I was sitting in the parking lot of my church on Ash Wednesday, just about to go inside to get my ashes, when the radio told me that Rush Limbaugh had died. With him passes both an era in politics, and an era in my own life.
If you’re a showman – and Rush was that above all else – they say that it’s best to go out on top. And he did, just at the moment when it became apparent that the approach to politics that he championed his whole life won’t be enough to save us; that superior arguments won’t win the day and that we’re not going to vote our way out of this. That he left the stage at precisely the right point so it could honestly be said that he never became irrelevant is perhaps the one small consolation that can be found within this. The future will always be able to look back on him and say: “He was a man of his time”. Yes, his time has passed, as it does for all men. But if we are to look back now and evaluate what he meant, it can only fairly be in the context of those times.
Those who think that the current censorship against the right is anything new don’t remember the days when a cartel of three television networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) and two newspapers (the New York Times and the Washington Post) had a monopoly on both news and entertainment, and controlled everything that anyone heard about about any issue at all. What we’re seeing now is merely a return to that status quo, with a new cartel (Twitter, Facebook, Google) in place of the old one. The censorship in those days was in many ways worse; it was just less obvious and more deniable because of higher barriers to entry. It doesn’t seem terribly oppressive to tell someone that their television script is rejected or that you’re not going to give them a weekly column in your newspaper – the opportunities there are few just by the nature of things, and if everyone who does get one of them turns out to be of (or at least acceptable to) the left, that can be easily enough written off as coincidence. To ban someone from Twitter when they had more followers than the old newspaper had subscribers looks different, but it really isn’t. The effect is the same: one message gets out, and the other doesn’t.
This was the situation in the 80s and early 90s, when Rush appeared on the scene. AM radio was a dying format, desperate enough to give literally anything a try if it had any chance of saving them from extinction. And putting him on the air was a very great risk; too many modern Dissident Rightists have no idea just how genuinely edgy and radical Rush and his ideas seemed back in those days, and how much the “respectable” Establishment recoiled against them. They are either too young or too lost in the current-day situation to remember that even the Boomercon civnattery that seems so dated now was once considered far, far beyond the pale, and that if Rush hadn’t been out there fighting for that, we wouldn’t be in any position to go beyond it. Pioneers still deserve respect, even if the trails they blazed are well-worn now.
A common sentiment heard from callers in the early days of Rush’s show was that before they found him, they had no idea that anyone out there thought the same way they did. This shows how powerful the left’s stranglehold on public discourse was back then, and the importance of his having singlehandedly broken it. Causing one’s enemy to feel isolated, alone, and out-of-step with the society around them is a powerful weapon of demoralization, and breaking through that to offer a sense of community, even if only through the airwaves, is massively empowering. Beyond this, Rush brought a sense of fun to being on the right, perhaps for the first time ever. He mocked liberals at a time when it was assumed by all that this was a tool to which liberals alone had exclusive rights. He laughed at them, and his audience laughed along with him. This is a deeply underestimated strategy – people like to laugh; they like to have fun. It is something that the left has forgotten in the age of the dour, hectoring SJW. It is something that, other than at the height of the Meme Era that surrounded Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, the modern right forgets all too often as well. But it should never be overlooked, and very much of Rush’s success and his political and cultural impact relied on the fact that he didn’t. Perhaps most importantly, he never backed down from his beliefs; he never seemed ashamed of them or felt the need to qualify them with endless disclaimers explaining how he was really a good person despite them. Simply being confident and proud in those beliefs inspired millions of others to do the same.
Of course, he couldn’t ever have gone with us as far as it now seems that we’ll need to go. But this was not a symptom of any lack of courage; it was only a reflection of the hold that the America in which he was born had on him, and of how far we have fallen from it in just one lifetime. To the end, Rush was a genuine “Shining City on a Hill” believer; the kind that not only thought that America was unreservedly good at its core, but that its empire was the only thing keeping the world from falling into tyranny and chaos. That’s a belief that most of us on this end of the right, if we ever held it at all, gave up on around 2006, but that seemed manifestly true for someone who grew up in a stable, prosperous America in the years directly following World War II, and whose only frame of reference was the comparison to Nazism or Communism. Even his support for the disastrous wars of the Bush era, which continued long after it was obvious that they had been a terrible mistake (this was the only point at which I found his show unlistenable, and had to take some time away from it) were based in an unshakable faith that the American way of life was the best in the world, and that everyone would want to live that way if they were only given a chance to. There is a temptation for a man of today’s Dissident Right to sneer at this, and in a 21st century context, it might be justified, but it also must be remembered that the America that Rush had in mind was eternally a vision of the 1954 of his youth; a better place that you and I have never had the privilege to see. Had we seen it for ourselves, we might find it just as hard to let go of as he did.
Rush could understand that his country wasn’t what it used to be, but couldn’t allow himself to believe that it would never again be what it had once been. That’s a dream that can only die hard; one that anyone would hold onto for as long as they could. It only really became undeniable that it was gone for good in the very closing moments of his life, and it is perhaps for the best that he essentially died with it. In a way, I wish he hadn’t been here to see the past few months, and in a way, I’m happy he won’t be here to see what comes next. It would break his heart. It breaks mine. I would love to have personally seen the Shining City that he saw, and would love to believe that it can be restored someday. But just as he was a man of a time that I never could live in, I must be a man of a time that he cannot live in, and I must face its realities.
Before I do face forward into it, however, I’d like to take a brief moment to indulge in a personal reflection back into the time that he and I shared.
The first time I ever heard Rush was sometime in 1992, when at the beginning of my adult life I was briefly living in Orlando. John the shuttle van driver, who I saw every morning and afternoon, had dodged missiles to drop bombs on North Vietnam back in the day, but driving the van was his quiet retirement job, and he didn’t want to talk about the war while he was doing it, so he kept Rush on the radio instead. Soon, all of us who rode with him were spending our time in the van listening to the show and talking over what Rush had said amongst ourselves. Some wanted Ross Perot to win the election, some were sticking with Poppy Bush, and everyone was certain that Slick Willie could only be a disaster. All of us wondered what the future would bring, in our own lives and for the country.
For all the years thereafter, from then until now, Rush was there with me wherever I went and whatever I did. Through the long, sweet days of the 90s in Silicon Valley, when the only place out of San Francisco that would carry him was the local sports talk outfit. Through my time in Japan, carrying my little Sony pocket radio and listening over Eagle 810, the Armed Forces Network’s 50,000 watt station out of Yokota Air Force Base, which carried the first hour of the show during the evening commute time. Through my professional traveling days, over countless stations in countless cities and small towns, on clock-radios in countless hotel rooms. Through many long road trips around the country, scanning on the car radio for a new station each time the last one faded into static. Through my last years in California, carrying the now-old Sony on walks around San Francisco and Berkeley and a vastly-changed Silicon Valley. Through all of my tribulations after I left, and into my new life in Southern Appalachia. Through my late teens and my twenties and my thirties and my forties and almost to fifty. I’ve lived a good and adventuresome life, but never a particularly stable one. People and places have come and gone. I’ve opened many doors, and closed many others. I’ve had many identities and played many roles. There have been few constants in my journey, but Rush was always one of them.
And now this constant companion will be with me no further. Whatever he may have meant to his country, and whatever he may mean to history, a measure of comfort and happiness that has meant something to me my whole adult life is gone.
I will miss you, old friend. Thank you. Farewell. Megadittoes.