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Rush Limbaugh’s legacy of divison

Radio personality Rush Limbaugh pumps thumb after being awarded the Medal of Freedom by First Lady Melania Trump - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

BONNIE GREER on the death of the first conflict entrepreneur.

There was Marconi. And then there was Rush Limbaugh.

Marconi, of course, is the father of radio and arguably of all broadcasting. Before him, the general public largely read what was called the ‘news’ and made their assessment from that. Print was the only reliable medium.

Then came radio and the democratisation of information in the sense that news could be accessible without having to read it. The assumption made, in most cases, was that what you heard on the radio (and, later, saw on television) as the news was straight – not from any point of view.

In the United States, because of the so-called ‘fairness doctrine’ policy which governed broadcasting, opinion mandated balance. In other words, whatever was said had to be counter-balanced.

There was this clear demarcation between fact and opinion. And when opinion was voiced, balance was given. It was in this world that Americans heard from right wing firebrands like Father Coughlin in the 1930s, and those on the left too. They were able to understand that they were getting opinion, and could have it balanced.

The atmosphere was clear enough so that, when Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s accused the United States Army of being riddled with communists, people could take a position on it. And the position was based on fact.

Everyone had pretty much the same facts back then, you either agreed with them or did not agree. There was no ‘point of view’ in regard to a fact, no need to hear from ‘non-metropolitan voices’ nor other voices of the ‘unheard’ when it came to a fact. Fairness ruled. Or, at least, attempts at fairness ruled.

In 1964, the right wing Republican senator Barry Goldwater ran for president. His demand for ‘active measures’ to defeat the Soviet Union led to fears he might actually foment nuclear war. His slogan “in your heart, you know he’s right” was adapted by his opponents to “in your guts, you know he’s nuts”, and a group of psychiatrists even said he was “psychologically unfit” to be president.

But the times were so balanced, so intent on being what was called “fair” that the American Psychiatric Association introduced the so-called Goldwater Rule, that no reputable shrink should make a public diagnosis about a public figure who is not a patient. It’s not fair.

The newscasters of the day were reticent about Nixon, even when it became apparent that the then president was up to no good, at the very least. They knew more than the public knew, but the notion of being fair, of allowing all sides, or both sides, to have an airing, was key. They had no opinion.

The effect of opinion was demonstrated when the great Walter Conkrite looked straight into the camera in 1968 and said that the Vietnam War could not be won. You grew up learning that whatever came out of this guy’s mouth was true. A fact.

Because he was a news journalist. An anchor. On TV. And TV told the truth, or tried to. And that was down to the fairness doctrine.

But conservatives had been pushing for the doctrine to be overturned and Ronald Reagan and the Republicans got rid of it. They considered the policy itself to be too left-leaning.

As a result, the floodgates opened. Radio began to say what it liked. Then in 1988, Rush Limbaugh, a radio host broadcasting in California, went national.

Rush, which even his enemies called him, quite simply said the stuff that his listeners said in their heads or down at the local bar. He made radio out of their attitudes. For instance, callers that he did not like, usually left wingers, got a chorus of recorded boos. His audience ate this up. He popularised the term ‘feminazi’ in the early 1990s. His nemesis and Great Satan was, of course, first lady Hillary Clinton.

Centrists and left wing women were always a problem for him, as they are today for many of those on the right. You only need look at the recent nomination process around political consultant Neera Tanden, who is clearly highly qualified for the post that Joe Biden selected her for but who has been condemned for her ‘mean tweets’.  You might say how can any, largely conservative senators, members of the party of Trump condemn anyone for that?

Tanden is also a  woman of colour. The abuse that Rush allowed to be heaped on former first lady Michele Obama is legendary. But when white nationalist, anti-government fanatic Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City on a busy morning in 1995 – a building which also contained a nursery – and killed 168 people, Rush said that talk radio had nothing to do with it. Even when he knew that he talked to McVeigh’s demographic. Even when he knew that his entire ethos was about division. Polarisation.

The presidency of Donald Trump began with Rush, who died last month. Trump instinctively knew that Rush was, above all, an entertainer. And the embodiment, in some ways, of the great American composer Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

He could hold audiences. Too often his people were white supremacists, misogynists and folks who believed that the country, the world, was moving too fast. Away from them. The ‘other side’ was procreating too fast, making policy too fast. Rush expressed all these fears out loud.

Trump gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, an act that caused the speaker Of The House, Nancy Pelosi, to tear up the State of the Union address that Trump had given before he gave Rush the award.

What Rush created was a terrain, a space where there can be a ‘point of view’, an ‘opinion’, when it comes to truth. Back in the day, if you heard the word ‘the news’, you had believed it to be neutral.

Now, it can be assumed that it really is not, and that news can be created to appeal to the “unheard”. That used to be called opinion. Rush elevated it to the news because he said it was. He blurred the definitions. All by himself.

He made it legitimate to question whether a man running for president, and then elected, was born in the United States. Before then, no one would have thought to question the veracity of what a candidate had said about where he was born. But Rush created the climate so that plenty did, and much issued from it besides.

I can remember vividly the first time that I saw Fox News. It was on an afternoon, and I sat down to watch TV. On this channel was what purported to be a newsreader, a woman in almost Bridgerton-like hair, with an American flag flying high on the margin below her image. She was insistent; relentless; practically screaming about the Democrats. I thought it was a re-run of the satirical show Saturday Night Live.

But it was not. This was Fox News. This was the news for millions. This was what they took as their information, at how they should see the world. The flag guaranteed that it was American. And implied that everything else… was not. And you’d better be angry about that. Maybe even go out and do battle for it.

Rush Limbaugh created this all by himself. He used the word ‘fight’ to make his listeners feel that only combat, political or literal, would do. That there was an ‘other’ out there come to take your rights; your liberty. Your very life.

He made loads of money off it. He was the first real conflict entrepreneur. Now they are common. We have them in the UK, too.

Rush was the godfather of those who sacked the Capitol; of those who think, like some  Messiah, that Trump will assume the presidency soon. Soon. He is the godfather of those who imply that there is a metropolitan cabal; that the left are taking over; that you are being swamped; unheard; lied to by them.

He has made this all normal; made many think that it was always there.

We can say that the media, and politics, are divided between BR and AR – Before Rush and After Rush. “Rush Is Dead. Long Live Rush”.

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