QUIETLY, ON the back bench of American political life, the conservatives have held a coronation. Not long ago, William Buckley's National Review, which had done so much to legitimize the Right and then herald its supremacy in the 1980s, put Rush Hudson Limbaugh III, the radio talk-show host and belletrist, on the cover, declaring him "The Leader of the Opposition." The article suggested that Limbaugh, like Ronald Reagan before him, could easily make the leap from show business to national politics.

Dan Quayle, Phil Gramm, Jack Kemp and other Republican luminaries all joined in the tribute, with William Bennett declaring Limbaugh "the most consequential person in political life at the moment." (George Bush was not part of the Review's hallelujah chorus, but he had already done his part in 1992 when he invited Limbaugh to stay overnight at the White House. Limbaugh had originally been a Pat Buchanan supporter; all the same, the commander-in-chief carried his guest's bag for him to the Lincoln Bedroom.)

Reagan, for his part, has heartily endorsed the idea of Limbaugh's ascension. After the 1992 election, he wrote a "Dear Rush" letter tapping Limbaugh as his spiritual son: "Now that I've retired from active politics. I don't mind that you have become the Number One voice for conservatism in our Country. I know the liberals call you the most dangerous man in America, but don't worry about it, they used to say the same thing about me. Keep up the good work. America needs to hear 'the way things ought to be.' "

Reagan came of show business age in an era when orotund commentators spoke for 15 minutes or so on the issue of the day, a forum that made stars of Lowell Thomas in New York, Baecke Carter in Philadelphia, John Nesbitt in California. The most skilled, and dangerous, of them was Father Coughlin, who started as an entertainer, even as he railed against the "godless capitalists, the Jews, communists, international bankers and plutocrats." It took awhile for his opponents to take his powers seriously.

On the air, Limbaugh archly describes himself as "just a harmless little fuzzball," but he knows otherwise. His three-hour-long call-in program is broadcast five days a week on 600 stations across the country (including WABC-AM in New York, where it originates, and WMAL-AM in Washington).

Limbaugh was the first to seize on the rise of satellite technology and cheap 800 telephone numbers to become a national phenomenon. His audience numbers, at any given moment, more than 4.5 million. In the history of radio, only Fred Allen, Paul Harvey and Arthur Godfrey compare. His late-night television program, a kind of radio show with bookshelves and a desk, is on 220 stations.

Limbaugh is also a sensation of the written word. His first book, "The Way Things Ought to Be," should pass "Iacocca" as the biggest non-fiction seller in American history. Pocket Books published another tome this fall, "See, I Told You So," that also became a top seller. Suffice it to say that Limbaugh, at 43, has captured the attention of a hardcore public of angry white men -- his self-proclaimed Dittoheads -- and even the White House.

Limbaugh's listeners can "be a real pain in the ass," one of President Clinton's political advisers, Paul Begala, told me. "Especially in Congress. They can really light up those switchboards." The same cannot be said of David Broder and William Safire, nor of Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. The more Olympian media, print or electronic, just does not have the same intimate rapport with its audiences. Since Ross Perot's self-immolation during the great NAFTA debate, Limbaugh has become the most incendiary figure in the American media.

But who is Limbaugh exactly? Or better, what does he represent?

Ever since he moved from Sacramento to New York in 1988 and went national with his call-in program, Limbaugh has not wasted for certain kinds of celebrity attention. Barbara Walters explored his yearnings. Playboy talked him through his two divorces and painful searches for a date. ("Nice guys never get laid," he grumped.) Limbaugh everywhere comes off pretty much the same: funny, chubby, charming and just a little bit naughty. Any discussion of his politics seems always to fall short, ending with the frustrated refrain that he is, after all, just an entertainer.

There is no denying that as a way of passing a midday hour in traffic there are worse places to set the dial for a cheap laugh: ("If the spotted owl can't adjust . . . then screw it!") His most endearing shtick is a riff on his own magnificence. Just as he is about to come across as a charmless blowhard, Limbaugh undercuts himself with this sort of semi-irresistible bravado:

"Greetings, conversationalists across the fruited plain, this is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth, destined for my own wing in the Museum of Broadcasting, executing everything I do flawlessly with zero mistakes, doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair, because I have talent on loan from God. Rush Limbaugh. A man. A legend. A way of life."

It's the Muhammad Ali routine all over again, an ego so out-sized that it is a parody of ego, an endearment. Which is probably why nearly all the hype about Limbaugh winds up on the entertainment pages. And yet there is very little in the press accounts to suggest that he is, above all, a sophisticated propagandist, an avatar of the politics of meanness and envy.

Limbaugh's influence is hard to gauge. A Times Mirror poll suggests his audiences are fairly split politically. But attention must be paid. Limbaugh's last-minute scare campaign waged in the New Jersey gubernatorial race last November undoubtedly did more to elect Christine Whitman than any plot, real or imagined, by Ed Rollins. Day after day, Limbaugh told his listeners that the only voters who ought to consider voting for the incumbent Democrat, Jim Florio, were those foolish enough to "bend over, grab their ankles" and beg for new taxes. By 1996, Limbaugh says he will be able to deliver 20 million votes to the presidential candidate of his choice. Perhaps not. But, when it comes to sorting out "The New Opposition," the left-wing media conspiracy and the "arts and croissants crowd," as Limbaugh puts it, ignore him at their peril.

