When I was attending a Christian college in the States in the 90s, I remember hearing the broadcasts of Rush Limbaugh blasting from some of the rooms of the dormitory where I was housed. At the time I remember feeling astonished that anyone could listen to this man for any length of time. Beyond his noxious rhetoric, I found his very cadence to be akin to stab wounds.
Of course, I was leftwing, antiwar, antiracist, anti-capitalist and queer. I wasn’t exactly his demographic. But the tone was unmistakable. It was one of cruelty. Of ridicule. Of dehumanization. Of hatred. And it felt like a battering. That it appealed to many self-professed American Christians at the school I attended was telling. Rush was, to them, a “culture warrior.” Battling “the gays, the blacks and the godless, anti-American communists.”
Fast forward from then to now. Fast forward through the Clinton years and his expansion of the racist carceral state. Fast forward through the Bush years and his murderous war based on lies against a country that never attacked the US. Fast forward through the revelations of war crimes leaked to the public thanks to the courage of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. Fast forward through the relentless attacks on civil liberties. Fast forward through the photographs of horror from the US gulag of Abu Ghraib. Fast forward through Obama’s drone wars, attacks on whistleblowers, and record deportations. And arrive just four years ago at the so-called “Trump era.”
Like Limbaugh, Trump revels in sadism. He has never hid his animus toward women or his visceral racism. He denied climate change and courted more war with his expansion of militarism. But he was a symptom of a greater diseased culture. An echo of the myth of “American exceptionalism.”
How we measure time is important. It is a metric that is not merely linear. It is a tumbler overflowing with events and trends. Of thoughts and actions, of policies and projections, both conscious and not. Limbaugh was one of many harbingers of America’s trajectory. When we look at it through this lens it should not come as a surprise that America ended up with Trump four years ago. But if we stop there, we will miss where it is headed now.
Limbaugh didn’t simply emerge out of nowhere. Neither did Trump. Their animus and cruelty arose from the collective psychic projection of the entire American project itself. A white Christian settler’s dream of “Manifest Destiny” that ended in massacres, genocide and the trail of tears. It was a slave owning empire that expanded via exploitation and brutality.
If we know this, we must also know that there was never any noble era in the official narrative of American history. Not in its experiments on unsuspecting Black men at Tuskegee. Not in the ash shadows on the pavement of civilians vaporized in Hiroshima. Not in the internment of Japanese citizens in concentration camps. Not in Jim Crow. Not in the nuclear bomb tests which irradiated the people of the Marshall Islands. Not in the ditches of Mỹ Lai. All of it led us to where we are now. And if recent history is any guide, political platitudes and niceties will not shield us from the consequences of such dark hubris.
We don’t know what Limbaugh’s inner life was like. We shouldn’t care too much, because the man spent most it lashing out at his opponents, dehumanizing or ridiculing others, especially those who were vulnerable or oppressed by society, and spreading falsehoods. The latter was especially true when it came to climate change and pandemic. But if we don’t recognize that his voice was a bellowing echo of America itself, a long cadence of cruelty, we will never understand that this trajectory has never been altered.
None of this should be disheartening if we do not subscribe to the American enterprise. There are other narratives, ones which have constantly and relentlessly challenged the cruelty of the dominant one. From the Abolitionists, to women’s suffrage, to the labor movement, to Civil Rights, to antiwar, to Indigenous resistance, to queer liberation, to environmental consciousness. All of them presented counter voices to the one echoed by vile figures such as Limbaugh or Trump. All of them have offered conduits for dissent. We need only the ears to hear.
One day, when one of Limbaugh’s vicious broadcasts was blaring from one of the rooms of that college I attended, I also heard the faint sound of a guitar playing outside. I longed to escape this torment, so I wandered out the door following the sounds, to a nearby park where I found a small group of people sitting in the grass under a tree. They were singing about peace and solidarity, and warmly waved me over to join them. Then, after a few minutes, something miraculous happened. I no longer heard the stinging timbre of that man who has just died. His echo of hatred was finally silenced, then, as it is now.