Let’s start this with a painful confession:
During my late teens and early twenties, I listened to Rush Limbaugh. I even enjoyed him. And some other talk radio guys too. I wasn’t a rabid fan or anything, but...
I am embarrassed now, of course, but I thought I might explain a bit of why I was how I was at that time in my life, and what eventually changed my mind.
[On a related note, I have already confessed that at that time in my life I knowingly violated my Christian beliefs by voting for the anti-immigrant Prop 187. Even more than Limbaugh, that choice haunts me today.]
In retrospect, it was Limbaugh who paved the way for Trump. He made being mean and nasty toward women, LGBTQ people, minorities, immigrants, and “liberals” socially acceptable. He made he American Right about tribes and not principles, about the Culture Wars™ first, last, and in the middle. He stoked a sense of grievance and “us versus them,” lied without the slightest qualm or apology, and spit on the very idea of democracy. Those “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings” flags didn’t come out of nowhere. Decades of Limbaugh and his imitators fed that. And now he is a patron saint both of what has become of the Republican Party and of white Evangelicalism.
I kind of recall this as one of the incidents that turned me off from Limbaugh.
So, why did I get into Limbaugh? There are several factors.
1. The Conservative/Evangelical/Homeschool/Culture War Subculture.
There are very few white conservatives who grew up in either the homeschool subculture or the Evangelical subculture who did not listen to Limbaugh at least a little. Particularly the males, for obvious reasons. He became part of the subculture along with other voices like James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, and (in the case of homeschoolers) Michael Farris. Limbaugh was part of shared culture for us the same way that, say, Nintendo or The Simpsons were for our secular peers. It was in the water, and felt normal.
2. Limbaugh fit our existing political views - and prejudices
As I have come to realize, while Limbaugh was “meaner” on the surface than people like Dobson, Schlafly, and Farris, they all agreed on politics. And as has become obvious in the Trump Era (and in the era when the internet lets you see what they wrote back in the day), all of them are or were deeply racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homo- and trans-phobic, and hostile to all religious beliefs different from theirs - Fundamentalists were the only true Christians, and thus the only people who should have a say in our society.
Limbaugh didn’t feel that new or different - except in style - because all of his beliefs were already ones we had been taught all our lives: minorities are poor because they are lazy or have sex too much, women are happier as stay-at-home-mothers and Feminism ruined everything, gay people are child molesters, liberals want to kill babies and are evil people, the New Deal was a mistake, AIDS is god’s punishment on gay people, Muslims are evil, and so on. Limbaugh just said out loud what we already said among ourselves. His worldview WAS our worldview already.
Because I didn’t really learn the other side, wasn’t much around people on the other side, and didn’t have much contradictory life experience, it was all too easy to just nod along with Limbaugh. This was particularly so after we left Los Angeles and a multi-racial church, and ended up mostly around other white conservative Evangelicals.
3. I was a certain age, shall we say
Late teens and early twenties. And male. Sigh. When everything is black and white with no shades of grey. When you are hungry for easy, pretty answers to life’s problems and uncomfortable truths. When you are between childhood and true adulthood.
Oh, and I had a few other things going. We joined a nasty misogynistic cult which taught that people shouldn’t go to college. (Hey, you lose your faith, and will probably turn gay!) While the leaders paid a lot of lip service to “apprenticeship,” what that really meant in most cases was that young people were unpaid volunteers for the organization. Heck, our parents PAID so we could do that. Law School was my only ticket to higher education - because it was part of the cult. I took my chance, and here I am. It worked out, but I did not have a choice of careers. Not in any meaningful sense. (My parents will deny this, but the rule was if an older child went to college, the whole family got kicked out. That was impressed on us adult children strongly by the cult leaders.) The law school didn’t even start until nearly a year after I had graduated high school, so I had an aimless year with no real prospects. This also meant that I had a lack of direction in my life - I worked hard at freelance jobs and music, but didn’t have a normal world open to me.
Along with that came the teaching about courtship, which meant dating in the traditional sense was out. My wife and I made it through that anyway, but only after we had both moved out. So what you had was a young man with an uncertain path forward in life, no romantic or sexual outlet, and a sheltered circle of acquaintance. Limbaugh and doctrinaire right wingery filled a gap.
