Cult of Personality 4: The Destruction of a Presidency


In an odd kind of way, Bill Clinton was made to order for Rush Limbaugh. Rush, the one-man nemesis of the counter-culture, made his reputation attacking feminists, liberals, gays, college professors, immigrants, the NEA, and anyone else to the left of Genghis Khan by accusing them of saying things they’d never said but that his core listeners believed they would have said in public if it was safe and probably did say in private. But an argument could be made that, at least in the beginning, Limbaugh’s core listeners were a realtively thin slice of his audience; that the bulk of that audience was made up of people who agreed with some of his positions but not others, people who listened for the “entertainment value”, and people who disagreed with him almost totally but found his outrageousness entertaining or wanted to keep track of what he was saying in the (accurate) belief that he was mirroring the often unspoken but true feelings of the right wing in American politics.What Limbaugh called “entertainment”, however, was (and is) in reality a particularly virulent form of propaganda which grew over the years from a simplified echo of core right-wing beliefs to structured demagoguery with a very definite purpose. As Mr. Neiwert, in an essay titled Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism (well worth a read in its entirety, you can download a PDF version of the whole thing here), puts it:

Through most of the first decade of his radio career, his primary schtick has been to rail against the government and its supposed takeover of our daily lives. This anti-government propaganda has served one main purpose: To drive a wedge between middle- and lower-class workers and the one entity that has the real (if sometimes abused or neglected) capability to protect them from the ravages of wealthy class warriors and swarms of corporate wolves.

To that extent, Rush has functioned as he was meant to function by the conservative planners who first saw talk radio’s possibilities in shaping the political landscape: as a propagandist hawking their world-view on a daily basis in language so startling in its muscular simplicity and so larded with easily-labeled “enemies” that the meanest intelligence could grasp the message without having to work at it very hard. Rush took propaganda techniques known since the Second World War and honed to a fair-thee-well during Stalin’s reign and applied them in the US for the first time since Father Coughlin in the 30’s, and it was an approach that worked exceptionally well:

[T]here can be little doubt as to the effectiveness of Limbaugh’s propaganda: In the intervening years, it has become an object of faith, particularly in rural America where Limbaugh’s broadcasts can often be heard multiple times throughout the day, that the government is in itself evil, a corrupt entity, something to be distrusted and feared, and certainly incapable of actually solving problems.

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Mind you, in Limbaughland, there are still “evil” people in government — but they’re all liberals. Indeed, the demonization of all things liberal has always been a component of Limbaugh’s routine. But now it has become his focus. And it is in that shift, taking place in a context of rising extremism, that he has become openly divisive, and truly dangerous.

Probably, but let’s not pretend that Limbaugh is advocating some new ideas that he invented; his attitudes have been main themes for the ultraconservative, corporate-based core constituency of the Republican Party since the end of the Civil War. All Limbaugh did was give it a loud, persuasive, modern voice, helped along by the conservative owners who put it on their radio stations several times a day, disallowed the airing of opposition voices, and then claimed that the public had “demanded” it.

At root, the extremes in any political orientation or philosophy are a mass of contradictions, and ultraconservatism is no acception. They like to think of themselves as daring risk-takers able to face challenges weaker citizens shy away from, yet in practice they pull every imaginable string to minimize or eliminate risk altogether, no matter who else has to suffer in the process; they tend to detest most those who most closely resemble them; they tend to project their own weaknesses, especially personal weaknesses, on those with whom they disagree; attracted by strenghth, especially the raw exercise of power in support of policies they favor, they tend to back explicitly anti-democratic foreign leadership–dictators, military juntas, self-appointed autocrats–in the name of “realism” and then attack them later for being too strong; and so on.

Ultraconservatives have always needed enemies. Where moderate conservatives want to conserve–to go slower, to make sure we aren’t throwing the baby out with the bath water–ultraconservatives respond to fear–of outside threats, real or imagined, of change, of anything or anyone different–and that response is anger. Ultraconservatives always over-react because their fear makes them inherently weak, unable to countenance compromise of any sort for fear that it might endanger them in some way. Fear is a powerful motivator; the stronger the fear, the higher the motivation. Ultraconservatives seek power as the only drug capable of calming their fear; the more power they have, the less frightened they need to be.

What are they so scared of? Losing their privileges, mostly. Rich ultraconservatives hate Communism and populism because both threaten to take the privileges which money buys for the rich by taking away the money; poor ultraconservatives hate immigrants and blacks because they threaten to take away the few measly priviliges that being native-born and white affords to the otherwise impoverished. To assuage their fear, both groups need to feel more powerful than what they’re afraid of and privileges, however meager, prove that power; take them away and weakness is all that’s left.

