Larry Lujack, the sarcastic Chicago top-40 DJ who died in 2013, once did a stunt where he stormed into theaters to punish moviegoers for smoking.
Obviously Lujack, a longtime smoker and self-styled degenerate, wasn’t offering a public service announcement. He was mocking the killjoy practices of what his show called, derisively, “normal mature people.” Prigs. Health nuts. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Lujack was the idol of one Rush Limbaugh, the right wing talk-radio host who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday, in a Trumpian stunt during the State of the Union address. The award came on the same day Limbaugh announced publicly that he has lung cancer.
Limbaugh once acknowledged that Lujack was a mentor, “the only person I ever copied.” Indeed, Limbaugh’s schtick still includes grousing about “health Nazis” who would have red-blooded Americans give up butter, cigars and caffeine.
What attracted Limbaugh to Lujack — and perhaps the president to Rush — is libertarian showboating, crabby comedy based on the complaints of amped-up white men who imagine themselves the shock troops of a transgressive counterculture. If smoking, sexism and fast food are considered declasse, these geezers are going to double their intake. They traffic in disdain.
The best of them could be funny: Rodney Dangerfield, David Letterman, Howard Stern. But Limbaugh’s dyspeptic rants curdle in a way the others’ never did. As Limbaugh got meaner and darker, even Lujack rejected him: “His appeal escapes me.”
Over the decades, Limbaugh has spent way too many shows prattling on about “feminazis” and the barbarism of black athletes, as if in a bigoted fever dream. His success, in cultural critic Neal Gabler’s words, comes from “saying things that no one else will say” (because they’re boring and infantile, I might add).
Among Limbaugh’s many preoccupations, an especially weird one is “studs” — male collegians whose manhood is allegedly being curbed by evil coeds who want to emasculate them. “Women should not be allowed on juries where the accused is a stud,” Limbaugh once said. His castration anxiety also surfaced in his complaints that Hillary Clinton kept a “testicle lockbox.”
Just as right-wing grievance personalities Alex Jones and Sean Hannity have done, Limbaugh periodically excuses his blunders by calling himself a mere entertainer. This allows him, he said, to “embellish” his statements with “confidence and cockiness.” He also uses exaggerated diction and dials his volume to 11. Similarly, President Trump’s misconduct — his relentless lying in particular — is often explained away as the excesses of a showbiz guy.
But Limbaugh’s fans don’t see him as merely a blowhard carny tubthumper. They see him as an oracle. For decades, they’ve called themselves dittoheads, happy to mechanically reproduce Limbaugh’s noxious memes. They espouse the Trump-era reality: If it’s rude, stale and mean-spirited, it has to be true. And of course Trump himself enjoys dittohead-style devotion from his redhats.
The president surely sees himself in his Medal of Freedom awardee. He and Limbaugh, close in age, have something deep in common: an abiding conviction that, whatever their successes, the phantom “elites” look down on them, and their followers.
The Trump crowd insists that any criticism of the impeached president reflects only sneering contempt for Trump voters. And Limbaugh trolls his listeners with the insistence that they’re hated by the elites, who hate him, too.
Limbaugh’s grievances engender in his dittoheads an anguish that can be exploited — to get them to accept conspiracy theories, pay for Rush-branded golf gear, or vote for Rush-branded candidates. Having been credited with reviving the Republican Party in 2010, Limbaugh let down traditional Republicans four years ago when he took aim at them and marshaled his forces for Trump.
“Now, [Republicans] can concoct all the reasons they want [to reject Trump],” he said. “But ... there’s also this cliquish, elitist club characteristic here that, if you’re not in it — and the only way you can get in it is to be accepted, to be invited. You can’t succeed your way into it.”
Limbaugh has long fondled this story. According to his biography, Limbaugh believes a personal elite has always conspired against him, beginning with his prominent Missouri family, who were angry when he dropped out of college some 50 years ago.
You’d think Limbaugh’s signature grandiloquence, Gulfstream G550 and Florida estate — featuring a supersized salon modeled on Versailles — would allay his insecurity. Still, old resentments die hard, and Limbaugh is the Sun King of resenters. He shares the trait with Trump.
Limbaugh is an unusual recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which has generally gone to world-historical figures such as civil rights supernova Rosa Parks and Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. First Lady Melania Trump draped the medal around Limbaugh’s neck up in the House gallery on Tuesday, apparently commemorating Rush’s supreme contributions to humanity.
Limbaugh’s actual accomplishments demean the medal. He and his president-benefactor are a pair of nasty swells from Palm Beach trying to get one up on their betters, while pretending to work for the little guy.
As Limbaugh once said, the “formula” for manipulating his followers never fails: “People keep falling for it. It amazes me.”