A portrait of a man who is unaware of his role in the system that he savages
(This article was first published January 2016)
Prominent figures in the conservative movement are in denial about their actual role in American politics, Damon Linker argues in a thought-provoking column for The Week. They criticize “the establishment” as if it’s 1955, when William F. Buckley and his co-ideologues were mounting an insurgency against the people who ran the country. But the insurgents who ultimately elected Ronald Reagan saw their movement grow so much in strength and influence that today, National Review, AEI, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and right-wing talk radio are simply part of the Republican establishment, even if that isn’t how they see themselves.
In this telling, the self-delusion of these movement conservatives contributed to many of the failures of the Bush years, Republican Congresses, and recent GOP primaries, who are very influential but feel no responsibility for good governance. “By thinking of themselves as perennially outside the Republican power-structure, members of the counter-establishment conveniently exempt themselves from the need to admit and learn from their own mistakes,” Linker writes. “It’s always someone else’s fault. The Iraq War and its outcome may be the most egregious and disgraceful example of such shirking, but it’s not the only one.”
He added that “the lack of self-awareness blinds members of the ruling conservative counter-establishment to their complicity in the rise of Donald Trump.” And no sooner did he publish than a perfect illustration of his argument was broadcast to millions.
There is no one who rails against “the Republican establishment” more frequently than Rush Limbaugh. Every week he speaks about it on the radio with disdain. And he always does so while holding himself apart, as if he’s describing a rival tribe. “Now, as you will hear, I’m being blamed for Trump. Oh, yes. Does that surprise you? I am being blamed for Trump now,” he said earlier this week. “You know, the bottom line is, you know why there’s a Donald Trump? It’s very, very simple. It has nothing to do with me. The Republican Party, whatever you want to call it, Republican establishment, the ruling class, I don’t care what you want to call it, they are responsible for Donald Trump. They are responsible.”
Now, Rush Limbaugh isn’t the chair of the Republican National Committee. One can easily find figures who more fully embody “the Republican establishment” or “the ruling class.” It is nevertheless absurd for him to speak as if he somehow exists outside of this power system. And the clearest illustration of why it is absurd came Wednesday on his radio show, when he was explaining to his listeners why it is difficult for him to cover the dispute among Donald Trump, Megyn Kelly, and the Fox News Channel.
“It’s very hard when you know everybody involved,” he began, “and when you consider them friends.” Then he spoke frankly about a number of his friends on the right.
There’s the network head:
Roger Ailes I have known since 1990.
Roger Ailes is one of my closest, dearest friends. We confide in each other quite a lot. We don’t see each other as much as we would like, but we communicate regularly. I have endless respect and admiration for Roger Ailes, but it has not stopped me from being critical of certain things I see or hear on Fox.
There’s the prominent anchor:
Megyn Kelly was at my wedding. She has been in my home a couple of times. I know her and her husband, Doug, and I know of his efforts writing novels. I’ve read them, I’ve talked about them. I have intimate, profound respect for her career and what she’s trying to do and how she’s going about it.
There’s billionaire real-estate mogul:
I’ve known Donald Trump for years, and I like him. I have never been angry at him. I have laughed. I have been amazed. I’ve had every reaction to Trump that you’ve had. Some of it up close and personal. I haven’t divulged many of those stories. It’s nothing hyper, super personal. It’s just I don’t routinely speak out of school without permission.
There’s the junior U.S. senator from Texas:
I have broken bread with Ted Cruz. I have been around him a number of times and like him immensely. I’m dazzled by his intellect and his commitment, and his conservatism is unchallenged by anybody in this race.
There are the U.S. senators from Florida and Kentucky and the 2012 GOP nominee:
Marco Rubio has been here, as has Mitt Romney been here, as has Rand Paul been here, and they have all opened up and been very honest with me, in some cases off the record, which I always respect, and I never even try to sneak off-the-record stuff into conversations about them. And it works both ways.
There’s the leading Republican political dynasty:
Jeb Bush. The entire Bush family. I can’t begin to tell you all of the things the Bush family made possible for me, trips to the White House. I mean, folks, career aside, I have such reverence for this country, I consider it an honor to be at the White House each and every time I’ve been there and for whatever reason, and I always feel a sense of gratitude for whoever made it possible.
There are the two former presidents:
George W. Bush had me to the White House his final year in office, on my birthday, a private lunch, which I’ve talked about before, in the presidential dining room off of the Oval Office with Ed Gillespie. They had a special chocolate microphone cake that they brought out. And there have been the White House Christmas parties, Lincoln Bedroom, George H. W. Bush.
There’s the primary candidate:
I met Ben Carson two or three times, interviewed him for the Limbaugh Letter, the most widely read political newsletter in all of the United States. And Kathryn has been with Dr. Carson at a number of homeschool conventions where we feature the Rush Revere series and get to know that group of people as we work with people to try to make sure the proper history of this country is taught at the youngest ages to combat what’s happening in the public school system and all the way up through the university level.
There’s the Ohio governor:
John Kasich used to come up to my office with Frank Luntz back at 2 Penn Plaza to talk about strategy and messaging back when they were part of the Republican freshman class, 1994-1995.
There’s Newt Gingrich, William F. Buckley, Henry Kissinger, and the staff of National Review:
Newt hosted dinners in his office at the Capitol when he was Speaker with Mr. and Mrs. Buckley and me. It became a yearly tradition for a few years to do dinner with that group at a different location each year. Henry Kissinger, Mr. Buckley himself, members of his family. The people at National ReviewI’ve known since I started doing this program.
There are other prominent conservative journalists:
Over at the American Spectator, Bob Tyrrell, Brent Bozell and his crowd at the Media Research Center and NewsBusters. And there’s not a one of them that is in any way approaching an enemy. I mean, some of the blogs, Ed Morrissey over at Hot Air, I know Erick Erickson who guest hosts this program, he was at Red State and his lifelong dream was to guest host this program, which he’s done so now he’s going into retirement.
And that’s not all:
Look, I don’t want to leave anybody out. Who else in the presidential field? Chris Christie has called me enraged on the phone. But I’ve been at a strategy planning session with Chris Christie and some of his supporters way, way back. I can’t mention some of the other people that were there, but there are other Fox News people I’ve met over the course of the show. Brit Hume. Rick Santorum. (interruption) Well, the Huckster I’ve not really met. I’ve been the recipient of caustic phone calls from the Huckster, but that’s all. Who else? Dr. Krauthammer I met at Tony Snow’s funeral, for the first time. Now, not all of these people are what I would call close friends that I’m in daily contact with, don’t misunderstand.
But I know them.
When Republicans control the White House, Rush Limbaugh gets invited to stay over and socialize with the president. He dined in the office of perhaps the most consequential Republican speaker of the House. One of his best friends runs the most powerful media organization on the right. Its highest-rated anchor attended his wedding. He knows multiple U.S. senators and most of the GOP presidential candidates every cycle.
But he thinks of himself as totally apart from “the establishment,” the “ruling class,” those other people who are responsible for the state of the Republican Party. Linker is onto something. A guy like Limbaugh doesn’t think of himself as having any responsibility at all for the GOP’s past performance or its present state. Maybe that’s why he so often speaks in a manner that strikes so many as unthinkably irresponsible. He is totally out of touch with his actual place in American politics.
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CONOR FRIEDERSDORF is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic,where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.