Down the rabbit hole, part 3

This is part 2 of a series that retroactively seeks to understand how we got to January 6th, 2021.

Let’s return for a moment to my last column and Hitler. In the years following WW I, Hitler created a fantasy world for Germans in which the loss of the war and the desperate economic straits in which they found themselves were not their fault. That Germany could not have lost the war unless they had started it, and, thus, were responsible for their condition was beside the point. In 1921, Hitler formed his own private paramilitary group, the SA, more familiarly known as the Brown Shirts. Swearing personal allegiance to him (as was true of the SS after they were created), they were largely made up of ex-soldiers and were used to terrorize Germans and opposition groups. Hitler gave them a specific villain, one which, by their history, fellow Germans were all too willing to accept: The Jews. Jews in Germany had caused their defeat, Hitler said, but also the Jews in France and England, in Russia and every other country in world. The Germans were told that only he, Hitler, could fix the problem. Only he could restore Germany to its former glory and rightful place in the world, to make Germany great again.

In the late 1980’s until about 1994, I would make many trips driving through America while shooting pieces for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Often, when by myself, I’d listen to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, something I never had time for when back home. Some of it was predictable. That is, it was conservative in the Reagan mold as opposed to the sort of Richard Nixon/Nelson Rockefeller mold both of whom were far more politically moderate. That, though, was not what made Limbaugh distinguishable from the rest of talk radio.

After Reagan and the FCC abandoned the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which required broadcasters to present balanced coverage of issues by devoting equal airtime to opposing points of view, Limbaugh felt unleashed. He was bombastic, outrageous, even. He was funny. Not that he made jokes but, rather, that he was satirical. He liked to make fun of people and ideas, particularly regarding cultural issues, which were his mainstay, things like abortion, women’s liberation, gay rights, along with a thinly veiled racism. He also liked to trash, to denigrate people, to make up derogatory names for them, especially Democratic politicians. He liked to exaggerate, or even makeup flaws in both people and ideas, making them seem absurd or evil and certainly all but unrecognizable. Limbaugh was angry all the time, even when it seemed like he was joking, when he was a clown. And he was always on the extreme right side of Republican politics helping to drag the party even further to the right. His audiences loved it.

Limbaugh became the standard by which all other talk radio performers were judged. In the days when I listened to him he would claim he had 20 million listeners a week. More recently, in 2020, the company that syndicated his show projected that he had 45 million listeners every week. When Rupert Murdoch established Fox TV News and, in particular, the nighttime commentary shows, Limbaugh couldn’t have been far from his mind. Over time, talk radio and Murdoch helped drag conservatism further and further to the right, further away even from Regan’s brand of conservatism until it was all but unrecognizable.

Liberals tried to emulate that success with their own talk radio shows. They were a ratings failure. During the Trump years, MSNBC has had some success as a left leaning TV network but, as seems to be usual with liberal media, they have a tendency to be tepid in comparison to Fox and right wing talk radio. They seem to be intent on focusing primarily on political issues rather then the cultural issues that seem to be Fox’s preference. They prefer facts, even when coloring them to reflect their viewpoint. Even when obsessing on cultural issues they tend to be things like systemic racism and voting rights. Fox, these days, seems to be obsessing over Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss, not to mention immigration.

Clearly, Donald Trump was a Limbaugh fan, since he awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom the year before Limbaugh’s death. One might reasonably conclude that Trump derived much of his public speaking and Twitter style — the bombast, the endless repetition, the hyper-exaggeration, and, most of all, the denigration of others — to Limbaugh. That style translated into the political discourse and social media posts of many of their followers.

Limbaugh wasn’t alone in his pursuit of political extremism. There was, after all, his enabler, Ronald Reagan, who bequeathed the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine to Limbaugh. In the immediate aftermath of Reagans death, I was somewhat astonished at how burnished his reputation became in the eyes of liberals. Wasn’t he genial! He was even willing to compromise, to work across the aisle with Tip O’Neil! This last, of course, was notable since working across the aisle became anathema to Republicans the moment Obama was elected.

Like Limbaugh, Reagan talked about the same cultural issues. He gave us welfare queens and the notion that poor people were lazy and just wanted government handouts. And, of course, he liked to blame America’s problems, the extremely high inflation and recession on liberals and Democrats, not entirely without reason. He preferred not to talk about American companies (largely run by Republicans) fleeing America for cheaper labor and huge untapped markets in Asia. Or American automakers (also Republicans) who had gotten so lazy that foreign car makers virtually took over the industry.

Nothing exemplified Reagan’s economic and political philosophy so much as when he said, in 1976, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” In translation this meant, big government is bad, tax cuts (particularly for the wealthy and companies) are good, social welfare programs (everything from Social Security to Medicare to welfare) are bad, and government regulations are bad, bad, bad.

All those things were by-products of attempts by liberals to lessen the harmful results to working Americans of free market capitalism, such as the Depression. If the taxes on wealthy individuals at the time were too high (and they were), the assumptions that reducing taxes on the wealthy and corporations would eventually result in increased employment and, therefore, increasing tax revenues, were largely illusory. Deficits never came down because spending never came down and, in fact, increased. And some taxes in the form of user fees and ever increasing Social Security payroll taxes directed at ordinary folks actually increased. High wage jobs were disappearing as manufacturing fled to Asia. Wages stagnated as low paying service jobs increased. Defense spending grew and deficits ballooned. Social welfare programs were cut, the beginning of the continual fraying of the social safety net that continued without exception (other than the passage of Obamacare) until the Biden administration.

Reagan did his best to make “liberal” into a dirty word. In 1975, he said, “If fascism ever comes to America, it will come in the name of Liberalism.” Even Democrats stopped calling themselves liberals. The word has started to come back into use but I confess that I don’t know what it means anymore. The last time I read Politico the words liberal and progressive were being used interchangeably. Huh? Then again, I rarely know what any political labels mean these days.

Ronald Reagan liked to hearken back to an earlier, more perfect time, an American Golden Age, if you will. His Golden era was the 1950’s, a time that was hardly golden to many, particularly if you were Black, gay, or maybe even a Jew who wanted to work in the auto industry. He said that he would lead us back to that never, never land, a Golden City on a Hill.

Blame and fantasy, along with a smile. It proved an unbeatable combination.

To be continued.

Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.

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