I said something not completely stupid when I was 21 years old. It was 1992. I’d heard about this talk-radio phenomenon called Rush Limbaugh, but I’d never bothered to plunge into the AM band to find out more. And then there he was on the TV, his own half-hour show every weeknight, stuffed into a suit and beadily glowering from behind a desk. I watched an episode and the next day I called some friends and said, ya gotta come over and check this out.
My friends suffered through an episode with pained expressions and occasional gasps. The entire show was simply Rush, with bookcases and flags behind him for respectability’s sake, looking straight at the camera and letting the bullshit fly. He tried to tell us, for example, how banning abortion would actually lead to fewer unwanted children. This was a novel experience. It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1992, people didn’t look at you from the TV and try to sell you cruel political nonsense this blatantly. He was a news anchor, a late-night talk show host, a salesman, and a televangelist shmushed into a doughy smugness of propaganda. When it ended, they were horrified with it, and with me. Why would I call them over to listen to this sack of rancid?
Because, I said, you should know: this is our future, and it’s going to go really, really badly for all of us. 1
The premise behind everything Rush Limbaugh says goes like this: you are getting screwed by liberals who are full of shit, they want to destroy your way of life, they are your enemy, they cannot be reasoned with, they must be destroyed.
And there’s a story that repeats itself throughout American culture that goes like this: a bad person causes a problem because they’re bad, until a good person stands up and solves the problem with violence, the end. We love this story. It’s a formula that works in movies, books, cartoons, wrestling, and politics. But stories help shape our understanding of how the world works, and this one is fundamentally defective. Fact is, there ain’t very many actual bad guys out there who need killin’, and killin’ ‘em rarely solves a problem.
I’ve always been a Star Wars fan, but Star Wars is all about this formula. Imperials are bad because they’re bad, and good guys solve the problem by blowing up their Death Stars. Unfortunately, real-world problems tend to be complex and interconnected and only solvable through understanding, compromise, and cooperation, which sounds more like a lame Star Trek episode and significantly less fun than blowing up a Death Star.
Rush Limbaugh figured this out: people will become very interested in politics if you apply this narrative to it every single goddamn day. The pros and cons of complex political policy? Boring. Not boring? Try “We are the good guys, and they are the bad guys who are screwing you.”
Who did Limbaugh tell us they are? One day, it’s the Muslims who are the bad guys. Next day, the atheists. Then it’s the college kids, professors, intellectuals, scientists, experts, blacks, immigrants, Mexicans, the Chinese, the Russians but wait now not the Russians, North Korea, doctors, feminists, vegans, environmentalists, hold on, it’s the gays, the transgender people, can we do Muslims again, great, Hollyweird celebrities, coastal elites, Soros, the Jew- OK, maybe not the Jews, or… mayyybe the Jews after all? Fuck it, doesn’t matter, bottom line, the problem is never anything nuanced or complex. The problem is always a person, and that person is never going to be the good person in his audience who’s a straight white Christian rural conservative person. The problem has always got to be, one way or another, a person different in some way from his audience who can be shoved under the umbrella of… “liberal.”
The problem is never even really socialism. That’s just an evil ideology that could mean anything to do with big evil government and is the same thing as communism, which is also evil, and all you need to know is, it’s what’s evil liberals believe in instead of freedom and the baby Jesus.
Try looking at any issue conservative America has gotten excited about in the last 25 years and you’ll find there’s no actual policy behind it - the issue only exists as a rhetorical noose to hang liberals from. Smaller government, lower taxes, balanced budgets? They don’t really care, it’s just whatever’s the opposite of what evil big-spending liberals want. Even Limbaugh himself admitted it in 2019: “Nobody is a fiscal conservative anymore. All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it's been around.”
Abortion? Really about evil feminist liberals and their heathen sexual liberation. Guns? Evil hippie liberals are coming to take them away. Gay marriage? Evil homo liberals want special rights. Terrorism? Evil multicultural liberals welcome all the dark-skinned people who want to murder you. Student debt? Evil lazy liberals want something for nothing. Health care? Those super-evil liberals, they want to give your hard-earned money to the government in order to run death panels and provide special treatment to lazy yet crafty non-white people who don’t deserve it. YEAH OK, we get it, but what is it you people actually want to do?
