When I learned Rush Limbaugh was to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom I had to suppress an overwhelming urge to vomit. I know a lot of people feel that way. But as I considered it I realized that a real case can be made for Limbaugh being a prime candidate for the honor. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was created in 1963 as the highest civilian honor. According to the White House web site, “It is awarded by the President of the United States to individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of America, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Now, if you browse the list of past recipients of the Medal you may be lulled into the old establishment canard that the United States honors and promotes such things as excellence, liberty, justice, patriotism, courage, selflessness, sacrifice and the like. I was born in the middle of the boomer generation when America’s triumph in World War II and assumption of global leadership in the Cold War dominated the national consciousness. Those of us who came of age in the 50s and 60s were inundated with the idea that America was the world good guy; that we stood up for the little guy against tyranny and oppression — everywhere.
I think what made me question my upbringing was the election of a black man as President of the United States. I was still brainwashed enough to believe that was good thing: that it demonstrated America could overcome past injustice and achieve its higher aspirations. It wasn’t until I saw the ferocious backlash mounted by the very group who claim to cherish my creed that I made a startling discovery. I discovered there is more than one American creed.. There is the one I was catechized into — the one that claims to cherish freedom and democracy and all that good stuff — and then there is another: the United States exists for the benefit of white people.
As a historian, I can look back through the narrative of American history and see this strain of thought developing in the colonial era and persisting to today. It includes the defense of slavery; secession and civil war; the genocide of native populations; the conquest of territory; bigotry against Jews, Muslims, Catholics, the Irish, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Hispanics, and Asians; the rape of the environment; Jim Crow and KKK terrorism, all in the name of, if unstated, white supremacy. The story I had embraced was that the United States was steadily progressing toward universal brotherhood and enlightenment by overcoming this nativist vision. Our better angels would ultimately prevail. But though the white supremacist vision may have at times been driven into the shadows, it has never been defeated. Not even close.
Now, we might think of these two ideals as loosely aligning with the left-right political divide in the United States. It’s not a perfect match because they both outwardly portray devotion to the same ideals: those of the American Revolution. It is likely that many enthralled by the siren song of the ugly America think they are upholding the other America. Racism is much like alcoholism — you can’t get over it until you admit you have it. America has been in paralyzing denial of racism since at least reconstruction. Americans will swear they are not racist and then proceed to do the most racist thing imaginable.
We have to remember the perpetuation of racism, along with every other kind of division, is only a means to an end: the hegemony of the one percent. The right wing is convinced of the existence of a “deep state” that operates in the shadows subverting right wing efforts to make America great. There is a sinister force at work, but it’s not an Obama hold over secret cabal. It’s even deeper. It is social manipulation that fills our discourse with hate and division, convincing us that anyone not exactly like us is an enemy of the Republic and must be destroyed. This prevents any sense of unity in the body politic. The more divided, the less capable of opposing the perpetual concentration of wealth and power into the hands of the few.
And from where does this song of division originate? Is it coincidental that 90% of the information (propaganda) media in the United States is owned by six giant corporations? And while claiming to be (and perhaps believing himself to be) an authentic voice, Rush Limbaugh and nearly all of both right and left wing media outlets are tools of the one percent. They are pitted against each other with one goal: to keep Americans divided. No one has been more influential or successful in dividing Americans than Rush Limbaugh.
The election of Barack Obama presented an existential challenge to the white supremacist vision of America, and there were many willing to rally to its defense. The rise of the Tea Party and the creation of an alt-right alternative reality culminated in the election of Donald Trump. If one could animate the American vision I was taught to believe in you could not find a less apt model for it than Donald Trump. He personifies the exact opposite of any noble vision of America.
From the point of view of my own sentiment, the triumph of the alt-right, of the white supremacist vision, is a great tragedy. But from the point of view of truth, it represents the lifting of a veil that covered the ugly side of the American character and now reveals it naked to the world. Some observers say they knew it all along. Others, like me, marvel at how it remained hidden in plain sight; at how we had fallen for a false vision of a republic aspiring to virtue. The farce of the Senate impeachment trial made by Mitch McConnell and the rest of Trump’s goons validates the alternate view. I guess I was wrong to believe in America’s better angels.
Rush Limbaugh epitomizes Trump and his allies’ monstrous vision of America which now seems triumphant. No one could be more deserving of its highest honor.