Rush Limbaugh, pink cheeked and increasingly porcine, has emerged as the de-facto head of the Republican Party.
Just over eight years ago, the GOP made history by capturing the White House with less votes than the Democrats. That the party is now being helmed by Limbaugh, a multi-millionaire radio entertainer elected by nobody, seems directionally correct: authority without legitimacy superseded by influence without responsibility.
The Republicans — or, at least, their National Committee — have an official chief: Michael Steele, who seems a likeable guy. He combines the charisma of Bobby Jindal, Louisiana's Republican governor, with the polish of Roland Burris, Illinois's newest Democratic senator. Yet while he has both legitimacy and responsibility, he has no sway, no swagger, no star quality.
In a political landscape defined by President Barack Obama, political leaders need wattage, reach, and frequency. Limbaugh has all three — to the tune of an estimated 14 million listeners.
With more than 69 million votes, Obama's audience trumps Limbaugh's. And with opinion polls showing that Obama enjoys widespread respect and support even among those who are skeptical of his policies, there is no doubt that the president is the man of the political moment.
But Limbaugh's legions — his "Ditto Heads" — love him for who he is not.
As the anti-Obama, Limbaugh is straight out of Central Casting. He aims to harness Darth Vader's dark side of the force, to channel Voldemort's dark arts, to rescue the powerful but morally compromising ring that Frodo vowed to destroy.
Like Satan in the more high-brow Paradise Lost, who would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, Limbaugh has said he would elect to see Obama fail, and by extension watch as the world falls into complete economic chaos. The depth of Limbaugh's negativity is awe inspiring, the breadth of his arrogance almost frightening.
The saving grace is that Limbaugh is essentially a hot-air artist. But even in the 21st century, hot air can propel.
Just as Republican policies have impoverished the nation, so have Republican ideas perverted political debate. Limbaugh works hard to maintain an orthodoxy so strict it would be the envy of any monarch or dictator. Flying under the banner of free speech, he seeks to kill the free exchange of ideas. Go figure. Nobody ever said that democracy was a tidy proposition.
What's wild about all of this is that the empty suits like Mitt Romney, the focus-less strivers like Sarah Palin, the Bible thumpers like Mike Huckabee — in other words, the best and brightest of Republican presidential politics — need Limbaugh and his spawn (Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter) more than the talk masters need them. The quintet of Republican radio is, in the end, all about audience and ratings. The politicians need that audience to jump-start their presidential campaigns.
Some thoughtful conservatives have recently begun to worry about the pernicious effect that right-wing entertainment has had on this generation of viable conservative ideas. A prime example is the cover story in the latest issue of the American Conservative, a small but intellectually freewheeling magazine. In it, John Derbyshire, a conservative's conservative if ever their was one, explains in detail "How Radio Wrecks the Right."