Election 2020

Is Rush Limbaugh Betraying Conservatism with Donald Trump?

Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh speaks during a secretive ceremony inducting him into the Hall of Famous Missourians on Monday, May 14, 2012, in the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo. (AP Photo/Julie Smith)

Last week, the conservative magazine National Review published a long and scathing attack on Donald J. Trump. Notable names included Glenn Beck, Erick Erickson, Michael Medved, and Thomas Sowell. Absent was the radio champion of conservatism, Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh said National Review’s attack came “too late now,” and would not convince Trump’s supporters. This may be true, but it could also be Limbaugh’s way of explaining why he won’t attack Trump himself. Could Limbaugh be “cheating on conservatism” with The Donald? Does he identify with Trump, or does Limbaugh’s hatred of the “establishment” run so deep that he is willing to tacitly support a questionably conservative candidate just to revel in the establishment’s defeat?

Limbaugh did not respond to PJ Media’s request for comment, but he may have hinted recently at the reason why he refrains from attacking The Donald — as questionably conservative as Trump is, he is still better than Hillary Clinton. But is this understanding correct, or just another dodge?

Limbaugh on Trump: Is He Really Talking About Himself?

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf writes that Limbaugh is “cheating on conservatism” by subtly supporting The Donald. Friedersdorf’s argument hinges on using pop psychology to analyze Limbaugh. The radio personality’s flirtation doesn’t lead him to call Trump conservative, but to identify with his fellow media star. Trump is excluded from the Republican “establishment” for the same reason Limbaugh himself is — not on merit, but due to caprice. As Limbaugh put it, “you can’t succeed your way into [the GOP establishment elite].”

Friedersdorf quotes Limbaugh:

When we’re talking the establishment, they don’t like Trump not because he’s not conservative. That doesn’t matter. The fact that he’s not conservative in their minds would actually be a plus….[In] addition to opposing conservatism or the Republican base, there’s also this cliquish, elitist club characteristic here that, if you’re not in it — and the only way you can get in it is to be accepted, to be invited. You can’t succeed your way into it. This is important to understand.

You cannot be an overwhelming success in whatever you do and have that be the reason you get into the establishment elite political club. You have to be a certain type. You have to come from a certain place. You have to be invited. Trump does not qualify on a whole lot of grounds, in a lot of ways. So even though Trump has the largest bloc of voters made up of exactly the kind of outreach the Republican claims it needs to win, they’re rejecting it and don’t want it….They are content to lose if winning means conservatives dominate the party.

As Friedersdorf explains, “it’s a strange way to describe Trump.” The man who got a $1 million loan from his father and uses his connections with government to try to seize old ladies’ houses for a limousine parking lot seems an odd candidate for the “overwhelming success in whatever you do” category.

Trump, who went to elite schools, earned an Ivy League diploma, and inherited a ton of money, is an excellent candidate for the “establishment-elite political club.” As Friedersdorf explains, Trump was invited — he was a guest of sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush at the 1988 Republican National Convention. In fact, Trump was part of the “in-crowd” for the Clinton presidency, donating $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation and enjoying the Clintons’ presence at his wedding. In 2012, Mitt Romney sought Trump out for his endorsement.

Instead, Friedersdorf argues, Limbaugh likes Trump because he identifies with him. Like the media mogul, “the talk-radio host also got fantastically rich selling ego, bombast, and brazenness to the masses, elitist tastemakers be damned.”

Rush Limbaugh’s summary of Trump’s story — not being the right “type” to be invited into the “establishment-elite political club,” despite “overwhelming success in whatever you do” — fits his own story better.

As late as June 2, 1992, Limbaugh was sympathetic to Pat Buchanan in the Republican primary, despite the fact that George H.W. Bush was the sitting president. When Ross Perot entered the race, Limbaugh was sympathetic to him, too. “Say what you want about his lack of specificity, he’s also the one candidate who doesn’t run from a problem.” Sound familiar?

But on June 3, President Bush invited Limbaugh to the White House, where he stayed the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. “From that day forward Limbaugh never said one word on his show that could be construed as hurting Bush’s re-election effort,” The Atlantics James Fallows noted in 1994. “Having proclaimed for years, and with good reason, that his show was so entertaining that it didn’t need guests, he had both Bush and Quayle on the air and listened to them reverently.”

