Greg Sargent: Where do you situate Rush Limbaugh in the history of the modern conservative movement?
Rick Perlstein: Enormously influential. Enormously efficacious. Beginning in 1989, I was listening to Limbaugh when he was just starting as a national figure. I watched his evolution.
What was evident to me right away was his ability to give people a sense that they were part of a community, part of a movement. In the case of politically alienated reactionary white males, they had an ally who would watch their back.
Sargent: Why was this very large white male reactionary audience out there looking for someone to speak to their anger?
Perlstein: It’s the basic story I tell in my books, starting with “Nixonland”: The rise of reactionary populism. People accustomed to being on top — culturally, socially, economically — were facing an onslaught of liberation movements that were all about giving other people a fair shot at the pie.
This is the guy offering a supposedly forbidden discourse, against the tide, to guys who wanted to drive giant cars and smoke cigars and maybe pat a fanny here and there.
Sargent: Limbaugh is part of the third generation of the “New Right.” The first generation is the reaction to Eisenhower and the battle over McCarthy. The second is the rise of Goldwater and into the 1970s. We tend to associate Limbaugh with the third wave — the 1980s into the 1990s.
Perlstein: Goldwater loses because he’s offering pure ideological nostrums — weakening unions and getting rid of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It’s not an ideology — as was seen in the results in 1964 — to build a majority.
The brilliance of the Nixonian new right of the 1970s was that they were able to prospect for grievances on the ground that came out of reaction to the insurgent movements of the 1960s — civil rights, abortion, gay rights.
That was a very psychologically based politics, in which you find the things that make people most angry, and you lead with that. You are actively creating this idea that the people in power are forcing things on you that are taking away your prerogatives, that are weakening your family.
Limbaugh inherited that 1970s mentality on the right: There’s nothing he would say that was abstract or intellectual in any way. It was all extremely visceral: There was this transcendent evil behind the scenes that wanted to destroy you.
It just shows the viciousness of this person, and how badly he deranged our public life: People were literally being taught that nothing liberals could do, nothing Democrats could do, could be anything but a diabolical conspiracy to destroy them.
Sargent: People who came of age during the Obama years, and are shocked by today’s right, don’t know how bad the right could be in the 1990s. The Clintons were constantly accused of murder. You had the right-wing militia movement that culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing.
Perlstein: In the 1990s, not only was Rush Limbaugh contributing his own viciousness; he created a whole media ecology.
Yes, you had Limbaugh saying 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton was indistinguishable from her dog, and that Bill Clinton was a murderer. But you also had G. Gordon Liddy saying that if you run into an ATF agent, you should shoot them in the head, because they’d be wearing body armor.
I wasn’t surprised by Oklahoma City, because the talk about government bureaucrats was so eliminationist and so murderous that why wouldn’t someone want to be a patriot and murder them in cold blood?
Sargent: In a lot of ways we’re living in the Gingrich era, in the sense that Gingrich turned politics into nationalized scorched earth war.
Perlstein: When you talk about nationalized politics, we’re really talking about nationalizing the southern politics of the Civil Rights era, where this kind of conspiracy theorizing, this kind of violence, was common.
People like Limbaugh and Gingrich helped institutionalize it in, say, Wisconsin, as opposed to just the south.
Sargent: In a way it’s a latter day version of Nixon reaching northern blue collar whites, only much more visceral and more angry.
Perlstein: Although it wasn’t really blue collar people who were Rush’s core: It was the petty bourgeoisie, the Joe the Plumbers, the guys with their own bathroom fixture businesses, the middle managers.
I don’t think Rush was a working class hero. He wasn’t quite like George Wallace in that way.
Sargent: We’re now in this big debate over the insurrectionist storming of the Capitol, and we’re discovering that there’s a real component of educated and better off reactionary people involved.
Perlstein: That’s right.
Sargent: You can see the tensions that Rush was unleashing in John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin. McCain denounced the person who called Obama a secret Muslim. But at the same time he picked a vice-presidential candidate who was kind of a direct outgrowth of the Limbaugh style.
Perlstein: And the establishment dipping their toe into this because they saw what the Limbaugh power could deliver them. So you did get people like Mitt Romney saying, "No one ever asked to see my birth certificate.”
That was the paragon of the establishment saying: I cannot win in this party without sounding like Limbaugh, or what we’d later associate with Donald Trump.
Sargent: Limbaugh himself picked up the birtherism. Can you talk about how that showed his continued poisoning of conservative politics?
Perlstein: It gets to his whole rhetorical mode of being, which is this idea that there’s this phalanx of people on the quote-unquote “other side” who will stoop to any depth of wickedness to dominate you: Here’s this guy who’s not even American who wants to dominate you.
He would put poison into the national bloodstream, and then basically say, “Can’t you take a joke?”
Sargent: The treatment of the opposition as the enemy manifests itself pretty neatly in the Trump years, doesn’t it? And ultimately in Marjorie Taylor Greene and the storming of the Capitol.
Perlstein: The thing about the QAnon phenomenon is that what the Democratic Party actually is — pluralist, timid, rather centrist — makes it hard to portray them as evil unless you make up something. The fact that QAon made up this idea that they’re literal cannibals is so telling of the weakness of the material they have.
Limbaugh primed the audience for that kind of fiction about Democrats.
Sargent: How responsible for the Trump presidency, the disasters that flowed from it, and the effort to violently overturn U.S. democracy is Rush Limbaugh?
Perlstein: Very responsible. Extremely responsible.