Nothing. Just destroy the evil liberals. That’s it, that’s the whole story. Liberals are the enemy, they are the evil bad people who cause all the problems. And we all understand what the solution to that is, right? Did Luke Skywalker sit down and negotiate a lasting, peaceful compromise with the evil bad people who were causing all the problems?
The political system I grew up with was one where people with different political ideas worked out compromises over policy. This meant change usually happened slowly, but because we were forced to compromise in middles, we filtered out the most extreme ideas from the ends and arrived at inoffensive, mild policies that satisfied the corporate masters that own both parties. OK, it didn’t exactly work for us, but it did let us get on with our lives in relative peace. But then Limbaugh came along and said politics can’t be about compromise, it’s about destroying your enemies.
Rush Limbaugh dedicated his life to inspiring other people to fight. Not that he would actually know anything about fighting, of course - in the most completely perfect conservative chickenhawk excuse ever, he apparently got out of going to Vietnam by having a cyst in his ass. So his asshole might be too delicate for war, but he sure thought the rest of us should fight each other. In early December 2020, he said “there cannot be peaceful coexistence between liberals and conservatives,” but I heard him saying that since 1992. What’s the alternative to peaceful coexistence? It’s kill your neighbors. That was Rush Limbaugh’s fundamental message.
A guy named Roger Ailes produced Rush Limbaugh’s TV show. He got his start in politics by convincing Nixon to take television seriously. He took Limbaugh’s asshole routine and copied it to an entire asshole regiment of Limbaugh clones when he created Fox News, funded by another notable asshole enabler, Rupert Murdoch. They built an empire out of riling up Americans to hate other Americans.
Last time Americans had a civil war, it was over slavery. This time, Americans want to murder each other simply because the media machine spearheaded by bloated blowhard Rush Limbaugh suggested they should.
At the time I discovered Limbaugh, I didn’t know about all the others who’d previously worked the right-wing thunderdome, like popular nazi radio preacher Father Coughlin and 60s television provocateur Joe Pyne2. I didn’t know the history of the John Birch Society or Roy Cohn or The Turner Diaries. These chum-stirrers break out from time to time like herpes and I was just feeling the early tingles of what was, for all I knew, a novel outbreak.
Growing up in the 80s, politics seemed boring, talk shows were boring, and political talk shows were like a special fourth dimension just for boring. They usually aired on Sunday mornings, when the decent and indecent were either in church or hung over, and the only audience was college professors and the terminally ill. It felt like Limbaugh had discovered something entirely new.
But there was another, just before him.
In the 1970s and 80s, American news was serious business. Most people got their view on the world from daily newspapers and television, especially the half-hour nightly network news shows. Journalists in those years spent a lot of time thinking and talking about “objectivity”, presenting the news as close as possible to strictly objective facts about what’s happening in the world. As far as America was concerned, whatever they said was stone-cold truth, and if they didn’t say it, it didn’t happen. TV anchorman Walter Cronkite was commonly known as “the most trusted man in America.”
If you wanted to hear someone’s radical opinions about politics and the world, you had to look for it, and if you wanted to hear a conspiracy theory, you’d have to dig in the weird corner of the used bookstore or wind up on just the right barstool. It could even be considered impolite to bring up politics or religion in casual conversation.
But by the 80s, the dominance of high-fidelity stereo FM left the tinny AM radio stations struggling for an audience. About all AM was good for was sports and talk radio, and AM’s greater range meant it could support a more niche, scattered fanbase eager to bring just the right barstool of talk radio into their home.
Morton Downey Jr dabbled in singing and songwriting in the 1950s and 60s and eventually became a disc jockey. He got fired from one job for giving out another DJ’s phone number on the air and insulting his wife, which apparently made him a good candidate for his own talk show at an AM station in Sacramento in 1984. This lasted only four months before he resigned following an outcry over his on-air use of the word “chinaman”.
'I have to honestly tell you I did not think that was a derogatory term,' said Downey, who was once married to a Chinese-American woman by whom he has two daughters.
His time slot was taken over by an up-and-comer named… Rush Limbaugh.