Friedersdorf describes Limbaugh’s father as “a prominent small-town lawyer who looked down on his son’s infatuation with radio.” The Atlantic writer explains that “the on-air bravado and effusiveness of Limbaugh and other born DJs is very often accompanied by shyness and uncertainty in normal life.”

After struggling for many years to get traction, Limbaugh finally made it. Friedersdorf says that “by objective standards” he was “a failure well into his thirties.” Limbaugh had two short and unsuccessful marriages, was fired from many DJ jobs, and spent five years worried that his radio career was over.

Anger at the Establishment

Limbaugh’s anger at the Republican “establishment” also derives from his commitment to conservative principles. As Friedersdorf acknowledges, the radio master “couldn’t help but observe the ways in which a series of Republicans he championed, from Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush to Tom Delay, cynically exploited movement conservatives, only to disappoint them time after time after time.”

Limbaugh is not kidding himself — the radio champion of conservatism never deigns to pretend that Trump is a National Review kind of guy. But he is willing to bolster the media mogul’s image as an anti-establishment maverick, either because he identifies with him or because he just hates the “in-crowd” enough to allegedly betray conservatism.

Friedersdorf pointedly declares that Limbaugh “no longer considers conservatism the most important factor in elections.” Instead, “the impulse to destroy the establishment drives him more than any conservative vision.”

This is unfair, but not without a hint of truth. Friedersdorf is right about Limbaugh hating an enemy of conservatism so much as to risk the defeat of conservative ideas, but it’s not the Republican establishment. Limbaugh’s real enemy is the Democrats.

Anything to Defeat the Democrats

Responding to a Cruz supporter this week, who asked the radio maverick why he didn’t attack Trump, Limbaugh revealed who his true enemy is — the liberal “progressive” Democrats. “There’s not a single one of those Republicans I wouldn’t vote for if they became the nominee,” Limbaugh declared. “I think the Democrat Party has got to be sent packing.”

Limbaugh had a nuanced reason for this simple statement. He explained that the left has “election insurance”:

They own a majority of the judges who write their own law. You want to talk about the bureaucracies and cabinet-level agencies, the EPA, the IRS, you name it, there are career leftists and liberals there that even when they lose the presidential election, their influence over regulation and any other thing that comes out of the bureaucracy doesn’t take a hit. It’s going to require a deep-seated, concerted effort to stop liberalism in its tracks wherever it is found.

Limbaugh is spot on here, but it rather undermines his own point. A president like Donald Trump wouldn’t get rid of this bureaucracy any more than Hillary Clinton would. Trump is on record saying he wouldn’t alter Medicare and Medicaid, the two most expensive parts of the federal government. Instead, he’d build a wall and stamp China with tariffs.

Whatever you think about these policies, they certainly don’t cut down the size and scope of the bloated federal government. In fact, they might lead the Republican Party even further away from conservative principles than the policies of many in the so-called “establishment” would.

Limbaugh is right to say that the left is the real enemy. As he puts it, “they’re the ones who are destroying the traditions, the institutions. They’re destroying the economy. They’re destroying the healthcare. They’re destroying everything they touch.” He is right to say “that’s got to stop. That comes before anything else, to me.”

As the National Review attack argues, Limbaugh is only wrong to place his faith in Trump to stop it. Everything from Trump’s background — supporting eminent domain, defending Medicare and Medicaid, advocating single-payer healthcare — suggests a big-government type who may replace a lot of the liberal bureaucrats, but won’t actually dismantle any of the apparatus that got us here in the first place.

When Rush Limbaugh brought up the National Review attack on Trump, he noted that it really should have come sooner. “Where was this back in September? Where was this back in August? It’s too late now.” The hour is late, but Trump is not inevitable yet. Even at this point in the 2008 Democrat primary, Hillary Clinton was still ahead of Barack Obama. Even if Trump wins the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, it may be possible to stop him.

Limbaugh does credit Trump’s efforts to stand against Obama’s liberal policies. After “seven years of the destruction of liberalism, undiluted, concentrated liberal destruction,” Trump is leading angry voters against the status quo. But if Trump is not dedicated to conservative principles, how do we know he won’t end up championing the same sort of policies that got us into this mess?

As polls seem to indicate, Trump could be the winning candidate, so Rush Limbaugh may be hedging his bets. But Trump’s history of liberalism is just as likely to win out as his newfound conservatism, even if he reverses Obama’s policies. Maybe Limbaugh should jump on the National Review bandwagon before it really is too late.