by Ralph Brauer | 3/27/2009 07:28:00 PM

Their foot shall slide in due time. Deuteronomy 32:35.
--Jonathan Edwards text for "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God"

The people attending the Conservative Political Action Conference had come for a revival sermon, one that would pull no punches by casting sinners into the fiery furnace while promising that the righteous would be redeemed. To Rush Limbaugh's credit, his speech moved his audience more than any other recent Republican I have heard.

There were in Limbaugh's words and the reactions of his audience something of the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century when a preacher named Jonathan Edwards could set audiences screaming and fainting as he painted vivid pictures damnation.
Though hand join in hand, and vast multitudes of God's enemies combine and associate themselves, they are easily broken in pieces: they are as great heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind; or large quantities of dry stubble before devouring flames. We find it easy to tread on and crush a worm that we see crawling on the earth; so 'tis easy for us to cut or singe a slender thread that anything hangs by; thus easy is it for God when he pleases to cast his enemies down to hell.
But Edwards' main message--like Limbaugh's--was a simple one:
They deserve to be cast into hell.
Limbaugh probably wishes he had written one of the most famous passages in American literature:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended.
YOU have offended, in that Edwards and Limbaugh would agree, only their yous are a bit different. For Edwards it was the backsliders of Puritan New England while for Limbaugh it is the backsliders of contemporary America.

The Backsliders

Limbaugh's speech was all the talk of the CPAC gathering precisely because of the disdain he holds for backsliders. Taking a page from Edwards he cast himself as the preacher who would remind the Republican Party how it had strayed from its ways and would remind them of the torments that awaited them should they continue on their sinful path.

Edwards was famous for delivering his sermons in a monotone which he purposely employed to better place the emphasis on his words. As he honed the technique, it would drive some audiences to near hysteria for his sheer lack of intonation carried an otherworldly quality that reinforced his message that those sinners in the audience were not worthy of anything human, not even a shouted curse.

There is something about Limbaugh's face that reminds me of Edwards' monotone delivery. Some analysts have said it is because Limbaugh is a radio voice, not a television actor, but his immobile face carries a similar frightening message to Edwards' monotone--sinners are unworthy of recognition. Limbaugh's rhetoric can become as worked up as Edwards', but he rarely moves his body to punctuate his words.

Where Limbaugh's delivery also differs from Edwards' is that Edwards delivered his sermon from notes or from memory. When the congregation in Enfield invited him to preach they expected to hear the same words he spoke in Northampton because they wanted to know that he had carefully honed every word.

We Don't Need Teleprompters

On the other hand, Limbaugh is famous for delivering what some detractors refer to as rambling rants. Certainly to call them speeches is to insult everyone who has sweated over addressing a group. Limbaugh makes it clear his choice of a rambling style is as deliberate as Edwards' rhetorical decisions, for to Limbaugh you should be able to say what is on your mind and in your heart without resorting to memorizing, notes or a teleprompter.
We don't have to make notes about what we believe. We don't have to write down, oh do I believe it do I believe that we can tell people what we believe off the top of our heads and we can do it with passion and we can do it with clarity, and we can do it persuasively.
This style strikes a responsive chord in these days when everything is packaged. While there is little question Limbaugh is as packaged as any bre4akfast cereal (just look at his web page if you doubt that), his appeal is based on making it appear he is unpackaged, right down to his slightly rumpled appearance.

There are very few speakers who have perfected and practiced this anti-style. The acknowledged master of it in the last century was Adolf Hitler. His propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote:
There are two fundamentally different kinds of speakers: those who use reasoning, and those who speak from the heart. They reach two different sorts of people, those who understand through reason, and those who understand through the heart. Speakers who aim for the reason are generally found in parliaments, those who speak from the heart speak to the people.

One cannot imagine that the Führer ever spoke differently than he does today, or that he will ever speak differently. He speaks his heart, and therefore reaches the hearts of those who hear him.
The rhetorical tactic Limbaugh uses is akin to a magician's slight of hand for by convincing his audience he is talking off the top of his head and from the heart, he immediately takes his speech out of the realm of reason and into the realm of passion. In a large sense Limbaugh's audience does not care what he thinks. They only care what he feels. They crave an emotional connection with him because frankly most of today's teleprompted speeches have little emotional connection. It is as if every word were drafted by a focus group.

If Limbaugh twists his facts as he does when he misquotes the preamble to the Constitution or gets lost in his speech, it does not disturb his audience because only what he feels matters. There is a moment when Limbaugh loses track of time that captures this:
Many people think I lose my place in these speeches because -- by the way what time is it? We have plenty of time. We have to be out of here by-- [Applause] We have to be out of here by 6:00 -- okay, depends on how you behave. I'll decide as we go on.

Of course in the CPAC speech Limbaugh is jousting with one of the greatest public speakers of our times--Barack Obama. Limbaugh's allusions to teleprompters and notes are not-so-subtle digs at Obama, digs intended to convince the audience that because he uses such devices, Obama is not "authentic."

Trust the Force

Having taken his speech away from the realm of reason, Limbaugh need only connect with feelings. Strangely this is a theme that flows through the work of one of Limbaugh's avowed enemies--Hollywood. His rhetoric is Obe Wan saying to Luke Skywalker, "Trust your feelings. Trust the force."

This is also Jonathan Edwards' message. The Great Awakening represented an emotional wave that swept across a colonial America that hungered to connect with its feelings and at the same time trust in "the force." Although neither would admit it, both George Lucas and Rush Limbaugh are modern Puritans, convinced that only those who truly feel the force are on the right side.