A few years later, Bob Pittman, the creator of MTV, was looking to start a more rowdy kind of talk show, a talk show for people who can’t watch professional wrestling all the time. In 1987 he found Morton Downey Jr, middle-aged asshole ingenue, perfect for the gimmick. The show’s logo, a toothy open-mouth black hole, evoked both Downey’s “loudmouth” shtick and his eager baby-bird audience. The show wasn’t necessarily an explicitly political show in the way political shows are now - it was simply another syndicated daytime talk show.
Downey’s routine was to bring in guests he could pretend to have a civil discussion with, which was only a wind-up for him to eventually blow up at them, yell at them to “zip it,” call them a “pablum-puking liberal”, blow cigarette smoke in their face, and end with an angry rant and high-fives from his fist-pumping audience. The subject of each episode was whatever he could work up the spit-spraying outrage for, and if he got lucky, he could rile his guests into an actual physical brawl. It sounds unpleasant now, and it was back in 1987, too. But back then it was also different and interesting. You’d never seen people behave like this on television before.
No matter the topic, there was always an angle for Downey to work up his shouty aggro persona and drive the crowd into a deathmatch frenzy. And what a crowd of New Jersey’s finest it was, an endless parade of colorful rubes who, like me, probably hadn’t seen the mad-as-hell bit from “Network” and thought this was all new and entertaining.
By 1988, the Morton Downey Jr Show wasn’t just a breakout ratings success, it was the beginning of an entire era of the angry middle-age white guy not taking it anymore and taking his country back and making it great again.
Of course the Morton Downey character was already out there in the culture, but usually he was the butt of the joke, like All in the Family’s Archie Bunker, or a cheap adolescent violent Batman fantasy like Charles Bronson. But Downey marks the start of taking the angry middle-age white guy seriously. In another few years, Death Wish would climb out of the pulp depths and get a makeover into the taken-seriously Falling Down. It was time for assholes to get respectable.
One of Downey’s respectable asshole fans gave him an interview in 1989 where he complained about other countries taking advantage of the US and laughing at us:
Downey’s audience loved him because he “says what he thinks.” He said “any damn thing he wants,” he said things all the other TV personalities were too polite to say, he said what the man on the street couldn’t say. That is, whatever bullshit most people knew they shouldn’t say, whatever angry stupid nonsense they thought but were too chickenshit to say out loud because they knew people would get upset, Downey said it for them and got away with it.
“Getting away with it” is the central adolescent power fantasy key to this whole bit. As long as people believe you’re getting away with it, they’ll breeze right past whatever shitty things you might get up to. They won’t even care if you shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. But if you get caught doing your shitty thing, if you face consequences or repercussions for your actions, then the whole character crumbles to dust and you’re just another useless prick. The fans are only cheering for you because you get away with being the loudmouth asshole they wish they could be. Let’s face it: it’s cool to get away with it. You know who doesn’t get away with it? Every last nobody schmuck on the street, that’s who.
And Downey knew he spoke for the miserable bastards out there. He was the Blue Collar King taking it all the way to The Man. “I’m after establishing a platform for the American who has been unheard by his government,” he told Ted Koppel on “Nightline”. He said in a promo video, “Someone like me could be a frightening person. Someone like you could be a frightening person. Most of us, of course, are just average everyday human beings, like my audience is, and we hope that the politicians become frightened of us.”
Of course, Downey was the son of a famous singer who had a house at the end of a Cape Cod road across from Ted Kennedy. He grew up playing with the Kennedy kids and remained close to Ted Kennedy as an adult, so he was rubbing smack up against America’s version of royalty. Similar to Limbaugh, born into the wealthy elite of Missouri, as far as that goes. Whenever a blowhard pulls ye olde “friend of the everyday workin’ man” routine, it’s a good bet he ain’t, and also a good bet the rubes will fall for it every time.
And as is also traditional, as soon as he got big, he broke up with his wife and moved into Trump Tower with a much younger woman. He put out an album with a hit single called “Zip It!” and showed up in movies, TV shows, and wrestling matches. Top o’ the world, ma!
But it didn’t take long for the producers to realize they’d dug themselves into a hole. Turns out, when your entire persona is based around being an asshole who screams in people’s faces, no one wants to be around you even if it means being on TV. It got progressively harder to book guests - no one who had a serious point to make or career to speak of wanted to be publicly abused by Downey. It devolved into a self-reinforcing freak show. Downey felt he had to do something big to maintain his relevance.
