isn't enough to write a story about a famous but flawed man struggling with weaknesses even his closest friends didn't know he had. The underlying tone is that this also is a reflection on his audience, whose alleged naiveté has now been exposed for the entire world to see just as much as Limbaugh's prescription drug abuse. Rush might describe what they are getting at this way: "You fools! You believed in him and now we know that he is a druggie! Not only should you rethink your support for this man and his hate-filled intolerant message, but you should also admit your poor political judgment. It is time for you to reevaluate your politics, your values and every opinion you have that you formed in agreement with Rush, because his hypocrisy has refuted it all!"

The reality is that it has always been clear that large parts of Limbaugh's persona were an act and that his lines about being the "epitome of morality and virtue" with "talent on loan from God" were tongue-and-cheek. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of his listeners knew it. While a champion of God and country, Limbaugh never pretended he was not a sinner. Many of his conservative Christian fans – and critics – have always faulted him for being too secular, too inside-the-Beltway and insufficiently moralistic in his outlook.

While personalities like Limbaugh always attract uncritical admirers and sycophants, the bulk of his audience isn't comprised of people whose views were formed by what they hear on talk radio. On the contrary, Rush struck a cord with so many millions because they liked hearing somebody say things they already agreed with, things they weren't hearing anybody else in the broadcast world say. Although rivals and copycats have since arrived, Rush has won listeners' loyalty because for most of them he was the first and also because he has established the strongest brand name over time.

It's as simple as that. People who were tired of hearing their beliefs ridiculed, their values torn down and their opinions marginalized found Limbaugh to be a breath of fresh air. He was willing to speak up in agreement with Americans whose opinions weren't well represented in newsrooms, university classrooms or popular culture. Unlike his program, none of these other forums came clearly marked as purveyors of opinion. Consider that one of his biggest critics, Al Franken of Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot fame, did not come from the pages of some obscure leftist periodical. He was a writer for the mainstream comedy hit "Saturday Night Live."

It's especially important to remember that Rush really became a household name at the onset of the Clinton years. This was a time when it seemed as if everyone had forgotten about the accomplishments of Ronald Reagan, the Democratic Party looked not just resurgent but ascendant and Clinton was being received as the political equivalent of a rock star. Millions of people in red-state America did not agree with this new conventional wisdom and yearned for a spokesman to challenge it and communicate their views.

When Limbaugh rose to the challenge, many liberals responded with anger at the spokesman and fear of the people being spoken for. They treated ordinary conservative Americans as a malevolent force whipped into a violent frenzy by demagogic leaders, a collection of rednecks, bumpkins and militia members congregated together in fly-over country. This view was reflected when the media described the religious right as "poor, uneducated and easy to command" and tried to reduce the 1994 election results that gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress to a temper tantrum by "angry white males."

Rush isn't perfect. He can be simplistic, excessively partisan and sometimes wrong. I agree with those who hope that this episode prompts him to rethink the notion that the government can stamp out drug use at gunpoint by putting people with personal problems in jail. But his shortcomings don't diminish his talents as a performer and communicator.

It's obvious that a lot of Rush's critics just don't get him. They take his shtick a lot more seriously than most of the dittoheads do. But it is more disturbing how little they understand that vast section of America that votes Republican, believes in traditional values and prefers free enterprise to big government. You have to wonder how some of these elites can speak out in the name of "working families" and yet find so many of them so alien.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Why Rush Limbaugh's big mouth mattered by Kimberley Lindsay Wilson (October 6, 2003)
    Whether Limbaugh was right about Donovan McNabb's high profile being as a result of his race, argues Kimberley Lindsay Wilson, he was wrong about some other things
  • Limbaugh's secret life by Carol Devine-Molin (October 6, 2003)
    Rush Limbaugh is a man who refuses to wear jeans because he doesn't want to look like a hippy. Who knew before last week that he was also a drug addict? Carol Devine-Molin feels for the man
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