The Age of Limbaugh
When politics and popular entertainment collide
Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, by Zev Chafets, Sentinel, 217 pages, $25.95.
Just a few days after he was sworn in as president, Barack Obama asked the opposition to ignore its partisan instincts and help him develop a stimulus package. "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done," he admonished.
It was the beginning of a big year for Limbaugh, a radio host whose influence had seemed to be waning not long before. Allies and critics alike were soon describing him as the "head of the Republican Party," not least when the actual head of the Republican National Committee criticized the famous broadcaster only to quickly cave to rank-and-file pressure and apologize for his remarks. Beloved by the true-believing party base, disdained by center-right compromisers, and detested by the left, Limbaugh has towered over every noisy Washington debate of 2009 and 2010.
Now he is the subject of a breezy biography, Zev Chafets' Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One. In Chafets' telling, Limbaugh comes across as a likeable loner with the same combination of confidence and insecurity that has fueled entertainers for eons. The book began as a magazine profile, and it still reads like one, complete with first-person segments about the author's interactions with Limbaugh and the people who know him. Chafets, a journalist and novelist who once worked as a press officer for Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, leans heavily on recent events—over a third of the book is devoted to the latest two years of Limbaugh's life—and he is generally sympathetic, though not entirely uncritical, toward his subject. There is much more here about Limbaugh's impact on politics than his impact on radio, and while Chafets compares Rush to a series of celebrities, from Elvis to Muhammad Ali, he doesn't really explore Limbaugh's status as a pop icon.
Limbaugh isn't really the head of the GOP, but he isn't an ordinary commentator either. Part vaudeville showman and part ward leader, Limbaugh straddles the line between politics and popular culture. He is the most notable example of a political species that emerged only recently: a person whose power derives not from his constituents but from his fans.
This is not the distant fandom that fuels the rise of a Ronald Reagan or an Arnold Schwarzenegger. Such celebrities' fame may allow them to bypass the traditional early stages of a political career—the low-level legwork that lets voters and donors know who a candidate is. But when they enter electoral politics, they still need to establish a conventional political organization.
Nor is Limbaugh's following the type that allowed earlier generations of broadcasters to influence the public debate. It's much more participatory than that.
Limbaugh interacts directly with his audience. He doesn't just speak but listens, and the callers don't just listen but argue. Limbaugh is always in charge of the show, and he manipulates his medium like a master. But the intimacy of radio gives him a relationship with his followers that's considerably different from that enjoyed by ordinary politicians and pundits.
It is effective theater, and because it is effective theater it is also effective politics. Limbaugh is not in the habit of urging his audience to call their congressmen, but when he asked them to do so during the debate over Obama's health care bill, they telephoned in droves. Whenever a public figure criticizes Limbaugh, his listeners will dutifully launch an angry fusillade of calls and emails on their own. And when Republicans swept to historic victories in the congressional elections of 1994, the GOP freshman class knew who to thank, naming Limbaugh an honorary member of their caucus. Obama's admonition—"You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done"—unintentionally expressed something important about the show: It asks its audience not to "just listen" but to actively involve themselves in both the program (by calling in) and the political process (by backing conservative candidates and causes).
When something like a fan culture appears in politics—when a public figure's supporters feel an intense personal connection to him, and the figure in question takes a showman's delight in trying to fine-tune their reactions—the leader is often accused of being a demagogue. Because intellectuals have traditionally distrusted the mass media, this has been especially true when the leader's pulpit is the television or the radio. But the situation is usually more complicated than that. With Limbaugh, it's much more complicated. When callers launch their spiels with the word "dittos," they're not simply falling in line behind Limbaugh; they're offering him feedback. If he directs his listeners' emotions as skillfully as any performing artist, he also gives them a role in driving his show. And he's not just a leader but an entertainer, with a style that owes more to disc jockeys and stand-up comics than to conventional political oratory.
Rush Limbaugh got his start as a Top 40 DJ. Significantly, he got into broadcasting because he loved music, not because he loved politics. The most ideological element of his early radio work was that it wasn't ideological: He played pop singles, read the news, and performed other tasks for tightly formatted AM stations at a time when more countercultural outlets were mixing their experimental, genre-bending freeform sets with left-leaning grumblings about The Man. Limbaugh would later deride those DJs and their listeners as "long-haired, dope-smoking, maggot-infested, good time rock 'n' roll plastic banana FM types."
At the same time, as Chafets shows, Limbaugh pushed back against the restrictions of his format, a habit that didn't always lead to good relations with station management. When political talk radio took off in the early '90s, it was, in one respect at least, a throwback to the old days of freeform FM: The host was in charge. He was free to improvise a long monologue, to take calls, to do risky comedy bits, and even to insert some music into the mix; you didn't know at the beginning of a show where the next few hours would take you. Suddenly there was more creative freedom on the AM band than on FM—a radical reversal from the hippie days.
