Right wing political propagandists then and now: Father Coughlin, left, and Rush Limbaugh
Rush Limbaugh likes to call himself "the most dangerous man in America." He offers this epithet tongue in cheek on his radio program, but the truth is, he isn't kidding. Over the decade and more that Limbaugh has ruled America's talk-radio landscape, it has become inescapably clear that he is, if nothing else, certainly the most dangerous demagogue in America, maybe in history.
In terms of his breadth of reach as a political propagandist, he has no real parallel in American history. The closest might be the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, known to his radio audience of the 1920s and '30s as "Father Coughlin." Coughlin started out as an anti-communist firebrand, and by 1930, his weekly broadcasts reached an audience estimated at 45 million. (Limbaugh claims a weekly audience of 20 million.) He was a major supporter of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, but turned on FDR shortly afterward and became a severe critic of the administration through most of its tenure.
Coughlin, who was attracted to the Jewish conspiracy theories promulgated by Henry Ford's 1932 anti-Semitic tome, The International Jew, became increasingly extremist in his tone and delivery, accusing FDR of being a tool of the evil cabal that secretly ran the world. He was a significant spokesman for the "America First" movement, which advocated American non-involvement in the growing strife in Europe and Asia. And he was an inspiration for a whole generation of anti-Semites who went on to found such movements as Christian Identity and Posse Comitatus.
Limbaugh, in contrast, has always carefully eschewed conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. Through most of the first decade of his radio career, his primary schtick has been to rail against the government and its supposed takeover of our daily lives. This anti-government propaganda has served one main purpose: To drive a wedge between middle- and lower-class workers and the one entity that has the real (if sometimes abused or neglected) capability to protect them from the ravages of wealthy class warriors and swarms of corporate wolves.
Limbaugh likes to bill himself as an "entertainer," but he is more accurately understood as a propagandist. He shows no interest in actually furthering the public debate: opposing views are rarely if ever invited onto his show, and when they are they invariably receive the kind of ham-handed mistreatment that has become common on Limbaugh's television counterpart, Bill O'Reilly's Fox talk show.
And there can be little doubt as to the effectiveness of Limbaugh's propaganda: In the intervening years, it has become an object of faith, particularly in rural America where Limbaugh's broadcasts can often be heard multiple times throughout the day, that the government is in itself evil, a corrupt entity, something to be distrusted and feared, and certainly incapable of actually solving problems.
Now that the president he supported -- George W. Bush -- is running the show, however, Limbaugh's anti-government bent has faded quickly and quietly to the background. After all, being anti-government seems practically anti-Republican these days, considering the GOP owns all three branches of government and virtually controls the Fourth Estate as well.
Mind you, in Limbaughland, there are still "evil" people in government -- but they're all liberals. Indeed, the demonization of all things liberal has always been a component of Limbaugh's routine. But now it has become his focus. And it is in that shift, taking place in a context of rising extremism, that he has become openly divisive, and truly dangerous.
Limbaugh has in recent months been one of the national leaders in the right-wing campaign to characterize opposition to President Bush's questionable policies as "anti-American," a campaign that is closely associated with broader conservative attacks on the underlying ideals of multiculturalism. But Limbaugh has taken the rhetoric another step by associating liberals with Nazis and other fascist regimes.
Consider, for instance, this essay, which appeared on Limbaugh's Web site on April 17, 2003:
Congressman Dick Gephardt (D-MO), a Democratic presidential candidate, wants to repeal President Bush's income tax cuts under the guise of helping employers provide health insurance to workers. Yes, if employers agree to pay 60% to 65% of health care costs, Big Brother will steal some money out of those employees' paychecks and give it to the company. Dickonomics sees the government funding and controlling private businesses!
That's fascism -- a term thrown around by people who don't have the intellectual chops to defend their ideas, but Gephardt's plan has features of that discredited ideology. Merriam-Webster: "Fas·cism: A political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition." [Italics added.]
This is a classic case of Newspeak -- diminishing the range of thought (it's telling that Limbaugh originally filed this under "Making the Complex Understandable") by nullifying the meaning of words. Democracy, according to Limbaugh, is fascism.
In fact, even as he ironically sneers at "people who don't have the intellectual chops to defend their ideas," he resorts to the notoriously inadequate dictionary definition of fascism in order to stand the meaning of the word on its head.
Observe how Limbaugh abuses the definition he gives here by only emphasizing a couple of its aspects (centralized government and economic regimentation -- neither of which are actually applicable here, no more so than they would be to a hundred thousand other government programs) and utterly ignoring those aspects of it that clearly are not present in Gephardt's proposal (exalting nation and often race above the individual, forcible suppression of the opposition -- traits which, in fact, are often present in Limbaugh's own diatribes).
Any serious consideration of Limbaugh's accusations of incipient fascism on the part of Gephardt will recognize that at the core of his argument is the suggestion that the current American bureaucracy itself, and indeed the bulk of Western civilization, particularly in its ability to tax and redistribute income, is "fascist" -- a claim that any reasonable person can see as plainly false.
