San Pedro, CA - Rush Limbaugh's recent meltdown - his three-day sex-crazed rant/attack against Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke, whose congressional testimony made no mention of her own sex life - has a rich and strange collection of backstories to it, none of which include the sort of follow-on this story has had, complete with pseudo-apologies and the subsequent, ongoing loss of sponsors, which might even conceivably damage or imperil his career. Of those backstories, his own shady past as a pill-popping sex tourist is only the most lurid, not the most instructive. That only goes to underscore what's already self-evident: that Limbaugh's diatribes are heavily implicated in what psychologists call "projection" and the rest of know as "the pot calling the kettle black".
Much more instructive, to get things headed in a more fruitful direction, is Limbaugh's long history of similar sorts of vindictive, name-calling attacks. Media Matters has provided several illustrative lists, such as "Rush Limbaugh's Decades Of Sexism And Misogyny", "The 20 Worst Racial Attacks Limbaugh's Advertisers Have Sponsored", "Ten Of Limbaugh's Worst Advertiser-Sponsored Attacks On The Poor" , "Limbaugh's Advertisers Sponsored These Ten Attacks On Unions" - and a more all-purpose list - "15 Of The Worst Comments Limbaugh's Advertisers Have Sponsored Since 2004". These collections served to illustrate how continually Limbaugh resorts to similarly themed name-calling, thus reinforcing the point Media Matters made early on, that Limbaugh hadn't just used a couple of "poorly chosen words" to describe Fluke, he had engaged in three days of prolonged haranguing including 46 separate attacks.
What's more, they were all based on a lie, since Fluke never said anything about her own sex life. Fluke is a past president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice, and her testimony reflected that role - it was not about her, personally, but about the experience of other law students, individually and collectively, and about the broad impact of the denial of reproductive health care, not just with respect to preventing unwanted pregnancy. In fact, Fluke specifically cited other health impacts, such as cancer prevention.
But what does Limbaugh care about facts? Completely ignoring what Fluke actually said, he said things like: "[She] went before a congressional committee and said she's having so much sex, she's going broke buying contraceptives and wants us to buy them"; "We want you to post the videos [of you having sex] online so we can all watch"; "Ms. Fluke, who bought your condoms in junior high? Who bought your condoms in the sixth grade?"; "[S]he wants to have repeated, never-ending, as-often-as-she-wants-it sex"; "She's having so much sex, it's amazing she can still walk"; "[Fluke] is happily presenting herself as an immoral, baseless, no-purpose-to-her-life woman"; and "Does she have more boyfriends? Ha! They're lined up around the block." Most of these were stated repeatedly, with minor variations. None of them had any basis in fact and none of them were apologised for. It's no wonder that Limbaugh's non-apology failed so miserably.
It's particularly instructive to go back to the very first item in the first of Media Matters' lists, which was reported by the late Molly Ivins, as follows:
"On his TV show, early in the Clinton administration, Limbaugh put up a picture of Socks, the White House cat, and asked: 'Did you know there's a White House dog?' Then he put up a picture of Chelsea Clinton, who was 13 years old at the time and as far as I know had never done any harm to anyone.
"When viewers objected, he claimed, in typical Limbaugh fashion, that the gag was an accident and that without his permission some technician had put up the picture of Chelsea - which I found as disgusting as his original attempt at humour."
There is so much that is telling in this early example. The deliberate malice toward someone young and female, normally off-limits, and without resources to respond, the made-up-out-of-whole-cloth character of the attack, the non-apology apology, and denial of any responsibility via a story which defies all logic on its face ... all these particulars recurred in the attack on Sandra Fluke as well.
In her piece - written in 1995 - Ivins easily nailed what is so despicable about Limbaugh:
"The kind of humour Limbaugh uses troubles me deeply, because I have spent much of my professional life making fun of politicians. I believe it is a great American tradition and should be encouraged. We should all laugh more at our elected officials - it's good for us and good for them. So what right do I have to object because Limbaugh makes fun of different pols than I do?
