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What’s Next for Rush?

by Daniel McCarthy by Daniel McCarthy

Rush Limbaugh need not worry. The allegations of drug abuse that have been leveled against him, even if true, will not end his career. He may get sent to jail and for a time he’ll certainly be discredited as a hypocrite and a fraud, but after all of that he’ll be able to come back and pick up where he left off, possibly more popular than ever. His drug use need not be any more of an obstacle to Rush than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s drug use has been to him. So long as Rush learns from Arnold: whatever it is you’ve done or been accused of — whatever the right or wrong of it — just apologize and emote and the masses will love you for it.

A long time ago Arnold Schwarzenegger was a cocky young man with a circulatory system full of steroids. The steroids built up his ego as well as his body; that’s the real significance behind his remarks about Adolf Hitler. Any mention of Hitler today conjures up only his reputation as history’s premier anti-Semite, but when Arnold allegedly confessed to admiring der Fhrer it wasn’t for killing Jews. It was for lusting after and attaining power, power in the form of the adulation of the masses. Arnold doesn’t use steroids any more, but — to judge from his desire to be governor and his fondness for big-government programs like his after-school initiative — he’s still addicted to power.

What Arnold has had to learn in the course of his campaign is that political power is not to be had by just reaching out and grabbing it. The masses are happy to give their adulation, but to qualify for it a candidate first has to be willing to say “I’m sorry.” So Arnold, who probably isn’t sorry at all that he copped a feel off of some well-endowed women, has taken to apologizing quickly and effectively. Bill Clinton was never too quick about it, but he too knew how to sell an apology for personal follies (his affairs) or national disgraces (slavery). George W. Bush also knows a thing or two about how to make the most out of being a “changed man.” Willfully blind Christians loved W. all the more for having once been a drunk. The ability to make a good apology, more than anything else, is what credentials Arnold Schwarzenegger to become a top-flight politician.

Rush Limbaugh is more accustomed to saying “See I told you so” than “I’m sorry,” but he’ll learn. At first nobody’s going to listen to his protestations of contrition. Just the opposite: his fair-weather friends in what passes for the conservative movement will abandon him and his critics will take the opportunity to gloat over his hypocrisy. Here’s a man who preached zero tolerance for others suddenly expecting a few expressions of regret to take the heat off him. No dice, they’ll say. So, certainly, things will get much worse for Rush before they get any better.

But that’s good — good for his career as spokesman for the respectable Right — because such hardships will build character. At least that’s the myth. The best thing that can happen to him is to go to jail, because then when he gets out he’ll have “done his time” and suddenly be made whole once again. His credibility as a drug warrior will be bolstered; he’ll be able to say that he’s experienced the evils of addiction at firsthand, and that he’s actually grateful for the laws that put him in jail. Instead of being a hypocrite, he’ll have become an expert. He’ll be in a position of honestly being able to say that he’s not advocating that anyone else be treated any different from himself. He went to jail, so other drug abusers should go to jail.

If the charges don’t land Rush in prison the same scenario can still play out, but it won’t be as dramatic and may take much more time. The market for apologies and for stories of personal reformation will still be there. Rush can go out on a speaking tour to high schools and colleges and share his personal story of fame, hard-work and success followed by drug abuse and downfall and then, at last, redemption. If much of Rush’s own audience has deserted him by then, he’ll be able to gain a new one by appearing on Oprah. (Come to think of it, isn’t there something strangely symmetrical about Rush Limbaugh and Oprah Winfrey? They both communicate more with emotions than with thoughts and have earned huge audiences in the process, thereby influencing America much for the worse.)

There is such a thing as genuine repentance, but what’s popular in America today is a simulacrum, a ritual of public confession that actually serves to put the reformed sinner on a higher moral plane than everybody else. Paul Gottfried discusses one manifestation of this phenomenon in his recent book Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt. When white politicians like Bill Clinton apologize for racism (or sexism, or whatever the -ism of the month happens to be) it has nothing to do with humility, as would be the Christian ideal. It’s the very opposite, a pride at being more enlightened, more sensitive, more humane and just generally better than those troglodytes who have yet to accept their guilt. This sort of thing is endemic on the Left, but it’s to be found on the Right as well, often in a more explicitly religious form. It’s characteristically American, and Rush Limbaugh will be well positioned to take advantage of it — especially since his disgrace was brought about by drugs, rather than sex. The adulterer Newt Gingrich is nowhere near as popular among American Evangelicals as the recovering alcoholic George W. Bush.

Rush Limbaugh can come out of this scandal more self-righteous than ever and more committed to the war on drugs, and drug-users, too. He should not be given the opportunity to do so. That means denying him his redemption in this particular matter by refusing to acknowledge his fall in the first place. The worst thing that can happen to Rush Limbaugh’s world-view is for sensible people to treat his drug abuse as a matter of indifference or, at most, cause for mild rebuke. He should be treated like an adult, however little he may deserve the privilege, rather than a naughty child caught with his hand in the cookie jar: whatever guilt Rush might feel and whatever the damage his health and his relations with his family should be strictly a private matter for him and for them. If he wants expiation, he shouldn’t be able to get it from the government, by “doing his time,” or from the public by going to them and airing his dirty laundry. If he wants to confess, let him do it to his priest, or through whatever protocols his denomination might require, but let’s not make this something that he can some mass-media psychological leverage out of. Instead let’s see how Rush Limbaugh’s maternalistic attitude toward drug use stands up to a dose of self-responsibility.

Quick personal note:

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that my email address at the top of this article is no longer what it once was. And those of you who subscribe to the American Conservative magazine may have spotted a new name added to its masthead as of the October 6, 2003 issue.

I’ve had a change of career since my last article for LRC — I’m now AmCon’s staff writer. Naturally this is yet another good reason to subscribe to the magazine, as if any more reason were needed to subscribe to a periodical that publishes such writers as Paul Gottfried, Anthony Gankarski, Marcus Epstein, Steven Greenhut, Richard Cummings, Peter Hitchens, Justin Raimondo, Thomas Woods, Steve Sailer, Leon Hadar, and David Gordon, and has regular columns by Pat Buchanan and Taki. My work for the magazine differs somewhat from what I’ve written in the past: it involves more original reporting and tends to reflect the line of the magazine as a whole, rather than my personal opinion on things. Though most of the time, but not always, the two are identical.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a staff writer for the American Conservative. Subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.

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