Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Let Us Now Praise Rush Limbaugh

What was his impact on Wisconsin? Praise and condemnation and silliness offered.

By - Feb 18th, 2021 02:06 pm
Rush Limbaugh. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Rush Limbaugh. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

For me the death of Rush Limbaugh brought to mind Al Franken‘s classic 1996 book, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.

But obituaries, out of the respect for the dead, always emphasize the good side of the departed.

And no one can say Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was stinting in his praise. Limbaugh “was a pioneer in talk radio, a best-selling author and a commentator who inspired generations to become active in politics. Since the late 1980s, Rush offered up political dialogue that helped generate a more robust debate of ideas at kitchen tables, classrooms and legislatures. His successful show also opened the door to more political talk show hosts on both sides of the aisle.”

This assessment was included in a letter Vos wrote to Gov. Tony Evers, asking him “to join our country in sending condolences to Rush Limbaugh’s family and friends by lowering the flags to half-staff at all buildings, ground and military installations across the Badger State in his honor. It would be a show of respect and bipartisanship when so many in our state and nation mourn the loss of this historic figure in American politics.”

Oh Robin, you’re such a kidder, making this request you know Evers will ignore. Right Wisconsin editor and columnist James Wigderson chastised Vos for a “sophomoric prank” in a column that restored, if only briefly, some balance to the political universe:

“This is the type of political stunt that some college intern would think was funny. Vos knows Evers isn’t going to lower the flags to half-staff for Limbaugh, a partisan conservative figure that is reviled by the Democrats and even plenty of Republicans.

“Even fans of Limbaugh would have a hard time justifying the state of Wisconsin lowering the flags… to honor him. Limbaugh has zero connections to the state of Wisconsin. He was not a war hero. He was (by his own admission) not a great intellectual. We can point to no major advancement in the culture of Wisconsin by Limbaugh…

“Lowering the flags to honor someone when they die is rare. Wisconsin didn’t even lower the flags for Henry Aaron (and we should have) when he died recently.

“Vos knows this. He’s just using the death of Limbaugh to appeal to the Republican base and ‘own the libs’ at the same time.”

Former governor Scott Walker offered a personal touch, tracing his rise to political prominence to Limbaugh: “#RushLimbaugh made talk radio and opened the door for regional and local hosts across the country. When I ran for County Executive in a deep blue area, talk radio made the difference. Long before @Twitter, It was a way to talk directly to the voters,” Walker tweeted.

Indeed, Walker was a little known state representative, even to Republicans, when Milwaukee radio talkers Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes began using him as a conservative pundit on their Sunday talk shows. And after the Milwaukee County pension scandal erupted, Sykes and Belling tirelessly promoted Walker as the right choice for Milwaukee County Executive. And when Walker ran for governor in 2010, support from Sykes and Belling helped Walker beat Mark Neumann in the 2010 primary and defeat Tom Barrett in the general election. In a story by the New Republic, Sykes made clear that Walker had intimate ties with the two radio talkers: “He keeps in very close touch with us…I don’t make any secret we’re close to Scott.”

As the New Republic story noted, few mid-sized cities were so influenced by talk radio, with two top-rated shows on different channels. Belling was so influenced by Limbaugh he sometimes subbed for the national star, and was a very good fit. Both Belling and Sykes were heavenly influenced by Limbaugh’s approach.

As Sykes wrote in a column yesterday for the Washington Post: “Limbaugh pioneered the rise of the outrage/entertainment wing to dominance in the GOP…Limbaugh invented a new genre in which conservatism could be entertaining, even fun. He was a master at using parodies as weapons. He was outrageous and daring; occasionally funny and charming, but also often dishonest and offensive… Limbaugh also cultivated an insensitivity that normalized cruelty, racism and misogyny.”

That pretty much describes the approach used by Belling and Sykes.

But that’s not how Sykes sees it. “As a radio talk-show host myself, I admired his skill as a broadcaster, even as I was alarmed by the role he was choosing to play,” he writes. “For years, I had pushed back against the charge that talk radio was simply about entertainment, outrage and anger. I made an effort to talk about issues and struggled to find ways to repackage conservative ideas in fresh terms.”

In short, Sykes is a much better and smarter person than Limbaugh.

In case you doubted this, Sykes adds more: “Limbaugh was once a thought leader among conservatives, he ended his career very much as a follower… he spent less and less time on actual substance, leaning instead into outrage and grievance… The fact is that Limbaugh was fundamentally uninterested in ideas. But Limbaugh had succeeded in shaping Trump’s understanding of a conservative media where ridicule ruled and ad hominem attacks took the place of political substance.”

“Limbaugh’s late-stage sophistry,” Sykes piles on, featured “tortured and disingenuous rationalizations, the hint that he is letting his audience in on some ‘secret knowledge,’ and, of course, the ‘fun’ of ‘watching these holier-than-thou leftist journalists react like their moral sensibilities have been forever rocked and can never recover.'”

Apparently Sykes didn’t get the memo, don’t speak ill of the dead.

And he thinks his talk show listeners have forgotten he used the same techniques he now decries in Limbaugh. It takes one to know one.

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7 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Let Us Now Praise Rush Limbaugh”

  1. MilwMike1 says:

    Charlie Sykes is the Lindsay Graham of radio.

  2. Thomas Martinsen says:

    Both Sykes and Limbaugh spoke self-serving n0nsense that damaged our democracy. Rest in peace, Rush. Give it a
    rest, Charlie.

  3. Keith Schmitz says:

    Let me add also damaged the economy. Tickle-down was a detriment to economic growth.

  4. George Wagner says:

    I blame Sykes for pedaling reactionary ideas for 20 years. He brought us Scott Walker who would not have won without Sykes’ and Belling’s support. On his TV Sunday morning show Sykes often would have two hard core Republicans (eg., Leah Vukimir) with one weak liberal stand-in (eg. Mikel Holt). On his radio call-in show he refused to allow cogent liberals any time or cut them off mid argument. I blame Sykes more than Belling for his turning Wisconsin politics toxic, because Charlie knew better. Like the much misguidedly praised conservative Firing Line host, William F. Buckley, Sykes unstintingly only cared about winning, never ever allowing for nuance or even small truths to emerge that contradicted his own very one-sided argument.

  5. julia o'connor says:

    I wrote Vos that his request was hilarious and neither limbaugh, nor he, has ever done anything for humanity that might merit a flag at half mast.

  6. GodzillakingMKE says:

    The PT barnum of hate radio.

  7. Thomas Martinsen says:

    Amen to Georg Wagner’s post # 4. I sometimes called the Sykes show some years ago. When I made a point he didn’t like, he would say something such as “we have already fought that war” and cut me off. Like his mentor Rush, Sykes built a narrative in his shows that promoted his views exclusively – dismissing opposing opinions as unworthy.

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