"I object because he consistently targets dead people, little girls, and the homeless - none of whom are in a particularly good position to answer back. Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, as Limbaugh does, it is not only cruel, it's profoundly vulgar. It is like kicking a cripple."
In his three-day harangue against Fluke, Limbaugh took full advantage of having a national stage upon which Fluke could not respond - at least not at first. That would soon change, because the world around Limbaugh had changed dramatically, without him even noticing. Most notably, the rise of social media has dramatically levelled the playing field against Limbaugh-styled bullies - as seen most dramatically in the Arab Spring. But in Limbaugh's mind, it was still 1995, and he was riding high. Perhaps that's why it didn't matter to him that, as Rachel Maddow pointed out, he had no idea how birth control worked. Not to mention no idea that Fluke had spoken not one word about her own sex life, and very little about anyone else's.
So, Rush Limbaugh is a pathological liar who revels in personal attacks, primarily against those who are particularly powerless to respond. This much is clear from the historical record, as well as this most recent example. But there's a lot more backstory than that.
A little more context
Before turning to a deeper look at Rush's backstory in particular, it's worth quickly noting a few of the broader backstories behind his meltdown. The first is relatively simple and easy to grasp - a veritable explosion of Tea Party-led anti-abortion and related legislation in the states as well as in the House of Representatives after the 2010 election, completely contradicting the narrative that the group was all about economics. It was this explosion, not any sort of nefarious White House plot, that set the stage for Fluke's testimony and the outrage that exploded after she was attacked by Limbaugh. Second is the long-term, previously down-played goal of anti-abortion activists to get rid of birth control as well. So-called "personhood" legislation, outlawing the most common forms of birth-control as well as abortion, is the most blatant give-away of that agenda, which has surfaced in multiple states this past year.
A third backstory is part of how the religious right has transformed itself since 9/11. In the Cold War, it was fairly easy for them to align with anti-Communist conservatives against "godless Communism" while rhetorically linking domestic liberals with Soviet Communism. The argument might not actually hold water, but it had a surface plausibility - a plausibility that did not carry over to the "War on Terrorism", where the foreign enemy were religious fundamentalists just like them, whose military prowess had been largely funded and developed under the leadership of Ronald Reagan. This drastic change in the nature of the enemy required a profound rewriting of history - or mythology, as the case may be. This why it became increasingly important to pretend that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation", as well as to more broadly rewrite the meaning and purpose of the Constitution in general, and the First Amendment in particular.
This is the matrix within which elements in the GOP have repeatedly misrepresented Obama as "the other", rather than as a validation of the nation's promise that any American can become president. Ginned up by such fantasies as the "war on Christmas" (every time someone says "happy holidays," Jesus takes another spear in the gut), the GOP was slobbering all over itself with prospect of portraying Obama as leading the way in an even wider fantasy war - the "war on religion".
This is where a fourth backstory comes into play: The legal story in which the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia (a rightwing Catholic) wrote the majority opinion in Employment Division vs Smith in 1990, which favoured secular employment law over most religious claims - a reversal of the earlier precedent established by the liberal Justice William Brennan in his 1963 decision in Sherbert v. Verner. Thus, the actual legal history runs directly counter to the rightwing mythology. It was the "activist" liberal judges who set up the framework that would have better protected the Catholic hierarchy, and the "strict constructionist" conservatives who paved the way for birth control insurance as universal mandate.
Rush, Newspeak and Fascism
Limbaugh has spoken about a range of women's issues in recent years [GALLO/GETTY]
With those broader backstories out in the open, we're now prepared to re-examine Limbaugh more closely, and to do so by way of one of the most notable texts of the early 2000s internet - Rush, Newspeak and Fascism by author, journalist and blogger David Neiwert. The monograph itself is far too rich to summarise, I can only realistically use it to draw a few key points, which are sufficient to paint a much deeper and more specific picture of where Rush is coming from than can be found anywhere else that I am aware of.