Fans of the Limbaugh show tune in not just to hear right-wing opinions but for the host's on-air persona (he plays an over-the-top egotist) and the world he constructed around it (his show has its own jargon and catchphrases, a horde of running gags, and a set of customs for the callers). Even the mic technique is distinctive: Limbaugh punctuates his comments with coughs, shuffles his papers noisily at the appropriate junctures, and, in general, gives his show a sound that is as singular as its viewpoint.
His success announced a new era in which politics and popular culture would be blended more thoroughly than ever before: a time when shock jocks are as significant as policy wonks and getting good ratings is as important as getting out the vote. That puts Limbaugh in an interesting relationship not just with his audience but with his targets. Talk radio thrives on populist outrage, so its strongest moments come when it channels public opposition to a controversial policy. Its most uncomfortable moments come when it finds itself playing defense rather than offense. And its most ridiculous moments come when the news cycle is quiet, leaving the host thrashing around to gin up a good controversy for the day. Like the funnyman in a double act, the talk show host always needs a foil.
It should surprise no one, then, that Limbaugh's popularity leaped when Bill Clinton became president, nor that he lost his momentum after he helped engineer the Republican victories of 1994. And it shouldn't be a shock that the transition away from Republican rule has reinvigorated him. Limbaugh, in turn, has been a convenient target for the media-savvy Democratic commander-in-chief, who has good reasons to prefer a Limbaugh-led GOP. (Rush is as unpopular with swing-vote centrists as he is popular among his fans.) It isn't that Limbaugh wants the Democrats to be in power. It's just that his show is strongest when they are.
At the same time, he's a very loyal Republican. He's more likely to dissent from the party line than, say, Sean Hannity, but he is nowhere near as independent as Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly. Limbaugh's brand of conservatism is indebted to the three-legged stool associated with his hero, Ronald Reagan: a hawkish foreign policy, business-friendly economics, and social conservatism. But he built on the Reagan legacy in two other ways, each of which played a role in the right's changing fortunes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
One was his fealty to the GOP. Limbaugh has never held to Reagan's famous Eleventh Commandment—"Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican"—but when push comes to shove he will pick partisan loyalty over ideological intransigence. He will criticize the party, but he always ultimately falls in behind it. Thus, while he doesn't usually have guests on his show, in 1992 he broadcast a fawning interview with President George H.W. Bush, who was in a tough (and ultimately unsuccessful) reelection fight against Bill Clinton. At one point Rush claimed—absurdly, given the environmental and anti-discriminatory legislation that Bush had signed, the drug war he had stepped up, and the new powers his administration had taken during the Gulf War—that the chief difference between Bush and Clinton was that Bush believed in limited government. The host knew better, but he also knew what message would sell.
The second development was Limbaugh's loose approach to social issues. The broadcaster is, at least nominally, a social conservative. He is unfriendly to the gay movement (though he has toned that down over the years) and he supports drug prohibition (despite his own run-ins with the law). But he hasn't led a socially conservative life. Besides his well-publicized OxyContin and Viagra busts, he is on his fourth marriage and has a far from puritanical attitude toward cigars, food, and other legal pleasures. He puts much more stress on economic and foreign policy than on public morals, and, to borrow Robert Kaiser's phrase about Ronald Reagan, he shows signs of being a "closet tolerant."
This doesn't add up to a libertarian stance. If it did he'd be more concerned about the effects of the drug war (which is opposed, interestingly, by his frequent guest host Walter Williams). Indeed, Limbaugh's tolerance extends to many practices that libertarians oppose, such as the abuses at Abu Ghraib (which prompted the host to exclaim, "You ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of the need to blow some steam off?"). Whatever this worldview is, it is neither libertarian nor traditionalist. Yet it is increasingly common.
As a portrait of Limbaugh the man, Chafets' book is an enjoyable read. There are occasional errors, but nothing serious; and while I don't always agree with the author's political opinions, they aren't central to the book. You get the sense sometimes that Chafets got too close to his subject, but even that has an advantage: It makes it easier to see Limbaugh's life from the subject's point of view.
If something is missing here, it's a sense of Limbaugh's impact on the world beyond standard politics. Limbaugh's show was an early sign that politics and pop culture had collided, but it was hardly the final one; in his wake, the broadcasting world has seen right-wing talkers with different styles (Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck), counterprogrammers on the left (Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow), a sitting politician who resigned her office because she felt she could be more influential in a Rush-like role (Sarah Palin), a liberal entertainer who moved from writing anti-Limbaugh books and hosting his own radio show to getting elected to the U.S. Senate (Al Franken). Meanwhile, the Internet has made the boundary between politics and pop culture even blurrier, in an environment where the audience is even more active and autonomous than in talk radio.
For more than two decades, Limbaugh has helped a particular form of conservatism get a hearing. But his greater legacy might be a world where people with radically different views can change the world using Limbaugh's techniques. The president was wrong: You can listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done, even if your politics and Limbaugh's are diametrically opposed.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker (email@example.com) is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).