Opinion

How Rush Limbaugh blurred the line between politics and showbiz

Here we are now, entertain us

It is somehow fitting that in the same week Rush Limbaugh died, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson signaled — again — his interest in running for president.

"I would consider a presidential run in the future if that's what the people wanted," Johnson told USA Today in an interview. "Truly I mean that, and I'm not flippant in any way with my answer. That would be up to the people ... So I would wait, and I would listen. I would have my finger on the pulse, my ear to the ground."

Johnson, it should be noted, made these comments while promoting his new NBC sitcom. (If he does run, he would be following in the footsteps of another big star from that network.) He is very good at being famous and likable, but there is no reason — aside from the fact that lots of people pay to see his movies — to think he might have any particular aptitude for governing. Johnson may not have been flippant, but it takes an incredible amount of chutzpah for a Hollywood actor to look at the current state of the country, mired in a recession and pandemic that are the legacies of the last entertainer who ran the country, and think to himself: "Yeah, I could do that."

What does this have to do with Limbaugh? One of the broadcaster's biggest achievements was to blur the line between politics and showbiz. Those who paid tribute to him on Wednesday lauded Limbaugh both as a conservative and as an entertainer.

"Liberals who didn't listen to Rush, and just read the Media Matters accounts, never understood how *funny* he was," National Review's Rich Lowry said on Twitter. "What set him off from his many imitators was how wildly entertaining he was, and the absolutely unbreakable bond he formed with his listeners."

Limbaugh himself often encouraged the notion that he was as much a showman as an ideologue.

"Conservatism didn't buy this house," he said in a 2008 New York Times Magazine profile. "First and foremost I'm a businessman. My first goal is to attract the largest possible audience so I can charge confiscatory ad rates. I happen to have great entertainment skills, but that enables me to sell airtime.”

This was always a cop-out. By emphasizing his skill as an entertainer — It's all just a show! — Limbaugh and his defenders subtly tried to distance themselves from the real and often ugly ways he helped shape the national political discourse. If it's entertainment, it doesn't really matter! It's just a joke! And if those jokes come at the expense of AIDS patients, or Black people, or "slutty" women, well, it's all just a gag, right?

It's this kind of thinking that lets Tucker Carlson, who occupies an hour of prime time every weeknight on Fox News, successfully defend a defamation lawsuit by arguing that no reasonable viewer takes him seriously. Or leads us to the sight of a United States senator who routinely gets into Twitter fights with Hollywood celebrities. Applied to governance, Limbaugh's "make 'em laugh" philosophy resulted in the election of a president who spent a good portion of the pandemic boasting about his television ratings.

We are talking here about Republicans and conservatives, but Democrats aren't immune from this syndrome. Oprah Winfrey helped get Barack Obama elected, and Warren Beatty was for many years a rumored candidate for president. George Clooney has repeatedly told journalists he won't run for office, but still they ask. There is no ideological hedge against celebrity worship, and even less reason to think the media won't go bananas for the ratings and clicks they get when somebody like Jesse Ventura gets himself elected governor.

So it is probably too much to expect famous folks like Dwayne Johnson to stay in their lane — to make endorsements and participate in our national debates while leaving the actual work of governing to the pros. (Johnson endorsed President Biden during the most recent campaign.) Citizens must instead take upon themselves the burden of distinguishing actual leaders from people who look good only after their performances have been edited to give the impression of leadership. They will have to distinguish between politics and make-believe. Given our recent history, it is difficult to hope that will be the case. Rush Limbaugh straddled the line. See where that got us?

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