These are heady days for Rush Limbaugh. He was the subject of a cover story in the New York Times magazine last summer. He’s also garnered widespread attention as the de facto leader of the Republican Party, no doubt among the reasons it’s in its worst shape in 75 years.
It’s been relatively easy for Limbaugh to cram his gelatinous abs into the vacuum created by the Republican disarrary: because the people in charge are letting him do it. Michael Steele, the clueless new leader of the Republican National Committee, was actually proper earlier this week when he criticized Limabugh as being an entertainer and not a political leader. When he insipidly -- and almost immediately -- apologized to Limbaugh for the sin of showing some spine, he might as well have signed over the pink slip to his job. No shock that the already hyper-emboldened Limbaugh then promptly challenged Barack Obama to a debate.
I disagree with Al Franken on Limbaugh: I don’t think he’s an idiot at all (although we’re in total agreement on the “big fat” part). Limbaugh knows his audience and provides them with what they want: populist rage about the country’s current economic and cultural woes, peppered with the sort of frathouse humor unexamined minds delightedly lap up. And he does that better than anyone else around, by a long, long margin.
What I find distressing is that there is probably not a single one of Limbaugh’s listeners aware of the scary parallels between their hero and the most execrable media figure in American history: Charles Coughlin, the Catholic priest who shamelessly inflamed anti-Semitic and isolationist rhetoric around the country in the years before World War Two. That New York Times Magazine article made a comparison to Coughlin, but only in the fleetest passing.
Coughlin was a Canadian immigrant, but aside from that had much in common with Limbaugh: he held himself out as a product of the culturally conservative Midwest, setting up headquarters in Michigan (Limbaugh is a Missouri man). Although he considered himself a populist, Coughlin spent much of his career denouncing Franklin Roosevelt as a socialist (sound familiar?) And although Limbaugh is the product of a (seemingly) more tolerant era and has to act accordingly, both men relished pushing the race-baiting game as far as their respective eras would allow them to get away with.
At a time when gutter talk about minorities was as commonplace as cigarette smoke, Coughlin never used epithets for Jewry. He just politely intoned that they were responsible for the Great Depression and were trying to take over the world.
Limbaugh operates from a more bombastic part of the spectrum, but he also tries to leaven his positions with seeming reasonableness. He has said he wants Barack Obama to fail. Not because he’s black mind you, but because he’s a liberal, and to say otherwise would be patronizing. To accept that argument you must also accept a Missourian right-winger has never once had a racist thought in his head. Given Harry Truman – a Missourian centrist who desegregated the military – was prone to dropping the n-word when he got flak from civil rights leaders, it seems farcical to even consider this.
Limbaugh also uses a song called “Barack the Magic Negro” on his broadcasts, but cut off his critics at the knees by noting the term was coined by African-American writer David Ehrenstein, via a March 2007 opinion piece he penned in the Los Angeles Times. But the corrosive connections are clear: Limbaugh has framed Obama solely in terms of race while insisting he hasn’t. He also wants to debate Obama because a white college dropout has the chops to beat a Harvard Law School grad any time of the day -- so long as the latter is a "Negro."
Coughlin didn’t employ such sophistry, as his core audience was anything but sophisticated. But it makes me cringe about what he would have accomplished had he done so.
Not that Coughlin didn’t try. “Undoubtedly, it will occasion considerable controversy. But undoubtedly, it will do much to clarify a vexed problem in our midst,” the announcer for Coughlin’s broadcasts often said in introducing his sermons. More genteel, but not terribly different from the preamble on Limbaugh’s website: “There is a ‘consensus’ among the American people, who have made this the most listened to program, that it is also the most accurate, most right, and most correct.”
Radio listeners had longer attention spans than today, so Coughlin would warm them up by sounding eminently reasonable – at first. In his broadcast of December 4, 1938, Coughlin initially sounded like he’s condemning Nazi Germany for Kristallnacht – the nationwide pogroms that ushered in the Holocaust. But then he insists that the Nazis had mostly let its native-born Jews go about their business, and that they were being unfairly portrayed.
“Germany has not resorted to the guillotine, the machine gun, the kerosene-drenched pit as instruments of reprisal against Jew or Gentile,” Coughlin declared in justifying Nazi conduct. In other words, he was the template for today’s hardcore right-winger: an apologist for brutality as long as it’s not murder, and a complete refusal to see even 30 seconds into the future.
No doubt every time Limbaugh says he wants Barack Obama to fail, he fails to comprehend what would happen to this country if he actually did. Or, worse: perhaps he does.
Right now, the Obama Administration is just letting Rush be Rush, and yammer on in the never-ending echo chamber of the 24-hour news cycle. That’s fine –
for now. His radio audience, estimated at around 13 million, is, relatively speaking, small (about 4% of the U.S. population). He can be gassy and bellicose, but most of the populace still isn’t paying attention.
FDR didn’t have that choice: Coughlin’s audience was estimated to be as high as 40 million, or 25% of the entire population. The Great Depression bred a lot of fear and populist bigotry, and therefore a lot of Coughlin follwers. Proportionally speaking, Coughlin’s audience was six times the size of Limbaugh’s current following. Can you imagine the Nuremberg Rally-style hysteria reigning in this nation if Limbaugh had 80 million people listening to him every day? That’s among the reasons Limbaugh wants Obama to fail: a Great Depression Two would bring him far closer to that number.
Should that nightmare scenario occur, we can only hope Obama is as suave as FDR was at mangling his opponents. Coughlin did a slam-bang business mailing out transcripts of his radio broadcasts and his own newspaper – an early form of viral marketing. At the outbreak of the war in Europe, FDR was able to bar Coughlin from using both radio and mass mailings as a matter of national security. It wasn’t that long after that the Church shooed Coughlin back into an anonymous parish, and he spent the remainder of his life in obscurity.
Unless World War Three gets started on Obama’s watch, Limbaugh can’t be stopped in the same devious manner. There are countless more media outlets for Limbaugh to plug himself into than Coughlin had, and no strait-laced institution like the Catholic Church he’s beholden to. It’s up to every individual citizen – dittohead or not – to keep Limbaugh in perspective.