So what’s Rush Limbaugh been up to for the past couple of months? When last we left our anti-hero, who is dying from advanced lung cancer, he was peddling voter-fraud disinformation as part of his ongoing efforts to boost President Donald Trump by depicting Democrats as immoral deep state schemers who will stop at nothing in their efforts to seize political power and ruin America. Contra the right-wing radio host’s fondest desires, Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. And yet immediately Biden’s victory was seized upon by Limbaugh and his listeners as proof positive that it was actually a Trump victory, and that the Democrats are everything the host had always said they were. This sinuous talent for incorporating literally any news development into his expansive and unfalsifiable narrative of liberal calumny and elitist conspiracy has always been Limbaugh’s neatest trick. Even when he loses, he always wins.
Thursday marked Limbaugh’s first show of the new year, and, newswise, the timing could not have been better. On Wednesday, a mob of angry, low-information MAGA loons—urged on by a chicken-heart president who goaded them into risks that he would never himself personally take—stormed the U.S. Capitol in order to express their displeasure with the outcome of the presidential election and to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s victory. At least four people died, dozens were injured, and the shock from the siege reverberated around the world. It was one of the darker days in American history, and for many Republicans—but not that many—it served as a belated moment of reckoning with the consequences of surrendering their party to Donald Trump.
Limbaugh, however, is not one to be forced into an existential reckoning by anything as mundane as far-right extremists storming the U.S. Capitol at the behest of some memes they saw on the internet. In order to reckon with something, after all, you first have to admit that it actually happened, which, on Thursday’s show, Limbaugh was largely unwilling to do. “A bloody coup attempt! Even though the only blood spilled was that of an unarmed Trump supporter who was shot,” Limbaugh snorted. “Meanwhile, four years of a coup launched in the Oval Office of Barack Obama to overturn the election results of 2016, and not a single word of concern about the potential damage to our Constitution. No.”
Right-wing idiots stormed the Capitol: Thanks a lot, Obama! The comparison doesn’t make any sense, but it isn’t supposed to make sense; it’s supposed to cloud the terms of debate and activate listeners’ rage centers while further reducing their critical faculties. All afternoon, with practiced ease, Limbaugh railed against the violent, intolerant left in order to fraudulently contextualize the recent actions of the violent, intolerant right. “They’ve burned down political federal courthouses, after barricading people inside of them. They’ve taken over freeways. They’ve taken over entire cities,” Limbaugh said of the left. At times, it seemed like the host was offering a demented bit of contrarianism: “Actually, the Siege of the Capitol Was Good,” so to speak—or, if not unequivocally good, then at least it was nowhere near as bad as the events of last spring and summer, when Limbaugh and many of his peers pretended that police-brutality protesters were working systematically to torch America’s cities, topple America’s statues, and consign to the gulags all those who dare to tell ethnic jokes on the internet.
“I know they broke some windows at the Capitol and so forth. Yeah, I know they breached the doors and took some selfies. Oh, that’s what they took? They took selfies,” said Limbaugh, comparing the violent siege of the federal legislature to a slightly rowdy sightseeing tour. “So you can set fire to a downtown strip of any blue-state city—Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, New York—and it’s called a peaceful protest. But you dare not set foot where the political class lives and works and does its job.”
Let’s unpack that little disinformational soliloquy, in which Limbaugh depicted those who dare to object to the siege of the U.S. Capitol as a bunch of stuffed-shirt elitists bent on thwarting the will of the people. They took selfies, yes, after battering down the doors and windows of the U.S. Capitol—and many of those selfies showed rioters taking many other things, too. Limbaugh didn’t bother mentioning any of those facts, so eager was he to shift the terms of debate back to familiar and fruitful territory: America’s burning cities.
The overheated claims about the extent and intent of the localized property damage that accompanied a small fraction of the protests last spring and summer have gained currency on the right through sheer repetition. Like any consummate entertainer, Limbaugh knows that he can never go wrong playing his fans’ favorite song; nor can he go wrong bashing the political class, as if Limbaugh himself is some guileless hayseed, instead of a political kingmaker who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last January for, in effect, his services to the Republican Party. “I’ve heard all these people in Congress talking about how they were scared for their life yesterday,” a scornful Limbaugh said at one point Thursday. “You know, try losing your paycheck for nine months. And try having your family business shut down. Imagine you own a restaurant in New York. You’re coming up on nine months, buddy, where you haven’t been allowed to open your doors.”
Whining about ostensible public health conspiracies has, of late, become another of Limbaugh’s favorite pastimes. For the past year, Limbaugh has been one of the loudest voices against the public health measures that many cities and states have deployed at times in order to try and stanch the spread of COVID-19, which he has fancifully deemed a pretext for the leftist destruction of American capitalism. But just as he has blasted the shutdowns and slowdowns for taking money out of American wage-earners’ pockets, for his entire career he has also stood against the sorts of federal fiscal interventions that might put money into American wage-earners’ pockets. (In December, for instance, he went on the air and complained about the “mind-boggling” amount of debt the federal government incurred while it was “paying everybody to stay home.”) In this construction, the American wage-earner loses either way. The real winner is Limbaugh, who gets to go on the radio and blab about fake solutions while avoiding any talk of real ones.
It’s all very stupid, both Limbaugh’s bilious attempts at deflection and his ceaseless efforts to depict himself as a renegade truth-teller saying all the things that the ruling classes—on whose behalf he has diligently worked for the past three decades—don’t want you to hear. “The listening devices are out there. People monitoring this program and others, they’re out there, and they’re waiting for just one wrong word,” he said at the outset of Thursday’s show, the implication being that vast, shadowy forces are aligned against the host, desperate for the slightest excuse to twist his words and silence his voice. A careful listener might note that if “they” haven’t managed to silence Limbaugh after 30-plus years of the host warning that he is on the verge of being silenced, then “they” might not be as powerful or as monolithic as Limbaugh makes them out to be.
But Limbaugh’s core audience isn’t made up of careful listeners; it’s made up of weird cranks who want to yell about Michael Avenatti, have their prior assumptions flattered by dumb lies, and be forever reassured that Black and liberal protesters are criminals while right-wing insurrectionists are patriots. Limbaugh has helped shepherd these troglodytes out of the tar pits, into the mainstream, and, in a way, to the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, where they yelled and fought and broke things and pushed people until it was time to get back on their charter buses and go home.
Donald Trump will be going home in two weeks, too. When he does, Rush Limbaugh will, amazingly, almost certainly still be around. Having outlasted Trump, he will continue to work to perpetuate Trumpism from his perch in Americans’ earholes: clouding debates, changing the subject, and pandering to the “patriots” until the day he dies.