First, Neiwert is clear about who Rush is: He is not "an entertainer" as is often claimed, he is a propagandist. And he fills a very specific role, as a transmitter of extremist views from the rightwing fringe into the conservative mainstream. This is anything but a new role, however, Limbaugh's emergence in talk radio, almost immediately after the Reagan FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine, made him into a transmitter of unequalled influence.
Second, Neiwart is clear about Rush's fundamental message. During the 1990s, it was simply anti-government, although at a much higher of level of venom than that which Neiwert, a native Northwesterner, was used to growing up. This largely involved the echoing of themes from the "Militia movement," although there were other, lesser-known transmitters who were much more closely aligned with the movement than was Rush himself. This orientation changed dramatically when Bush came to power, however, as Neiwart explained:
"Mind you, in Limbaughland, there are still 'evil' people in government - but they’re all liberals. Indeed, the demonisation 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."
That demonisation went so far as accusing Democrats of being fascists - years before others on the right took up similar rhetoric. Neiwert goes on to quote the following, from Limbaugh’s website on April 17, 2003:
Little Dick Promises Fascism If Elected
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 centralised autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition." [Italics added.]
About this, Neiwart says:
"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."
And Neiwert goes on to point out how Limbaugh emphasises only part of the definition, which is itself not really applicable - unless one claims that all government programs are fascist, while "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)".
Neiwert goes on to engage in a detailed discussion of fascism, drawing on a number of recent theorists to provide a nuanced picture of the notoriously slippery phenomenon, in sharp contrast with Limbaugh's use of a mere dictionary definition which he mostly ignores. But before that, he more briefly discusses the the nature of Newspeak, drawn from George Orwell's 1984. One quote he cites is particularly significant:
"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."
This is Rush's endgame in a nutshell: to make it impossible for anyone to disagree with him.
As for Fascism, Neiwart draws on the work of several different writers, scholars and theorists, including Umberto Eco, "Ur-Fascism" (aka "14 Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt"), Stanley Payne, Fascism: Comparison and Definition, Roger Griffin, Fascism, and Robert O. Paxton, "The Five Stages of Fascism". Paxton's work is the most advanced, but Neiwert finds significant elements of each useful in different respects.
One of the dangers involved is that fascism shares many characteristics that overlap with other rightwing tendencies, which can easily lead to a good deal of confusion. After a brief overview of Eco's 14 traits and signs of the times that seem to reflect them, Neiwert warns that it seems to fit Limbaugh and his fellow conservative remarkably well, but that it's a too-easy fit. "The truth is, a deep conservative might fit Eco's description and still he might not be a fascist," he writes.
"What this exercise reveals is not so much that Limbaugh is a fascist, but rather, that he is making a career out of transmitting the themes and memes upon which fascism feeds to a mainstream conservative audience." The real task is to go beyond the pieces involved to understanding the core logic, what differentiates fascism specifically from conservatism, authoritarianism or totalitarianism, each of which it may share some characteristics in common. Although Paxton's account is the most thorough, Griffin provides the most succinct statement that gets at the heart of this, as Neiwert explains:
Griffin has essentially managed to boil fascism down to a basic core he calls palingenetic ultranationalist populism. (Palingenesis is the concept of mythic rebirth from the ashes, embodied by the Phoenix.) One of Griffin’s essays on fascism opens with this useful definition:
Fascism: modern political ideology that seeks to regenerate the social, economic and cultural life of a country by basing it on a heightened sense of national belonging or ethnic identity. Fascism rejects liberal ideas such as freedom and individual rights, and often presses for the destruction of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy. Despite the idealistic goals of fascism, attempts to build fascist societies have led to wars and persecutions that caused millions of deaths. As a result, fascism is strongly associated with right-wing fanaticism, racism, totalitarianism, and violence.