This is true of all extremes. Progressive radicals who want outside agencies like government to solve or mitigate problems that arise from personal weaknesses or lack of talent and/or capability are also reacting from fear. Seeking power or the protection of power is the universal human response of frightened people, and both sets of extremes need enemies in order to rally the troops that will provide the power or protrection they need.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in Soviet Russia, ultraconservatives found themselves deprived of the enemy that had energized them and provided their entree to power for 3/4 of a century. There were plenty of others, of course, from feminists to homosexuals to immigrants to Robert Mapplethorpe, and Rush found–and hammered–all of them. But they were lacking a Demon. There was Fidel, but he was a spent force as Demons go; since the October Missile Crisis, no frightened Republican, try as s/he might, had been able to whip up much enthusiasm in the public for hating him–as a tiger, his teeth had been pulled. There was China, which would have pleased the religious right, but demonizing China presented a problem: the core Republican constituency–corporations–were doing a lot of business in and with China nowadays. They were leery of antagonizing the whole country; individual leaders, yes, but individual Chinese leaders did the NRC no good. They could whip up a frenzy over Godless Communist China, but who knew who Ziang-chi-min was? Who could even spell his name?

No, genuine Demons you could get the public to rally round were thin on the ground, no two ways about it. Without a personified, Grade-A, #1 Gen-u-whine Demon, generalized attacks on generalized targets like feminazis and abortion doctors lacked a core, a center, a focus of evil, and energizing the troops was difficult if not impossible without one. What to do?

Their seemingly insoluble problem was solved with the election of Bill Clinton. They hated the son-of-a-bitch. He was everything they despised–a Southern cracker, the Governor of a joke state known as a heaven of shantytowns and trailer-trash, an unrepentant womanizer a la JFK who exuded sex appeal at a level no Republican had ever reached or ever would, and he had won by stealing their issues–THEIR issues! Welfare reform, balanced budgets, free trade, de-regulation. He was a travesty, a perversion of themselves, a mirror-image with charm and a populist appeal. Shameful, maddening, evil.

But the worst was his astounding political skill and his ability to forge coalitions out of unlikely partners: radical feminists and Southern housewives; homosexuals and mainstream Protestant churches, Democratic Democrats and–Horrors!–their own Reagan Democrats. The man was threatening to become another FDR, welding a lot of small groups with differing agendas into a single group with one over-riding goal: to keep Republicans out of power for another 50 years. It couldn’t be allowed. He had to be stopped.

Almost as soon as he was sworn in, Republicans began the process of trying to destroy his Presidency, and the beauty of their plan was that it would use the same tool that Democrats had forged to destroy Nixon: the Independent Prosecutor. This struck them as true balance, an eye for an eye: precise, equal Judgment; exact Exacted Revenge. There was a pleasing symmetry to it, a what-goes-around-comes-around inevitability.

Of course, there was the minor issue of what it was the IP was supposed to investigate to be settled yet, but they figured there must be something. After all, every politician has a skeleton or two in the closet somewhere; it was just a matter of finding his and smearing them all over the tube. They had the media, they had the echo chamber of the Mighty Wurlitzer. They would leave him nowhere to hide.

They began, naturally enough, with rumors; there were a lot to choose from. Clinton had fathered a bastard black child, had been involved in a murder, had stolen money, had sold his support for legislation, had been involved in a number of shady business deals, had raised monel illegally for his Gubernatorial campaigns, and so on. None of them could be proved, of course, but they could be investigated, that was the point–throw enough smoke around and a gullible public was sure to believe that there had to be a fire somewhere. They started with White Water, a land development deal on which Clinton had actually lost money. The charges were vague, the evidence suspect when it wasn’t completely cooked, and nobody understood exactly what crime it was Bill was supposed to have committed. But none of that mattered as long as it was being “investigated”.

A good beginning, and the very vagueness of it fed the right-wing-whacko rumor mill like fertilizer feeds geraniums. On the nascent internet, right-wing websites were freed from facts by the almost complete lack of them and cheerfully invented a raft of conspiracy theories woven with any slime-laden gossip that happened to come their way. Their creators presented their personal beliefs as proven fact without bothering to support their assertions, and–like gossip–story built upon story, repeated and expanded so often that each began to take on the patina of an uncontestable history, like Columbus discovering America or Washington crossing the Delaware.

