Charlie Sykes
The Bulwark Presents
Morning Shots with Charlie Sykes

Rush Limbaugh’s Legacy Is Complete

May 28, 2020
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(JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

“But the thing here is when you get to Trump and his conspiracy theories,” Rush Limbaugh explained to his listeners on Wednesday, “he does it in a really clever way. And this is where people don’t get the subtlety of Trump because they don’t think he has the ability to be subtle. Trump never says that he believes these conspiracy theories that he touts. He’s simply passing them on.”

There are many mountains Rush could choose to die on, but the subtlety of Donald Trump? 

Was the Medal of Freedom really worth this?

Trump has been pushing a debunked conspiracy linking Joe Scarborough to the murder of a young aide. There is no basis to the smear, but the president continues to ignore pleas from the woman’s husband and others to stop. Even some of Trump’s reliable allies seem appalled by the malignancy and cruelty of the attacks.

But Rush is here to explain that it’s all about the “fun” of triggering folks who care about morality. The lie doesn’t matter. Moralizing is a joke. Cruelty is cleverness.

This is, of course, vintage Rush.

The two-minute clip captures the full range of his sophistry and cynicism: his divination of eight-dimensional chess, his pretzeled rationalizations, the hint that he is letting his audience in on some clever “secret knowledge,” and, of course, the “fun” of “watching these holier-than-thou leftist journalists react like their moral sensibilities have been forever rocked and can never recover.”

The decadence of conservative media (of which i was once a part) is on full display in this partial transcript:

Like during the campaign of 2016, I—folks, I ran the gamut of emotions on this. When Trump said that he had seen a picture of Ted Cruz’s dad standing next to Lee Harvey Oswald, I said, “What the hell is this?” And I thought he’s going to have to walk this back. Ted Cruz’s dad had something to do with the assassination of JFK? He never walked it back. But more importantly, he never asserted it himself.

He simply said it was out there and that people ought to know—and with virtually every conspiracy theory that Trump touts, he doesn’t actually tout them himself. He spreads them and he—under the guise of people need to know about this, and it’s his way of jamming them up. It’s his way of teasing him. It’s his way of getting these conspiracy theories out there.

For example, as a way of illustrating, do you think—Mr. Snerdley, do you think Trump cares whether Scarborough murdered anybody or not? No, of course he doesn’t care. So why is he tweeting it? Well, because it’s out there. He didn’t make it up. It’s long been out there that this death has something suspicious about it.

So Trump is just throwing gasoline on a fire here, and he’s having fun watching the flames—and he’s having fun watching these holier-than-thou leftist journalists react like their moral sensibilities have been forever rocked and can never recover.

See what he did there? In one breath, Limbaugh insists that Trump “doesn’t actually tout” the conspiracy theory himself, but then describes how he “spreads them” because they are “out there.”

It’s a distinction without a difference, but even that doesn’t matter because, it’s all about the lulz.

This is not new for Limbaugh, even if the lift has gotten heavier. In my How the Right Lost Its Mind, I recounted Rush’s early defenses of Trump’s attacks on John McCain.

Despite the fact that Trump, who had never served in the military, had questioned McCain’s status a war hero, Limbaugh opened his show by declaring: “Trump can survive this, Trump is surviving this.” He called Trump’s refusal to apologize “a great, great teachable moment here, this whole thing with Trump and McCain.”

Months later, he defended Trump’s claim that he had seem videos of “thousands and thousands of” people in Jersey City “cheering as that building was coming down [on 9/11]. Thousands of people were cheering.” Actually no such video exists and officials on the ground have consistently denied the story. But again, Limbaugh set the pattern of providing air cover by defending what Stephen Colbert would call the ‘truthiness” of the statement.

As the campaign wore on, Limbaugh also did yeoman’s service by explaining away some of Trump’s more flagrant inconsistencies. When it appeared that Trump was about to flip flop on the signature issue of his campaign—his pledge to deport illegal immigrants, Limbaugh rationalized the broken promise by saying that he had never taken Trump seriously on the issue anyway. Even when he was publicly praising it.

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt wrote that “Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”