According to his various biographers, Paul D. Colford, Michael Arkush and Philip Seib, Limbaugh, born and brought up in Cape Giradeau, Mo., was raised on conservative politics. His grandfather was a member of the Missouri House of Representatives and served as Eisenhower's ambassador to India. His father was a county GOP chairman, a country-club man and a pillar of the American Legion.

Limbaugh, it is clear, did not meet with early intellectual grandeur. He dropped out of Southeast Missouri State and graduated instead from the Elkins Institute of Radio and Technology in Dallas. He became the sort of prickly auto-didact who is convinced that he is just as smart as the next guy. At least some of the fury and righteousness in his tone today seems rooted in early disappointment, his failure to inherit his family's success in traditional civic affairs.

Of course, no one would hand him his success on "a silver platter. . . . My story is nothing more than an example of the Original American Ethic: hard work, overcoming obstacles, triumphing over enormous odds, the pioneer spirit."

Limbaugh's first display of the Original American Ethic in the face of enormous odds was to slip the draft on the basis of an ingrown hair on his backside. Were it not for the fact that he spent much of the 1992 campaign taunting Bill Clinton for dodging the draft, the issue would be of no interest -- but there it is. Limbaugh got out of the draft by taking the initiative of visiting his doctor, finding out he had a polonoidal cyst (which had never given him much trouble) and winning a 1-Y classification.

When ABC television's Jeff Greenfield conducted a public interview with the radio host at the 92nd Street YM-YWCA in 1992, Limbaugh dissembled: "I had student deferments in college, and upon taking a physical, was discovered to have a physical -- uh, by virtue of what the military says, I didn't even know it existed -- a physical deferment and then the lottery system came along, when they chose your lot by birthdate, and mine was high. And I did not want to go -- just as Governor Clinton didn't."

Never does Limbaugh betray a moment of self-doubt or empathy with the fellow members of his generation. His accusations of cowardice and self-indulgence are for all but himself. "We were never required to make the kind of sacrifices that the World War II generation was asked to make," he writes. "Things came too easy for us. To put it bluntly, many of the baby-boom generation are spoiled brats." But not Limbaugh, of course, who spends much of his collected works and interviews describing how hard he works to prepare for his shows. It is said that every morning he reads the papers.

With his combat days behind him, Limbaugh commenced his professional wanderjahr, drifting inexorably up the radio food chain, from Pittsburgh to California. (Along the way, he worked at five different radio stations under various names and in public relations for the Kansas City Royals baseball club.) By 1984, Limbaugh was enjoying a terrific local success in Sacramento as a conservative talk-show host winning a reputation for wit and politesse mainly because he never, unlike the legendary West Coast raver Joe Pyne, invited his callers to "gargle on razor blades."

In Sacramento, Limbaugh also honed his comedy. He made it a point to call AIDS "Rock Hudson's disease" until management decided to have a talk with their young star. Limbaugh would reject certain routines for the sake of self-preservation, but he certainly did not trim too much. "One of the things I want to do before I die is conduct the homeless Olympics," he told one audience. As for feminism, he has said, "I like the women's movement . . . from behind."

Limbaugh has been compared to Lenny Bruce, meaning, I suppose, that he acts as an astringent on the sanctimonious "P.C. crowd." But Lenny Bruce used obscenity to make obscenity ridiculous and to deflate the pompous. He was out to assault the squares and uproot bigotry, to drag it out into the open. Limbaugh turns Lenny Bruce on his head -- he means to exaggerate the power of liberal pieties and then smash them with subversive comedy.

It is hard to forget his experiment in 1989 with "caller abortions" when, in an attempt to get rid of unwanted callers, the engineer would play a tape of a roaring vacuum followed by a seven-second-long scream. In another routine he thought better of later, Limbaugh used to do an "AIDS Update" in which he would read some bit of jokery with Dionne Warwick's "I'll Never Love This Way Again?" or "Back In the Saddle Again" by Gene Autry playing in the background. "It's the single most regretful {sic} thing I've ever done," Limbaugh said later. Yes, but what of his "Homeless Updates," a regular piece of fun accompanied by Clarence "Frogman" Henry's "Ain't Got No Home"?

If this is irony, Limbaugh has no gift for it. For "Dittoheads," mockery is literal, raw and cruel. All the good humor William F. Buckley was so intent on putting into the conservative movement, Limbaugh tries to replace with a smiley sort of malice. In Limbaugh's comedy-commentary, the disadvantaged are just subjects for scorn, and anyone who thinks to help such people are saps. It was clear whom Lenny Bruce was defending, even in his nastiest moments. Limbaugh is defending the successful against the impudent demands of the poor; by making all that funny, he gives the comfortable a way to think that greed and a cold-hearted wit comprise a cohesive ideology.

