So it’s looking more and more like Donald Trump was right in that 2016 observation that he could go out to Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and his people wouldn’t care—but only as long as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter tell them they shouldn’t care.
As we enter the third week of the shutdown, it's become clearer and clearer how much power those two blowhard neo-fascists have, especially Limbaugh. Back in my younger days in New York, then-Mayor Ed Koch used to jab at the great liberal investigative journalist Jack Newfield by calling him “County Leader Newfield”—a reference to Jack’s tendency from time to time (so it was often said, anyway) to cross the line from journalistic advocacy into outright political power-brokering, which always had an anti-Koch coloration to it.
Limbaugh is Newfield on steroids (or is it opioids?), except of course without Jack’s actual, formidable talent as a journalist. Limbaugh is the real chairman of the Republican Party and has been for probably 20 years. David Frum made the observation back in 2009 or so. It was true then, pre-Trump, and it’s still true, in the Trump era. All those thousands of columns I’ve read—a few of which I wrote!—about how Trump took over the Republican Party lock, stock, and barrel? Wrong. Trump only appeared to take over. Limbaugh has been pulling the strings the whole time.
Ever see The Great McGinty, the fantastic Preston Sturges movie from the 1940s about political corruption? It’s about a battle for the soul of an unnamed political party between the regulars and the reformers. The man who heads the regulars, a brilliant character actor named Akim Tamiroff, is warned that things have finally gotten so irredeemably corrupt that the reformers might actually take over. “That’s fine,” he says, smiling, with a wave of the hand. “I own the reformers too!”
That’s Limbaugh vis a vis the Republicans. Not that any Republican faction can reasonably be called reformers, God knows, least of all the corrupt-to-the-bone Trumpies. I just mean Limbaugh runs it all. They all genuflect to him and always have, from Newt Gingrich to Dick Cheney to Mitt Romney (“not the language I would have used,” Mittens courageously protested after Limbaugh called private citizen Sandra Fluke a “slut”) right on through to Trump.
You’ll recall what happened before Christmas, right before the shutdown, after the Senate passed a spending resolution with no wall money in it. On his show, Limbaugh advised Trump to veto. What happened next? Limbaugh bragged about it just last Friday. “Well, we all know what happened,” he said. “It was shortly after that little brief monologue that I got a direct message, an instant message from somebody delivering to me a message from the president. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not signing this thing!’”
This was the Trump White House acknowledging that it had to assuage the concerns of County Leader Limbaugh. Reaching out to his show within minutes of Rush laying down the law.
On that last Friday show, Limbaugh blubbered on about how Trump was winning (he’s not), beating Chuck and Nancy (he didn’t, not even in the TV ratings), and the people were with him (they are not). But starting this week, things are going to change. This week, if they want to hang tough on the wall, Republicans, including the president and the de facto party chairman, are going to have to be ignoring the very real financial hardships of 800,000 people who aren’t getting paychecks.
Limbaugh rants on about the border crisis, and Trump says he cares about the people whose loved ones were killed by illegal arrivals. Those stories are true and tragic, but there aren’t 800,000 of them. The human crisis that’s happening now is the one in which decent, working-class people (TSA employees, for example, average around $47,000 a year) can’t pay the mortgage or rent or buy the kids winter boots.
These kinds of things don’t weigh on the conscience, such as it is, of a multimillionaire radio propagandist. But they do trouble a president. Or they’re supposed to. I will be very interested this week to see if empathy for the temporarily furloughed starts to feature at all in Trump’s rhetoric. It will be a sign, maybe, that he’s going soft, losing his will.
And if he does? Or if Mitch McConnell works out for him some obviously empty face-saver that lets him declare a victory that everyone except Trump knows is bullshit? What will Limbaugh do?
Probably, Limbaugh will give it his seal of approval. There’s no principle with people like that. There’s just power; owning the libs. Limbaugh will probably decide, even if Trump caves, that in the long run it’s better for business—and for America, according to his Gestapo vision of it—that he be in Trump’s corner.
But if Trump just collapses and Limbaugh does bail on him, then we’re in for a treat. Does Limbaugh really have the power to pry Trump’s base away from him? He undoubtedly does; at least a significant percentage of it. It’s hilarious to think that all this love out there for Trump is conditional on Limbaugh’s (and to some extent Coulter’s) approval.
The real lesson here, though, isn’t hilarious at all. Most of the rest of us walk around aware that Limbaugh is there, still doing what he’s doing, cognizant of the fact that he has influence, but probably rationalizing that he’s just an entertainer and he’s been at this for 30 years and surely his star has dimmed a little. Apparently, quite the contrary. He runs the Republican Party as much as he ever has.
But take comfort, folks. At least now he has to share that power a little bit. I wonder how often he and Vladimir talk.