So like any reasonable person in desperate need of attention, he beat himself up in an airport bathroom and drew a swastika on his face and clamed neo-nazis did it. That story didn’t fly, partly because he drew the swastika backwards, like he was doing it in a mirror. He failed to get away with it. The tough-guy loudmouth agitator turned into a laughingstock overnight, and three months later his show was cancelled. It took less than two years for Downey to go from zero to king of the world to right back to zero, and forgotten.
At the same time Downey’s career was imploding in the summer of ‘89, Rush Limbaugh was circling the country on a “Rush to Excellence” tour promoting his exploding radio show.
In 1996, Downey, a dedicated loudmouth asshole pro-smoking advocate known for aggressively bragging about how healthy he was with his four-pack-a-day habit, developed lung cancer. He spent his remaining time meekly trying to tell people smoking was uncool - yeah, well, no shit, people tried to tell your dumb ass that years ago and guess what, you were an asshole to them, so why we wanna listen to your remorse now? His death in 2001 passed with barely a notice. He was survived by daughters Tracey, Melissa, Kelly, and Kelli, and a shtick that was developing into the dominant cultural force in America.
Bob Pittman, the creator of his show, after killing the radio star with MTV and kicking civil society in the balls with Downey, circled back around and became CEO of Clear Channel, the company that killed the radio.
But back in 1989, as Downey faded and Limbaugh ascended, people took notes. Like far-right radical Pat Buchanan said later: “The idea is to be an attractive figure on television, so that you can change minds and ultimately policy. Can you let the entertainment value run away into the fever swamps? I think you might’ve seen some of that with my old friend Mort.”
So imagine you’re Republican political operative and television expert Roger Ailes in 1990… what if you took the Morton Downey Jr character and you put him in a suit and tie and sat him behind a desk like an anchorman - like the “most trusted man in America” Walter Cronkite - and you had some bookshelves and flags behind him that said, this is a serious patriotic intellectual… and instead of it inevitably devolving into a freak show by inviting guests on to fight, you just had him talking directly into the camera, by himself. But he’s not talking down to his audience, he’s not boring his audience with a bunch of bullshit they don’t care about, he’s telling his audience all about how they’re getting fucked and who’s doing the fucking in a “fun” entertaining fashion. The world’s going to hell, and those people are getting away with it! I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!
So you’ve got Limbaugh doing the Downey, but with the thin veneer of respectability and plausible deniability a desk brings. It’s a grift that works so well, Murdoch gives you the money to build an entire “news” network with dozens of people copying Limbaugh copying Downey. It’s like your own gated community of sociopaths obediently repeating the Party’s message from a well-manicured lawn, so it couldn’t run away off into the fever swamps, right?
You gotta admit, he’s got the old Morton Downey Jr TV show logo down cold.
Limbaugh died of lung cancer, just like his now-forgotten predecessor, and just like his even more forgotten predecessor Joe Pyne. The presidential buffoon Downey and Limbaugh spawned led an angry white middle-age asshole coup attempt that failed, just like everything else he ever did failed, and was silenced from his preferred internet platform. He’ll slowly dwindle from lack of media oxygen, dementia, and disgrace.
But this character, the lead-poisoned asshole that Downey, Limbaugh, Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch shaped like a golem out of the slop of our culture, won’t disappear overnight. There are millions of them out there, and dozens climbing over each other like crabs in a bucket to get to the upper asshole media echelon.
However, it’s time their era as the dominant cultural force in America comes to a close. Y’all assholes had your chance, you had all the power and opportunity, you controlled all three branches of the government and most of the media, you tried a coup, and you fucked it all up every bit as badly as we expected you would. You failed and you’re useless to us. We’ll point your wheelchair into the corner so you can rant your bullshit at the walls, because the rest of us got things to do and goddamn, your tantrums are stupid and annoying.
On February 4, 2020, Donald Trump awarded the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh. On February 17, 2021, at around the exact same time as Rush Limbaugh’s last toxic gasp, Trump’s former Atlantic City crown jewel, forever immortalized as Biff Tannen’s Pleasure Paradise Casino and Hotel, imploded.
