If you weren’t around for it, it’s a little difficult to explain how and why Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing broadcaster who died this week, was (very briefly) a member of the commentary team for Sunday NFL Countdown back in2003 Nationally televised expert sports is a realm so allergic to controversy, and to any association with partisan politics, that tv commentators are more likely to be suspended for getting political than they are to be hired for their politics. So how did Limbaugh– whose politics weren’t just incidental but the obvious core of his appeal– end up a Disney worker entrusted with talking about National Football League video games? One factor is that he was, at the time, a basically traditional figure.
Residing in today United States, where the conservative movement has actually successfully created an entire parallel media ecosystem that permits right-wingers to cut themselves off entirely from any other sources of news or home entertainment, it’s tough to bear in mind that in the not-too-distant past, conservative media figures still mainly depended on the “mainstream media” for their platforms. And the mainstream media gladly supplied those platforms.
For those too young to bear in mind his prime (and I ‘d probably count myself amongst those too young to genuinely remember his Clinton-era prime time regardless of my occasional exposure to him in a conservative relative’s truck or on their bookshelf), it’s difficult to communicate simply how nasty and bigoted Limbaugh was but likewise how mainstream he was. And it is therefore tough to comprehend exactly how reactionary the whole American media environment– and, as a result, the political culture– was in that era.
If anything, in his later years Limbaugh dialed it back a bit even if it would’ve been difficult even for him to keep getting away with the sort of things he consistently stated and did at the peak of his popularity. A complimentary (and agent) New York City Times story from 1990 demonstrates how the establishment laundered his bigotry right from the start. While plainly contemptuous (the piece makes a point early on of specifically delineating his weight), the profile essentially treats Limbaugh as a guilty pleasure. “So why has Rush Limbaugh end up being the brand-new titan of talk?” the paper asks. “Maybe it is America’s shock at finding a brand-new types: an amusing right-winger.”
Do not hesitate to search the piece for examples of his humor. One of them is only mentioned in the vaguest possible terms. Rush, we’re informed, “has actually cut a few of his material, specifically on homosexuals.” More particularly: “He killed a running bit on AIDS after two weeks.” Limbaugh is then offered area to apologize: “It’s the single most regretful thing I have actually ever done,” he informs his profiler.
That profiler would’ve done the reader a favor by describing the “running bit” in a bit more detail. While, as far as I understand, no recordings have actually managed to surface (and every modern paper recommendation describes it with that very same informing vagueness), the “gag” was that he ‘d call people who died of AIDS while playing a “funny” song like “Kiss Him Bye-bye” or “Trying to find Love In All the Wrong Places.”
This is an especially nasty example of Limbaugh’s “humor,” however it’s completely in line with basically every other “joke” he ever told. Limbaugh’s appeal was as the person who said “what we’re all thinking,” if you comprehend “we” to suggest specific men who maybe felt they couldn’t get away with stating (in combined business, at least) what Rush stated (or “joked”) about women, gay men, and Black individuals.
Even as outlets like The New York Times continued to identify his audience as bumpkins, they valued his right-wing “comedy,” exposing the degree to which 1990 s elites were really some of his most eager fans. Limbaugh was a leader in the creation of the parallel conservative media, turning talk radio into a crucial arm of it. But tv kept beckoning. By March of 1990, he had his very first gig as a TV host, attending CBS’s Pat Sajak Program. He ‘d go on to get a ( Roger Ailes– produced) syndicated talk show a couple of years later on. He ‘d regularly resurface in the occasional comedy or motion picture cameo throughout the remainder of the decade before finally winding up with that unfortunate stint in the Sunday NFL Countdown booth. ( He was fired after making racist comments about Donovan McNabb, a black quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.)
In other words, Rush– in spite of (or, more most likely, because of) his rancid bigotry– was, in the 1990 s, just a regular celeb. The most prominent left-of-center voices on American tv throughout the Clinton years were Bill Maher and Al Franken. It was a deeply reactionary mass culture in which specific figures might say anything so long as their targets were marginalized or helpless.
The age in which the mass media continuously elevated conservative figures like Limbaugh or Matt Drudge without having the ability to provide any left-wing alternatives basically ended, for lots of factors, with the Bush administration. By the close of his career, Limbaugh was just another character in the right’s information ecosystem, easily avoidable if you didn’t purposefully expose yourself to conservative media. By 2009, it would have been odd to see ABC treating Rush as a mostly noncontroversial celeb in the manner in which it did in2003 The mainstream media still likes elevating conservative arguments and Republican pundits, but it generally sticks to ones that don’t intentionally court debate.
These efforts to prevent debate have actually lately led some figures in our present political environment to envision that corporate media and its offshoots are “canceling” anyone they consider too controversial. These figures declare that the left has actually become too censorious which complimentary expression is under attack due to the fact that people face social opprobrium or economic repercussions for saying specific (typically “insensitive”) things. Many (but by no means all) of the critics of this thing called “cancel culture” are males. Surprisingly, a lot of them are likewise members of Generation X.
I don’t believe this generation of thinkers simply grew more conservative as they aged. I suspect their obsession with cancel culture is in fact a reflection of their memories (accurate or not) of the discourse in the 1990 s, and their intense awareness of just how much the surface has moved. It could be translated as a desire to return to the guidelines that governed the discourse then. It need not be a particular desire for figures as offensive as Rush Limbaugh to be treated as “regular” stars once again. However if you came of age at a time when it was broadly accepted that Limbaugh was the mouth piece of Genuine America and if, for instance, you started a career based on understanding and discussing politics– making arguments about how liberals and Democrats should act and what they need to say to win over Real America– there need to be a strong temptation to wish to yank the political environment back to the place it remained in when you developed your original understanding of it. Seeking to reconstruct the past might be simpler than having to adjust your worldview to represent changes in conditions.
The sort of individual who utilized their task for many years to recommend Democrats on how far as much as turn the racism dial would clearly discover it hard to accept that the correct answer now is to turn it the other instructions. Even a number of those who weren’t so cynical in their methods probably still have difficulty shaking that deep-rooted sense that this is a nation of Dittoheads at heart. Cancel culture discourse permits those people to think they remain correct about America’s necessary character– and to imagine that there is a conspiracy of young activists (backed by afraid editors) to silence those who attempt reveal themselves in ways that were perfectly kosher back then.
I do not imply this to be an all-inclusive explanation for cancel culture or some skeleton key to the psychology of the aging centrist. It’s a truth that Rush Limbaugh was uncancelable back in the 1990 s when the newspapers pleasantly euphemized his HELP jokes. I welcome you to decide for yourself if that was a freer environment for speech or one more conducive to open and sincere debate.
A previous version of this post misstated which NFL program Limbaugh commentated for in 2003.