Rush, Newspeak and Fascism is a very rich text, and I've only picked up on a few of the themes that it covers. But my point in doing so - other than encouraging readers to explore it themselves - is to indicate that something much more sinister is going on with Rush Limbaugh than most people realise, without going to the simplistic extreme of just calling him a fascist, which really only confuses and misleads.
As a transmitter, Rush serves to facilitate the circulation of ideas, attitudes, pseudo-facts et cetera between different segments of the right, and there is a definite ongoing trend that's taking the US increasingly into dangerous territory where full-blown fascism may someday soon become a real possibility. But we are still some way from that, and may well avoid getting there, particularly if people wake up to the true nature of the danger that is developing. The response to Limbaugh's attack on Sandra Fluke is heartening in this regard, but not heartening enough if people do not go deeper into understanding just what is afoot.
The slaveholders' freedom
And just what is afoot? A blog post by Peter Wirzbicki at PhD Octopus can provide us some insight by drawing attention to mostly forgotten history that is still very much alive in the imaginations, and subconscious of many. It's Confederate history, which all too many Tea Party activists seem to conflate with American history, with increasingly troubling results. The post is titled, "'Liberty for the few – Slavery, in every form, for the mass!': the Deep Roots of the Birth Control Freakout", and, in it, Wirzbicki writes:
"I'm currently reading Stephanie McCurry’s book on the troubles of Confederate nation-making, Confederate Reckoning. A major theme in her work, going back to her Masters of Small Worlds, is the intersection between domination of the home and perceptions of liberty ...
"In Masters of Small Worlds, she studies small households in the Low Country South Carolina, those with no or few slaves. These poor whites have always been a bit of a problem in historical understanding. In a nutshell, why did those white men who were not profiting from the slave system, still fight and die to protect it? …
"White men’s self-identity, she argues, in the age of the yeomanry, was intricately linked to domination of the home and, especially, domination of dependents: children, women, and slaves. Moreover, this was a process that linked private property with control of slaves and women ... The result was an economic system in which the small property holder had total control of his property and total use of the labour of all dependents on this property ... Moreover, this was a tradition that was hostile to most government action … Southern white men had extra-good reasons to be suspicious of the federal government, as you would have to share power with those idealists from Ohio or Massachusetts who you couldn’t trust on the issue of slavery.
"The result was, publically, an ideology that strongly linked the subordination of women and the subordination of blacks with the defence of white liberty and white private property."
He goes on to discuss the pro-slavery theorist George Fitzhugh, author of the 1857 book, Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters:
"In Cannibals All, he constantly refers to the 'women, children, and free negroes' as one group, those fit to be ruled. He also, interestingly, accuses all abolitionists of being socialists: 'men once fairly committed to negro slavery agitation … are, in effect, committed to Socialism and Communism, to the most ultra doctrines of Garrison, Goodell, Smith and Andrews - to no private property, no church, no law, no government - to free love, free lands, free women and free churches.' (p.368)"
One cannot help but note how similar this is to some of the wild-eyed paranoid fantasies of today's GOP. Add to that something that Neiwert mentions in Rush, Newspeak and Fascism: that the KKK, organised just after the Civil War to do its best to restore this order, was arguably the first historical example of a true fascist movement. Wirzbicki goes on to say:
"As Fitzhugh said, in commendable honesty, 'To secure true progress, we must unfetter genius, and chain down mediocrity. Liberty for the few - Slavery, in every form, for the mass!' Moreover, you can see how, in his mind, loss of control over women would literally be an assault on private property, as women join slaves as being essential appendages of private property."
This is, quite simply, a very different version of "liberty" and "progress" than what most in the US probably have consciously in mind. But unconsciously? That might be a whole other story. Is this the sort of "progress" that Rush, the Tea Party - and much of the GOP primary electorate - have in mind, whether they fully know it consciously or not? This is an underlying issue that we sorely need to bring to the surface in order to really understand the deep roots of the animosities, both played to - and aroused by - Limbaugh's savage attacks on Sandra Fluke.
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.