As one of Limbaugh's gurus, Roger Ailes, advises, to overlook the show's political message is to miss the point. Rush Limbaugh is almost always dead serious.

His conservatism is a mix of the traditional Republicanism of his father and grandfather and the fury of the pro-George Wallace forces that became so popular in his hometown. For Limbaugh, Reagan and Reaganomics are inviolable truths. The '80s were model years, an Elysian period of individualism. The '90s are on epoch of "deceit." Limbaugh, like Reagan, is convinced of a gigantic conspiracy of liberals who dream up one social program after another not because they intend to fulfill a need or even because they are well-intentioned dolts; the reason is that they simply want "to use the plight of the poor to advance their goal of dominating society."

Sexual education and condom distribution programs, however modest in cost, are not intended to lower the rate of teenage pregnancy or the rise of AIDS. No, such programs "actually encourage children -- minors, mind you -- to experiment promiscuously with oral and anal sex." Pro-choice activists risk abuse and ridicule not because they believe in what they are doing, but rather because "there's a lot of money being made on abortions."

"Even the liberals' obsession with discrimination is phony," Limbaugh assures us. "I am here to tell you that liberals don't give a rat's tail about ending discrimination. Do you know what liberals really mean by 'fighting discrimination'? Getting even."

When it comes to the "tree huggers" and "owl lovers," Limbaugh is in heaven. For him, Al Gore represents "the living, breathing definition of an environmental wacko" and publishing ecological warnings or spending money on conservation is just "another way to panic people into ceding their own personal freedom and wealth and to allow the left to grab even more power and control over the lives of individuals." Air pollution, pesticides, all of it is nothing against the powers of the universe. In other words, environmentalism is heresy.

Limbaugh everywhere describes his voluminous reading and phoning around to think tanks and investment banks for expert advice, but his style is pure demagoguery. Just as Reagan talked of welfare queens in Cadillacs, Limbaugh seizes on the absurd detail, gives it an absurdist twist of his own, and sends it out into the world under the guise of analysis and principle. "Do you really think the situation in the schools would turn around if we threw more money at them? What would they do with it?" he asks. "Buy condoms with even a greater variety of flavors and colors? We're spending enough money per classroom today to provide chauffeured limousines to the teachers and the kids." Sure we are. And that's why city school teachers find themselves shelling out their own money for such marital aids as paper and paste.

In between the chuckles, there is a quality of millennialism and revenge in Limbaugh, just as there was with Reagan and Pat Buchanan. In his books and on the air, Limbaugh wants to launch the "culture war," a contest to the death between the forces of the Dittoheads -- "decent people with good values" -- and the heathen left, "who insist that morality is simply a personal decision."

Limbaugh is out to arouse, to enrage, and there is no greater villain in his demonology than the media. He wants his listeners (and viewers and readers) to believe that he is reaching them despite some extraordinary liberal conspiracy. In fact, these "media conspirators" are gleefully making a mint off his product. In the acknowledgements to the new book, he thanks his editor at Pocket Books, Judith Regan, who "defended the project against attack from the customary leftist quarters." Why am I having difficulty trying to picture Judith Reagan at The Four Seasons using her lance to ward off the Trotskyists of the New York publishing world? Breathes there the commercial publisher in New York who would not scurry to gather up Limbaugh's tape recordings and turn them into gold? And yet not long ago on the radio Limbaugh cried out, "The publishing industry hates me!"

Although he does not much like Ross Perot (and fervently supported NAFTA), Limbaugh shares with Perot an acute sense of the anger among many Americans who feel themselves ignored or belittled by Washington. And like Perot, Limbaugh means to fulfill personal ambitions by taking hold of that anger and somehow confirming it, giving it ammunition. It is not enough for him to oppose liberalism. He must, like all demagogues, scare his listeners, get them to believe in conspiracy, rumor. "Bill Clinton may be the most effective practitioner of class warfare since Lenin," Limbaugh writes. "Just keep this in mind: Today it's the pharmaceutical manufacturers, the cable TV industry, insurance companies, physicians, and chief executive officers of major corporations he's targeting. Tomorrow it could be you." Limbaugh is a very self-aware performer. "I validate," he writes. "I don't orchestrate, dictate or otherwise cause people to ponder, I simply validate."

The National Review has done a great service in taking Limbaugh seriously and reminding its readers of the parallels with Ronald Reagan. But the editors might have followed through on the analogy. Like Reagan, Limbaugh is neither curious nor brave; he would rather tell his audiences fairy tales than have them face the world; he would rather sneer at the weak than trouble the strong. On the "Rush Limbaugh Show," the follies of PC are more important than poverty and crime, economic decline or environmental disaster. PC, after all, is good for a laugh and a point in the ratings. The rest is more difficult, earnest, stuff. It just happens to be the stuff of the way we live now.

David Remnick is a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of "Lenin's Tomb."