4. Limited life experience
It was a LOT easier to believe in the “Conservative Fantasy World” when you had little experience of the real one. Just saying.
5. A need to find a pretty explanation for unpleasant truths
Why are the poor poor? Why is there so much inequality? Why is that inequality strongly connected to race here in America and abroad? Why do women earn less than men? Why are people gay? These questions are problematic. And when you are young and idealistic, you want explanations and answers to tough questions. And Limbaugh was right there (alongside the Fundie leaders) to supply easy, pretty answers to ugly questions. People are poor because their women don’t keep their knees together. Poor people are lazy. Whites are just inherently superior, and the government should stop pretending otherwise. Women were created to be homemakers, not wage earners. Gay people rejected god, and that’s why they are gay.
That these answers were utter bullshit didn’t become clear to me until later. They were satisfying at the time. It was so nice to believe that the world and our society in particular were essentially just, and that the supposed injustice that was increasingly apparent was just karma - social darwinism really - doing god’s will.
6. Rush could be wildly entertaining at times.
Sure, a lot of the humor was mean and bullying. But some of it really felt like “punching up.” For example, I still rather dislike Bill Clinton. He had that tall, good looking, southern white boy thing going, and irritated me at a visceral level. So it was funny to poke fun at him. And he - like Trump - fucked women with impunity and left them to pay the price. But this was all before Trump, so we could believe Republicans were different. (And then Gingrich went down, and…) There were some parody songs that were hilarious at the time, but have aged badly. Particularly since everything the American Right says turns out to be projection. But it was entertaining. He was talented at what he did.
What changed my mind? Why am I not still a “dittohead”?
As I said, I wasn’t exactly a rabid fan - I listened when I was driving somewhere at that time, not as a regular daily thing. And more often than not, his West Coast broadcast time was 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM - live across the country - which didn’t line up that often with when I was driving. And I had studying to do too. (See below for who I did end up listening to a lot longer than Rush.) I think the last I actually listened to national political talk radio was sometime around when our second kid was born? I can’t entirely remember. It just kind of faded away, for reasons. (I listened to - and still occasionally do - a couple of reasonable, local personalities if they have a guest on that I know or something like that. One guy featured our conductor, and a local artist, and so on.)
Here is what I think happened:
1. I got a normal job
No time to listen to talk radio when you have to, you know, work for a living. Lawyering doesn’t fit well with listening to stuff, except over lunch break. So if for no other reason, I didn’t have the time.
2. Life happened
It became increasingly untenable to live in the Conservative Fantasy World once I grew up and had to live in the real world. Making $19.00 an hour doing part time work with no benefits - as a freaking lawyer - was a wakeup call. Government jobs, such as at the DA’s office eventually pay, but start out surprisingly low. (People think lawyers make a lot - statistically, some do but most make less than people think.) I ended up spending several years with no health insurance, and really had to live frugally to be able to pay my bills.
I met and eventually married my wife, and discovered that either she was a freaky exception to the general female rule, or, more likely, that I had been fed a bunch of anti-feminist horseshit. (It was the latter, believe me.) In fact, the best decision I ever made for my marriage was to jettison every last toxic teaching on gender differences that I grew up with.
I had an intersex client, which started me on a journey of reconsidering everything I was taught about gender, sexuality, and identity.
I started working with impoverished clients in my first legal job, which revealed the whole “poor people are lazy” trope to be false.
Having kids made clear that the authoritarian, power-based dynamic that Dobson and Gothard pushed just didn’t work. (Our second kid was fully capable of starving herself to death starting at age two.) The idea of bending the will toward obedience - so as to train a child in unquestioning obedience to dogma and church authority - was never going to work for us.
Life happened, and it didn’t fit the Conservative Fantasy World. It became increasingly obvious that Limbaugh, Gothard, Dobson, Schlafly, and Farris were lying to us. Lying to everyone.
3. My circle of acquaintance greatly expanded
There is a reason that cults try to isolate members from others. And in this sense, white Evangelicalism is a cult very similar to Gothard’s cult. Some homeschool for defensible reasons - one size doesn’t fit all. But the movement as a whole has long been all about isolating children from people different from them...well, more like different from their parents. If children don’t ever hear competing ideas, make friends with people outside their socioeconomic and political bubble, and don’t grow up having to empathize with other people’s experiences, then, well, they are easier to indoctrinate. (In theory.)
