Yesterday we were treated to the spectacle of Donald Trump's campaign manager being arrested for misdemeanor battery of Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields. The candidate stood by his man. After weeks of denials and assassinations of the victim's character, he finally blustered and blathered and then did his Trumpian thing: He said she started it by physically attacking him with what might have been "a little bomb" (it was a pen) and threatened to have her charged with assault. Once again, he dominated the new cycle with his misogynist sideshow. It seems to be working for him. NBC announced that his poll numbers were closing in on 50 percent.
Meanwhile, the Republican establishment continues to rend its collective garments, lashing out in all directions, trying desperately to figure out how it all went wrong. So it was only a matter of time before some GOP elite turned his gaze on the king of the vulgarians, Rush Limbaugh. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson lit into him yesterday with a blistering criticism, blaming him for Trump's success.
He's right that Limbaugh is responsible --- but also he completely misses the reason.
Gerson admits that Limbaugh has not formally endorsed Trump but observes that he has been cheering on his campaign's crusade against "the establishment" and "the elite" even as he admits that Cruz is the true conservative in the race. (I wrote about Limbaugh's delicate dance between the Cruzies and the Trumpers in his audience a while back.) He believes Rush has inadvertently convinced the Trump voters that ideology doesn't matter:
For decades, Limbaugh set the tone of popular conservatism by arguing for ideological purity. Now, the great champion of conservatism has enabled the rise of the “least conservative Republican presidential aspirant in living memory” (in the words of Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs). Trump is a candidate who talks more of personal rule than of limited government. A candidate who praises a single-payer health system, proposes higher taxes on the wealthy, opposes entitlement reform and advocates the systematic destruction of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. This is the politician Limbaugh has given the ideological hall pass of a lifetime.
Gerson believes this is very unfair to the decent people he knows in politics who are not driven by greed and corruption. He says, "Criticizing their venality from 30,000 feet in his Gulfstream jet rings particularly hollow." And he takes great issue with Trump's shallowness and the fact that he is all "impulses and instincts", a man who doesn't reason from first principles.
Most importantly, he adamantly rejects his vulgar personality, writing:
[M]any Republicans, in Washington and elsewhere, do not view civility, inclusion and tolerance as forms of weakness or compromise. In fact, they view casual misogyny, racial stereotyping and religious bigotry as moral failings, in their children and in their leaders. And they oppose — as a matter of faith or philosophy — any form of populism that has exclusion, cruelty or dehumanization at its core.
Gerson has obviously not been listening to Rush Limbaugh over the past 25 years or he would know that the millions of conservatives who listen to his show every day are positively enthusiastic about casual misogyny, racial stereotyping, religious bigotry, cruelty and dehumanization. Those are Rush Limbaugh's stock in trade.
Decades before Donald Trump sent a crude tweet mocking Heidi Cruz's looks, Rush Limbaugh went on TV and made a disgusting joke about a 13 year old girl. The late great Molly Ivins reported on it back in 1995:
On his TV show, early in the Clinton administration, Limbaugh put up a picture of Socks, the White House cat, and asked, "Did you know there's a White House dog?" Then he put up a picture of Chelsea Clinton, who was 13 years old at the time and as far as I know had never done any harm to anyone.
When viewers objected, he claimed, in typical Limbaugh fashion, that the gag was an accident and that without his permission some technician had put up the picture of Chelsea—which I found as disgusting as his original attempt at humor.
Who does that remind you of? Or how about a record of disgusting misogynist rhetoric so ugly it makes Donald Trump sound like Billy Graham. Here is just a random sampling of his greatest hits, via Media Matters:
One of Limbaugh's (many) running attacks on Hillary Clinton is that she is in possession of a "testicle lockbox" that represents, in Limbaugh's retelling, "the worst characteristics of women ... totally controlling, not soft and cuddly. Not sympathetic. Not patient. Not understanding. Demanding, domineering, Nurse Ratched kind of thing."
Michelle Obama's nationwide anti-obesity campaign has rankled Limbaugh and other conservatives, who have responded to the fitness drive with a barrage of nonsensical attacks on Mrs. Obama's weight -- Limbaugh is fond of referring to the First Lady as "Michelle, my butt," and has said "it doesn't look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice." Last September, commenting on the size of the presidential limousine, Rush said: "The beast weighs eight tons without Michelle in it. Eight tons. Sixteen thousand pounds."
Anyone who has listened to enough Rush Limbaugh knows that he holds feminism in low regard and will often refer to feminists as "feminazis," a term he proudly takes ownership of. Last June, in trying to explain attacks on Sarah Palin, Limbaugh declared that feminism "was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream." He elaborated, saying the "feminazis" were "trying to reorder human nature because of how unkind it was to them."
Did Michael Gerson miss this shocking 2012 diatribe about Sandra Fluke, the woman who testified before congress about the need for insurance coverage for contraception?
"What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex. What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.
"Ms. Fluke, have you ever heard of not having sex? Have you ever heard of not having sex so often? So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here's the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."
Limbaugh briefly got in trouble for that but it doesn't seem to have affected his reputation among respectable beltway conservative thought leaders like Michael Gerson who still see him as an avatar of ideological conservatism.
But Gerson isn't alone. Limbaugh commonly sickens decent people with his outrageous rhetoric and the conservative movement inevitably comes to his rescue. Recall that time he stuck up for the Abu Ghraib torturers by saying they were just "blowing off steam", and the National Review stepped up to energetically testify to his superior character:
Rush's angry, frustrated critics discount how hard it is to make an outrageous charge against him stick. But, we listeners have spent years with him, we know him, and trust him. Rush is one of those rare acquaintances who can be defended against an assault challenging his character without ever knowing the "facts." We trust his good judgment, his unerring decency, and his fierce loyalty to the country he loves and to the courageous young Americans who defend her.
That inane misrepresentation of reality came from the pages of America's most prestigious conservative magazine.
Rush Limbaugh is a vastly wealthy, crude, arrogant blowhard with a vicious, bigoted worldview. He has no compassion or self-awareness and an ego the size of Krakatoa. He has been the expression of the right wing id for almost three decades. And yet intelligent conservatives like Michael Gerson still cling to the belief Limbaugh's popularity has had something to do with conservative ideology.
But he is right about one thing. There would be no presidential candidate Trump without Rush Limbaugh paving the way. Donald Trump is the man Limbaugh has always wanted to be.