Originally published in Official Artur Davis
March has opened cruelly for conservatives. One of their icons, Andrew Breitbart, died prematurely; another, Rush Limbaugh, lives on, and valuable time is spent apologizing or distancing from his choice to punch down at a young woman. Between the recollections of Breitbart, and both the real and canned outrage over Limbaugh, the pugnacious, caustic side of the political Right is in full public view.
In the normal course of the ideological firefight, one favored tactic is to minimize antagonists as irrelevant and undeserving of attention. The critics of Breitbart and Limbaugh are actually just as quick to dramatize their importance as their defenders. For the left, the ferocity of both men helps prove their case that the Right is an intolerant, mean-spirited crusade that bullies its detractors. For much of the right, the two epitomize a conviction activism that has been indispensable in outwitting and outlasting the mainstream media and its liberal biases. It’s worth examining each claim for signs of inflation.
Breitbart first: to the extent the general public was aware of Breitbart, it was largely based on three episodes, one of which reflects poorly on him. On the plus side, he drove the exposure of ACORN as a loopy, madcap farce that was living off the public dime and an unmerited reputation for good works. On the neutral side, he outed Anthony Weiner as the kind of guy who milked his mini celebrity to bait attractive twenty-somethings, and who thought his best features are the kind that require public covering. It all seemed seedy, but small and trivial then, and looks even smaller and more trivial now. On the inexcusable side, his expose of Shirley Sherrod as a racist avenger didn’t survive the light of day: Breitbart may have been a white guy lost in interpreting colloquial black to black banter, but his confusion seemed willful and strategic.
The movement wing of the Republican Party knew Breitbart much more intimately as one of its sharpest ideological warriors. That’s a loaded compliment, to be sure: it identifies him with a zone of politics which regards opponents as blood enemies who need to be leveled. But for all of his bark, if memory serves, the vaunted Breitbart exposes tore more at bureaucracies and institutions than lives. Weiner’s is the one reputation he seemed bent on crushing, and Weiner’s efforts to make Breitbart out to be a hacker and a fabricator made that zeal at least understandable. As these things go, Breitbart’s foes didn’t exactly pull their punches either. Anyone who peruses online comments knows that Breitbart was the target of more than a few unproven smears about his own life, and the gusher of left-wing Internet responses that amounted to “good riddance” or “there must be more to his death” exceeded the viciousness of anything he ever wrote.
Limbaugh, meanwhile, seems to occupy two competing functions within the life of the political right: he amplifies its grievances by providing an echo chamber for individual conservatives who wonder if anyone out there is thinking what they’re thinking; then every so often, like clockwork, he vindicates the left’s darkest fantasies of who conservatives really are. To a liberal-leaning media that is quick to probe for signs of right-wing bigotry, there is Limbaugh labeling Obama “Puff the Magic Negro” ; for Democratic operatives eager to demonize right-wingers as misogynists who want to reverse feminism, there is Rush, making a martyr of an unknown law student by branding her with a barnyard sexual slur.
For all of their complexities, and their mixed legacies, both the left and right tend to miss the essence of both men: they are a symptom of a movement that instead of bristling with bravado, feels it is under siege, and worries that it is in danger of being outflanked by a hostile press and a confluence of liberal interests. It’s a curiously defensive sensibility for a cause with which roughly 40 percent of the country identifies and whose strongest critics make up only about 20 percent, and it is a sensibility that is coming to make conservatism seem more cranky than visionary.
The self-doubt, by the way, shortchanges the Right’s own recent string of victories: the surge in pro-life sentiment to the point that it is half the country; the discrediting of the Affordable Care Act, which is less popular now than the day it passed; the defeat of comprehensive amnesty for illegal immigrants and its failure to resurface even in a Democratic Congress; the preservation of the Bush tax cuts; successive 2011 budget deals that downsized spending without giving an inch on taxes; and a Democratic president’s wholesale adoption of the terror-fighting techniques of his Republican predecessor. If it’s not exactly the stuff of conservative fantasies, it’s a more than respectable win total given the devastated state of Republicans in early 2009.
Surely, the late Breitbart and Limbaugh deserve their share of credit for a successful guerilla movement that has limited Democratic gains; they both may well end up mattering more in the scheme of things than Romney or Santorum. But the claim that Breitbart and Limbaugh are emblematic and vital to conservatism? That distinction belongs not to the provocateurs, but to a host of politicians who in their own way trouble liberals much more: a Chris Christie, who is remaining popular while skillfully overturning the priorities of public sector unions in a Democratic state; a Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal, who refute the myth that Republicans don’t represent the textures of a changing country; and a Mitch Daniels, who won’t let go of the notion that conservatives have to care about abandoned, shuttered communities.
These voices are the ones that will re-embolden conservatives. Otherwise, the right returns to what it was in the nineties: a master of grassroots discontent suited to undermining more than leading; a vigorous, crafty insurgency that functions better out of power.