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Rush Limbaugh Was Great When Democrats Were in the White House

Rush Limbaugh has died at age seventy.

Whether or not one agreed with him, Limbaugh was long unavoidable for those who had any interest in political commentary—especially during the 1990s. Limbaugh had a very long career, but his peak in terms of talent and relevance was likely during the Clinton years.

In his early years, I didn’t even know Limbaugh had a radio show, because I was in school when his show aired on the radio. Like many people, I only became aware of him when his syndicated television show premiered in 1992. For many of us who fancied ourselves opponents of "big government," Limbaugh seemed like a voice of consistent dissent in the early years of the Clinton administration.

Limbaugh was relentless in his mockery of Clinton and in contradicting the administration’s message. Limbaugh would even hilariously impersonate Clinton with a mock Clinton voice.

Because he was criticizing the administration in power, Limbaugh appeared to be a true dissenter. He seemed to oppose everything the federal government was doing. He was even seemingly good on foreign policy, questioning the Clinton administration’s policies in Bosnia and Iraq. In late 1993, National Review labeled Limbaugh as "the leader of the opposition." This seemed appropriate and true.

By the late nineties, I was listening to a fair amount of Limbaugh’s radio show, largely because I worked as a contractor in janitorial and landscaping services. That meant a lot of driving around in my pickup truck. And that meant a lot of AM radio.

As a clueless teenager, and later as a clueless college student, I thought that those people who opposed the regime and its schemes would always do so, regardless of who was in power. As the Clinton years ended and the Bush years began, I would learn the error of my ways.

As the Bush years began, Limbaugh suddenly took on a different tone. He was supportive of the administration’s plans and programs, even when they were very similar to those of the Clinton years. Things became far worse after 9/11. At that point, Limbaugh became a full-throated defender of the administration, pushing for every scheme the White House was pushing, and advocating for a full-blown GOP-controlled police state.

In other words, Limbaugh became insufferable. He was no longer funny or biting. He was just another shill for the regime, with a small token bit of skepticism thrown in to maintain some semblance of independence from the official messages coming out of the White House.

By then, of course, I had learned my lesson. Having first begun to participate in political debates during the Clinton years, I thought that those who criticized the administration’s abusive and overreaching policies did so out of some sort of principled ideological view. I thought these people agreed with me that it was important to not turn around and take the opposite positions just because "our guy" is in the White House. Thanks to Limbaugh, I learned what a hopelessly naïve position that was.

It turns out that opposition to the regime among many of these people only matters when "their guy" is the president. The rest of the time, we’re supposed to just do as we’re told and push the official position, because if we don’t, then we might as well be pushing for the bad guy.

At least, that’s the message that was received from Limbaugh’s complete about-face in 2001, and the lesson always stuck with me.

I never bothered to tune back in during the Obama years to see what Limbaugh was up to. I suspect he was back to pretending to be a dissenter as during the 1990s.

To his credit, in recent years, Limbaugh showed signs of figuring out—finally—that the "deep state" is not the good guys and that all those CIA and Pentagon officials he’d been cheering for all those years were maybe not the selfless patriots he apparently long assumed them to be. He seems to have figured out that the Dick Cheneys of the world are maybe not friends of the American people.

But for the most part, his legacy was one of being proregime when the GOP is in and being antiregime when the GOP is out. Given that he was an entertainer, of course, it’s hard to fault Limbaugh too much for this. He was just giving his audience what it wanted. And what his audience wanted was a simplistic yet incoherent idea which maintained that things are mostly fine when Republicans are in office, but that the world is mess when Democrats win the White House. He was clearly very successful at delivering the message.