Here’s my problem: Unlike a fair number of people of my general political description, I don’t buy into the trendy sound bite that Rush Limbaugh is the true leader of the Republican Party. The bad news, though, is that for the life of me I can’t think of who is — and I suspect neither can anyone else, which means a professional attention-seeking loudmouth like Limbaugh seems to have the gig for no other reason than no one else has stepped up. He’s not a leader, he’s just wearing bells and spangles, and everyone’s looking at him and cheering as he capers. If you’re looking in from the outside, the one everyone’s paying attention to looks like the leader.
What really worries me is that if this vacuum at the top of the GOP goes on for long enough, then Limbaugh eventually will be considered the GOP’s true leader, because he does a fairly impressive act of looking and sounding just like a GOP leader should look and act, even if at the end of the day all he’s doing is mouthing the GOP Greatest Hits to a bunch of people who are doing the political equivalent of holding up lighters when their favorite-but-now-unfashionable power ballad gets cranked up at a concert.
Indeed, Limbaugh is the GOP manifestation of what I call The Ripper Owens Syndrome, in which a tribute band version of the lead singer performs the function of mimicking the actual lead singer so well that the real band hires him when the actual lead singer takes a hike — thus dooming the band to a shadowy half-life in which it releases albums no one buys and it becomes its own cover band and plays the state fairs and is generally miserable. Not that the new lead singer minds; he’s having a ball — until he gets unceremoniously dumped by the band a couple of years later. Because the fact is, there’s more to being the lead singer than just standing up there and singing the same dozen songs someone else wrote and that everyone already knows.
Where the analogy breaks down is that poor Ripper Owens was (sorry, Mr. Owens) some schmoe from Ohio who got a break from a band cynical enough to use him for life support; Limbaugh, on the other hand, has his own immense popularity and is canny enough to sense the vacuum at the top of the GOP as an opportunity for him to wield some genuine political power without that annoying intermediary step of having to get elected, either by the public or by the party. But what’s good for Limbaugh is not necessarily good for the GOP — nor is it good for the country as a whole.
The real problem with Limbaugh is not his political positions, which are the bog-standard GOP sour mash of once-upon-a-time genuine conservatism denatured through three decades of 100 proof Will to Power, which makes sense because it’s not like Limbaugh is interested in or capable of generating original political thoughts on his own. The real problem with Limbaugh is at the end of the day he’s an entertainer, and his shtick relies on political division and dissension.
When Limbaugh bloviates that he wants the President of the United States to fail, his motivation is not a genuine passion for conservatism, or alternately a genuine nilhilistic embrace thereof, in which he believes it’s better for civilization to collapse than liberalism to succeed. Limbaugh wants to the President of the United States to fail because saying so is the sort of attention-getting jackassery that gives him a goose in the ratings. Expecting him to retract such a comment is just going to get him to double down on it. Limbaugh wants Obama to fail because it’s good for his livelihood; whether it’s bad for the GOP or the US as a whole is really not Limbaugh’s problem.
You can’t blame an attention-seeking blowhard who makes a living saying outrageous things for doing what he does; it’s not like Limbaugh has anything else going for him. The GOP, on the other hand, ought to know better than to allow itself to be played by someone whose goals are short-term and selfish and at the end of the day only marginally aligned with the long-term goals of the GOP. But that’s the GOP these days, isn’t it: so rudderless that even its executive class seems to have confused its top salesman with the CEO.
Or maybe it’s they actually prefer it that way. Maybe the GOP is happy to be its own cover band. In the short term, I can’t say this bothers me, because unlike Limbaugh, I have no desire for the president to fail, if for no other reason than if he fails, he’s likely to take the country with him. It’s not as if the GOP has a plan to get us out of this jam, other than to shout “tax cuts!” while running in tight little circles. In the long term, of course, it’s depressing and worrying. The GOP needs to figure out what it stands for and how it’s going to effectively embody genuine conservative thoughts and positions moving forward. It’s certainly not going to do it with Limbaugh at the mike. There are only so many GOP Greatest Hits he knows, and there aren’t that many state fairs left to play.