If you’d like to spend more time with Morton Downey, Jr - and lord, who wouldn’t - look for the excellent documentary Evocateur.
OK, let’s talk about the Bill Hicks quote in the picture there. The use of the word “gay” here makes the joke seem, at first glance, to be bigoted, but it’s even more bigoted than that.
The quote is from the very early 90s. These days, I think we could remove the word "gay" and the joke would work just as well - "Doesn't Rush Limbaugh remind you of a guy who likes to lie around in a tub while other men pee on him?" - yeah, that works fine. The word "gay" is unnecessary, it's already implied in the act, and we all get it. Leaving the word in there has another implication that this is a standard sort of procedure for gay men in general, which further suggests all gay men are depraved and straight non-depraved men don’t indulge in such watersports, which is clearly untrue. It would thus be appropriate to strike the word “gay” from this joke.
But in the early 1990s this wasn't so much a consideration. In those innocent pre-internet days, perhaps the clarification even helped people get the joke. Like they might’ve heard it and gone, “wait, which men like to lie around in a tub while other men pee on him? Is this an arcane lumberjack ritual I’m unaware of? Something about jellyfish? Ohhh, right, it’d be like a gay sex thing.” If you think, come on, surely people weren’t that unsophisticated in the early 90s, I encourage you to look up “Milli Vanilli” and think about the fact people genuinely thought it was scandalous those dudes lip-synched.
We could modify the quote now and remove the word "gay", but then it's no longer an accurate quote. I'm not comfortable with taking words out of or putting words into Bill Hicks' mouth. But even if we do decide we're comfortable changing what Bill Hicks said 30 years later, we're still left with:
A) "Gay" is still obviously implied, so the joke really isn’t that much less bigoted. Unless this is a thing straight guys are doing these days in a non-sexual context. I admit I’m a bit out of the loop as to what the kids are getting up to these days, but I strongly doubt this is a trend.
B) It's still kink-shaming, which is bullshit. Everybody's got something at least a little weird going on, if a guy enjoys some group watersports, then why you gotta hassle him for a thing they enjoy. Life sucks enough as it is, how hard is it for you jerks to just let ‘em have their thing. And if you’ve never tried it, then you don’t know, maybe it’s your thing, too. As long as it's consensual, people oughta do what they wanna do and not feel judged for it. That’s the true American way, goddammit.
C) It's still also fat-shaming, because we all understand part of the joke is that he's a fat creepy-looking fucker, and therefore it’s fat weirdos who like to get group peed on. I honestly don't know anything about the group watersports scene, but I imagine devotees come in all shapes and sizes and it's really fucked-up to suggest only fat people might enjoy it, as if that would be something to be embarrassed about in the first place, which it’s not.
D) It’s still a low, crass, cheap, bullying insult over a person’s appearance, which they only have so much control over. And it’s like that irritating current comedy trend where every time you show a public figure’s photo, you have to include a wisecrack about how they look - like “governor and disappointed plumber” or “seen here contemplating his upcoming oboe lesson” - christ, if your name isn’t John Oliver, give that bit a rest already. Particularly given the colossal magnitude of Rush Limbaugh’s shittiness, the overwhelming stupidity and evil spewed from his mouth every day like a continent-spanning ground fog of toxic halitosis, his appearance and alleged sexual proclivities are clearly beneath our concern here.
So I encourage everyone to not think of Rush Limbaugh as a creepy fat gay weirdo who likes to lie around in a tub while other men pee on him, and certainly not giggling and grinning like a giant baby while that happens. That would be wrong, and I apologize. Please don't put that mental image in your brain.
Smithsonian has an excellent article about Joe Pyne, for anyone curious. Pyne was the original loudmouth asshole, but he was always sensitive about being an amputee and his staff knew never to so much as allude to it around him. And then he interviewed Frank Zappa:
"According to Pyne lore, he invited his audience to “Say hello to a musician—and I use that term loosely—representing a rock ’n’ roll band known as the Mothers of Invention.”
Zappa, 24, nodded to the booing crowd. Pyne looked him over and said, “I guess your long hair makes you a woman.”
Zappa shrugged. “I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.”