If most people publicly declared, “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of American life,” they’d be fired. But Rush Limbaugh has survived many controversial statements during his radio dominance reign – and his boldness may actually contribute to his success.
Last week, Limbaugh celebrated the 25th anniversary of his popular radio talk show. His enduring prominence in American life -- in spite of personal problems, a history of making outrageous statements and a willingness to attack both friend and foe -- raises not only the question of how he has stayed on top for so long, but why he’s inspired so many imitators across the political spectrum.
Few would question Limbaugh’s ambition and hard work. Even his critics would acknowledge his talent for entertaining, inspiring and engaging listeners on a daily basis. But perhaps the real secret of Limbaugh’s success is that he found himself in a niche that rewards obnoxious self-regard.
There’s no doubt Limbaugh often displays characteristics of a narcissist. From his frequent references to his talent “on loan from Gaaww-ddd” and his assertions that President Obama is obsessed with him, to his history of wearing (and marketing) loud, attention-grabbing ties, Limbaugh’s career has been uniquely characterized by the “noxious self-esteem” that psychologists use to describe narcissism.
That said, it could be argued that Limbaugh’s narcissistic tendencies have been essential for his success. Psychologists have shown that narcissists are highly successful in job interviews and when meeting new people because of their confidence and their ability and willingness to talk at great length about themselves and their positive qualities. The fact that talk radio often requires hosts to speak at length about their thoughts on minor news topics in order to fill airtime suggests that the capacity to generate entertaining one-way conversation is not a skill to be dismissed.
However, narcissism also has a well-known downside. Although narcissists can create an initial impression of competence through self-promotion and projected confidence, most narcissists eventually lose their impressive aura when observers have enough time to witness their inability to back up their rhetoric with facts or the skills to match their claims. Moreover, because narcissists often try to prop up their own image by disparaging others, their interpersonal relationships are often short-lived and end unpleasantly.
So how does one reconcile what research and our own personal experience tell us about narcissism and Limbaugh’s continued success? Shouldn’t his antics and bravado have alienated his audience by now? Perhaps not.
The problem most people have with narcissists is that they themselves or someone they care about is hurt by them. Unless one is a self-identified liberal calling into the show or a politician, the chances are most audience members will never be on the receiving end of Limbaugh’s condescension or vitriol.
Limbaugh makes it clear that if you listen to the program, you are not one of “them” who are responsible for the troubles the country faces. You are part of the solution by being informed. Limbaugh’s euphemistic references to the “low information voters” he deems responsible for President Obama’s election and continued support are generally not targeted at specific individuals so there are rarely any victims that the audience can feel sorry for. The listeners are implicitly encouraged to identify and blame these people themselves.
Also, because he controls the program and the presentation of facts, it is a simple matter to make himself look clever and others look ignorant in the moment. Consequently, there is “proof” for listeners that he was right the whole time so long as they don’t investigate further. Or to quote Limbaugh, “documented as being always correct 99.7% of the time.”
Finally, audience members are asked to perceive themselves as the last remaining core of virtuous Americans who are fighting a good fight against innumerable threats. The consequence of this is that talk radio and opinion-based television programs allow hosts to create an artificial world where their opponents are always ignorant or corrupt and they are always in the right. Their audiences can feel satisfied in knowing that their worldview is correct.
But perhaps there is one other factor that helps explain why Limbaugh continues to be more popular and enduring than his rivals and imitators. We believe it is because he subtly undermines those who would point to him as a pompous troublemaker by regularly referring to himself as “your host, a harmless, lovable little fuzz-ball.” In this way, he creates an atmosphere of kidding where distasteful antics can be written off as exaggerated attempts at humor and those who object are simply not in on the joke.
Although it is impossible to know whether the Rush that people either love or hate is an act or a reflection of his true personality, it is undeniable that the person sitting behind the golden microphone managed to find success and influence in part because of the over-the-top narcissism displayed on the air. He is certainly not alone in this, but he is quite possibly the best.