Moreover, Limbaugh's "intellectual chops" notwithstanding, the many shortcomings of the ridiculously vague Merriam-Webster definition become self-evident when contrasted with a scholarly approach, as we shall see. Utterly lacking from the definitions are the definitive aspects of fascism as described by serious political scholars: its populism, particularly its claim to represent the "true character" of the respective national identities among which it arises; and its mythic core of national rebirth -- not to mention its corporatist component, its anti-liberalism, its glorification of violence and its contempt for weakness.
There is nothing in Gephardt's plan that even remotely suggests such behavior -- it is in fact clearly far removed from genuine fascism, especially if it were to live up to Limbaugh's rather absurd claims that it would ultimately lead to a wholesale government takeover of corporations, which is in any event a communist and not a fascist behavior (fascism, as we will see, has a clear component of open corporatism).
Rather, if we were to look for these well-established earmarks of fascism, we would find them in Limbaugh's essay and numerous other of his outpourings. Limbaugh, indeed, constantly claims to be the voice of "real Americans" and regularly calls for a rebirth of the "American spirit" to be achieved by the destruction of all things liberal.
In any event, this is not the first time Limbaugh has misused the term. One of his most famous epithets is "feminazi," which juxtaposes liberal feminism with Nazism. He has referred at various times to "liberal compassion fascists," and on other occasions has explained to his national audience that Nazis in fact were "socialists." This is, of course, the kind of twisting of terminology that is the essence of Newspeak.
Limbaugh's rhetoric, in fact, is almost a model of how Newspeak works: It renders language meaningless by positing a meaning of a word that is in fact its near or precise opposite.
Conservatives, led by Limbaugh's blazing example, in the past decade have become masters of Newspeak, the Orwellian twisting of language that not only propagandizes but actually distorts reality. As a character in 1984 puts it:
"You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right … But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party."
Another character explains its long-term purpose:
"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it."
Newspeak permeates the political environment right now. The core agenda of the Bush administration, mouthed by a hundred talking heads on cable TV, is now neatly summed up by two of the core truisms of Newspeak:
"War is peace." [The purpose of the Iraq war, and the War on Terror generally, is to ensure peace and security at home, we are told.]
"Ignorance is strength." [Consider the way Bush's fumbled syntax and express anti-intellectualism is integral to his crafted image of homespun integrity.]
Newspeak serves two functions:
1) It deflates the opposition by nullifying its defining issues, and throws the nominal logic of the public debate into disarray.
2) It provides rhetorical and ontological cover for its speakers' own activities and agenda.
Consider, for instance, Limbaugh's evidently groundless claims that Gephardt's proposal calls for forcible oppression of the opposition. Contrast that with one of the more recent on-air outbursts by Limbaugh:
"Tim Robbins, who thinks he can say any thing at any time . . . I have a question: How is it that Tim Robbins is still walking free? How in the world is this guy still able to go to the National Press Club and say whatever he wants to say?"1
By carefully observing the machinations of the current spate of Newspeak emanating from transmitters like Limbaugh, however, it's possible to get a clear view of the movement's underlying agenda. This is possible when the meaning of Limbaugh's obfuscations are placed in their psychological context, because they constitute a fairly clear case of projection.
Indeed, one of the lessons I've gleaned from carefully observing the behavior of the American right over the years is that the best indicator of its agenda can be found in the very things of which it accuses the left.
This is known as "projection." One of the first to observe this propensity on the right was Richard Hofstadter, whose 1964 work The Paranoid Style in American Politics remains an important contribution to the field of analyzing right-wing politics:
The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid's interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone's will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).
It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through "front" groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist "crusades" openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.2
Self-proclaimed anti-authoritarians such as Limbaugh thus adopt the language and style of authoritarians themselves, and engage in Newspeak-laden propaganda whose sole purpose is to appeal to persons with totalist propensities. The anti-Gephardt essay is a classic example.
Remember how during the Florida fiasco the GOP and its many talking heads regularly accused Al Gore of attempting to steal the election through court fiat? Remember how such moral paragons as Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Dan Burton and Bob Livingston (not to mention John Fund and Andrew Sullivan) roared in outrage over Bill Clinton's supposed amorality? The list could go on almost indefinitely.
When the right accuses liberals of "fascism," it almost always does so in an effort to obscure its own fascist proclivities -- and it reminds the rest of us just whose footsoldiers are in reality merrily goosestepping down the national garden path.
1. See "Quick Takes: There he goes again; read it and weep, Rush," Chicago Sun-Times, April 17, 2003.
|Rush, Newspeak and Fascism: An exegesis|
|I. Projecting Fascism|
|II. Understanding Fascism|
|III. The Core of Fascism|
|IV. Tracking Fascism|
|V. Proto-Fascism in America|
|VI. Crossing the Lines|
|VII. The Transmission Belt|
|VIII. Official Transmitters|
|IX. Media Transmitters|
|X. Reaching the Receivers|
|XI. Dualist Receivers|
|XII. Divine Transmissions|
|XIII. Fascism and Fundamentalism|
|XIV. The War on Liberals|
|XV. Waiting for Godwin|
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