In my case, my circles were broader before age 16, very narrow for a time, and then expanded after I left home. Coincidentally (or not), this was also when I was in to Limbaugh - that period of isolation.
But definitely, meeting people outside of the bubble really helped change my mind. Talking with people from Europe, who pay far less for healthcare, and get months of vacation time to come here and see our national parks. Talking with people who grew up under Jim Crow - and can see that segregation in fact still remains. Talking with people who work service-sector jobs, and seeing how necessary social programs like Medicaid and Food Stamps were for their survival. Talking with undocumented immigrants (like I did as a child too.)
Making friends with LGBTQ people. And hearing how they had been assaulted and insulted and harassed.
Making friends with liberals, and realizing that they were not at all how they were portrayed.
And, maybe even most of all, listening to my right wing friends and family as they started to sound more and more like Limbaugh and Trump - and nothing whatsoever like Jesus Christ. Hearing - really hearing - the hate is what finally pushed me out of Evangelicalism altogether, and has been a significant factor in relationships that have either died or been wounded during the Trump Era.
4. Reading more broadly
I have always been a reader, although I tended to read classics by white people more than others. That said, before our Gothard years, my parents actually introduced us to a lot of subversive books. Books on racism, economic inequality, feminism even, in some cases. I believe that those books are what kept me from permanently going down the Limbaugh path.
But I kept reading after high school. I discovered left-leaning magazines, mainstream science and history and economics, feminist and antiracist voices, and so much more.
This, combined with experience, led to a complete rethinking of my politics - and much of my religion as well.
So there you have it.
Ironically, one of my talk radio experiences did have a lasting positive effect on me. Although Dr. Laura Schlessinger eventually had a racist meltdown, and embraced some rather anti-LGBTQ positions after she found religion, she started out as more traditional relationship advice in the tradition of, say, Ann Landers. I literally remember back when she was still in favor of pre-marital sex. (Fundies clutch their pearls…)
Where she had the biggest influence on me was that she was, at heart, an egalitarian. Her advice to women on how to care for a husband started off with the idea that men were human too, that they had feelings, that they needed love and affection, not just sex, and that a good marriage or relationship wasn’t primarily about finding the right gender roles as I had been taught by Dobson et al., but about, as she said, “choosing wisely, and treating kindly.” Oh, and also that women needed respect, not just love. And that women liked sex as much as men - as long as they were being satisfied.
That advice encouraged my wife and I to go into our relationship in a much healthier place than had I never discovered an alternative to the gender-essentialist and hierarchical teachings of Evangelicalism on love, sex, and marriage.
Also ironically, ultraconservative magazine, World, was one of my intellectual gateways out of Fundamentalism too. While I have significant political and religious disagreements with it now, the people who ran it back when I still subscribed had high journalistic standards, issued retractions when they messed up, and were unafraid to take on people within the tribe. Because World wasn’t afraid to engage pop culture, I discovered bands like U2 through its reviews, even during the era when rock music was forbidden in our house. World was where I first discovered that David Barton was neither a qualified historian nor remotely honest in his books - World published a strong rebuttal to some of his claims. As I said, I haven’t read it in a while, but I still have some respect for the people who ran it back then.
Irony number three: One of my favorite parody songs on Limbaugh’s show back then (by Paul Shanklin) was “Werewolves in Congress.” A spoof on Warren Zevon, it had lyrics that seemed great at the time, but have aged really badly in the Trump Era. It was basically Bill Clinton and Al Gore “fearmongering” about what the Republicans would do if elected. As the best example: “They’re going to eliminate the EPA.” Which….that’s pretty much what Trump tried to do, gutting a nearly endless list of environmental protections. In 1999, the idea that the GOP would do that was laughable. Literally. Even on conservative talk radio. But here we are. It turns out that the GQP (as it is now) would love to eliminate the EPA and environmental regulation generally. It gets in the way of profits or something…
Warren Zevon, on the other hand...he sounds as good as ever.