Which is where Rush came in. He took the tactics he’d devised to smear the left,
added to them the free-wheeling disdain for “facts” that he’d learned on the internet, and combined them into a simple, powerfull strategy: Lie, early and often. Apologize for nothing, retract nothing, repeat everything and tie it all to Clinton’s back. His approach was the verbal equivalent of a gangland street-sweeper; he didn’t have the interest or the patience for a sniper. He sprayed his targets from every angle with any ammunition available, rock salt to buckshot, indiscriminately and without let-up. There was never a devastating charge but there were lots and lots and LOTS of smaller charges, and their sheer numbers were overwhelming. Disprove one and ten more arose to take its place; allow a little time to pass for the public to forget the one that had been disproved and he could bring it up again as if the debunking had never happened.

The think-tanks were awed. The Limbaugh strategy was brilliant. The opposition was always off-balance, always on the defensive, forced to answer accusations of imaginary crimes as if they were real, not once but over and over again. But Rush didn’t stop there. He began to tell his stories in a way that put Bill Clinton at their center like a spider sitting in the middle of its web spinning traps for innocent but unwary flies. Rush gave the ultraconservatives the Demon they’d been lacking, and that Demon’s name was Bill.

Who often obligingly performed for them: the infamous “tarmac haircut”, first waffling on and then abandoning his appointment of Lani Guinere, the constant attempts at compromise when a child would have known that compromise wasn’t possible, and of course the women–acres of them, one story after the other–Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones et al; he didn’t seem capable of meeting a woman without trying to seduce her. He fed into every ultraconservative stereotype of what liberals were, outdoing every previous contender for the title. Rush had a ready-made show almost every day; all he had to do was pick up a paper.

Maybe it was how easy it all was that led him–and the rest of the right wing–to keep upping the ante, raising the stakes. Clinton never fought back, just smiled and went around them. As Michael Feldman of PRI’s Wha’d’ya Know put it, “They’ve been dumping all this doo-doo on him and he just keeps smiling, smiling, smiling.” What does it take, they must have asked themselves, to get to this guy? And they set about finding out.

The nastiness of the rhetoric increased exponentially for the next eight years, fed by failure after failure to dent the armor of the Comeback Kid: Travelgate was nothing; Paula Jones went south after it was proved her testimony had been given to her by lawyers for the Conservative Law Foundation acting on orders from the CLF’s founder and funder, arch-conservative Richard Mellon Scaife; the White Water investigation ate up 7 years and $$30 or 40MIL$$$ without ever proving a crime had been committed, let alone by Bill Clinton. Despite these maddening failures, all during the ’96 campaign right-wing pundits crowed that Clinton didn’t stand a chance of re-election. Fred Barnes said, “Bill Clinton will lose this election to any Republican who doesn’t drool onstage.” Unfortunately, the Republicans nominated ace hatchetman Bob Dole, an unlikeable hack who ran back to the Senate in the middle of his campaign so he could make a speech defending a corporate contributor who produced poison gas (look it up), and whose biggest contributors were tobacco companies. Clinton won. Handily.

In the end, ultraconservative Republicans were reduced to trying to impeach him over a sordid affair with an intern, and they failed spectacularly. But the failure did seem to inspire them to plumb new depths of degraded rhetoric. They called Clinton–the sitting President of the United States–“a douchebag”, “scum”, “slime”. Rush hinted often if he didn’t say it outright that Vince Foster had been murdered and that Clinton had ordered it, suggesting not-quite-under-his-breath that it wouldn’t be the first time if he had–a direct link to the Willie Horton meme. Democrats were liberals and liberals weren’t just wrong, they were murderers, traitors, the scum of the earth.

Between the extreme political attacks and the extreme and increasingly hostile rhetorical attacks, Clinton’s Presidency was crippled: a number of major initiatives, including proposed fixes for the health care and social security systems, were unceremoniously dumped and forgotten as the result of bitter right-wing opposition; the efforts in Somalia and Rwanda were cut short, leaving both countries in an uncomfortable limbo; environmental issues were ignored and some regulations weakened because Clinton couldn’t afford to fight about them; but most important of all, the coalition he had begun to put together during his first campaign never materialized and the Republicans–now solidly in the hands of extremist radicals like Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, and Trent Lott–won a majority in both houses of Congress.

Rush had shown them the way to spread the Gospel According to St Ronald and crush the opposition in the process, and their destiny was clear.

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