The force Limbaugh trusts he terms conservatism, but his conservatism is not so much a set of beliefs as a collection of emotions. It is these he weaves his speech around coming back to them again and again like a weaver running his shuttle through the threads of his loom. Like the shuttle passing back and forth, Limbaugh may seem to wander but the warp of the loom remains in place as he crafts his tapestry.

The Core

Limbaugh's core beliefs could have been written by William McKinley or Horatio Alger, for he worships at the altar of the self-made entrepreneur. Again and again he comes back to this theme in his CPAC speech.
.The people that make this country work, the people who pay on their mortgages, the people getting up and going to work, striving in this recession to not participate in it, they're not the enemy.

They're the people that hire you. They're the people that are going to give you a job. They're the people that are going to give you a raise, the people that need you to do work for them.

On the other side are what Limbaugh terms "losers," those who do not have the gumption to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Only Limbaugh, who looks for all the world like the kid who was the last one picked in some backyard game,loves to use athletic metaphors:
The liberals have made efforts to shut that aspect of our nature down. Wherever you live, I am certain that you, when you were a child or your kids today in youth sports are told not to keep score, because the losers, it's just not fair. They'd be humiliated, especially if one girl's basketball team can defeat another one 100 to nothing. And let's fire the coach who put that game together. It's so unfair. So let's not keep score. Well, here's the dirty little secret. The kids are keeping score. [Applause] You know they are. They don't want to lose. They know what winning and losing is.

Hard Times

This message resonated well during the dot com bubble when every American felt she or he was only one video game, one new line of code, one new piece of hardware away from striking it rich like one of those Forty-Niners who sloshed away in bitter cold water believing that the next swish of the pan would uncover the tell-tale flickers of gold flakes. You could believe then in the heart of Limbaugh's sermon, but can you believe it now when that world has not merely fallen apart but is being seen as the root of this crisis?

Far from working hard to get ahead it is becoming clearer that the wheelers and dealers of the 1990s were gambling with our money. They were as crooked as a riverboat card sharp and as clever as a carny pitch man. That had too many of us believing that we could win what in fact was a rigged game.

Those who in the 1990s Limbaugh regarded as the saved have now become revealed as sinners and Limbaugh's sermon shows he does not know what to make of this. Yet why was Limbaugh so warmly received at CPAC? Why did Fox and CNN choose to broadcast his speech? Why was it the talk of the nation for days after? Because this crisis is about emotion and anger. Limbaugh is gambling that he can blame "liberals" for this mess just as Hitler blamed the Jews. Hence his references to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
The architects along with Bill Clinton of the policy that gave us the whole sub-prime mortgage crisis, get to sit around and act as innocent spectators to investigate what went on when they largely had the biggest role in causing it.

President Obama is our president. President Obama stands for certain things. I don't care, he could be a Martian. He could be from Michigan, I don't know -- just kidding. Doesn't matter to me what his race is. It doesn't matter. He's liberal is what matters to me. And his articulated -- his articulated plans scare me.

Yet history is not on Limbaugh's side. No one has ever built a mass movement during a depression on defense of the rich. If he is to remain relevant Limbaugh will need new scapegoats. Liberals were not in the White House the previous two terms. Liberals were not in control of the Bush Congress. Why even liberals themselves have run up the white flag refusing to use the term.

The ending of Limbaugh's rant is instructive when compared with Edwards'. Here is Limbaugh:
Don't measure your success by how many people like you. Just worry about how they vote. And then at the end of the day how they live, but that's really none of your business once they close the doors.

Then Edwards:
Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over great part of this congregation: let everyone fly out of Sodom. Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.

Limbaugh is worried about how "they" vote because lately they have not been voting with him. Then there is that double-edged last sentence. The true tragedy of Rush Limbaugh is not so much in what he believes but why he believes it. As an entertainer his entire livelihood depends on his attracting as many listeners as possible--and in that he is no different than any vote-seeking politician.

Edwards, on the other hand, does not care if he is in the majority. In fact his sermon implies that true believers will always be a minority. For Edwards it is the beliefs that matter without any concern with numbers while for Limbaugh the numbers are what make the beliefs matter.

Where the numbers matter is that right now, in this economy all of us are losers. Some of us have lost the value of their stocks and homes, others have lost their retirement, too many have lost their jobs and homes. All through no fault of their own. As the furor over the AIG bonuses demonstrates there are not many left who would agree with Limbaugh's implication that those executives deserve to keep their money.

Limbaugh would be wise to take Edwards' sermon to heart. A recent CBS poll showed Limbaugh's favorable rating at just 19% while his unfavorable rating is 40%. But more tellingly, less than a majority of Limbaugh's Republican base gave him a favorable rating.

Maybe that is because of the most controversial part of his speech when he said he wanted Barack Obama to fail:
You can't say Mr. Limbaugh that you want the President to fail because that's like saying you want the country to fail. It's the opposite. I want the country to survive. I want the country to succeed.

Limbaugh may believe that if Obama fails that makes him a winner, but the truth is if Obama fails the losers and losses will be staggering and all of us will echo the last line of Edwards' sermon.

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Blogger AndrewMc on 3/28/2009 11:48 AM:

Wonderful piece here.

Limbaugh's speech also reminded me of a jeremiad. We have strayed, and we have been punished. The righteous need to return to the fold.


Anonymous Jesse Hemingway on 3/28/2009 11:31 PM:

Frank Schaeffer was on the Ring of Fire show on 3/21/09 the last half of the third hour Sam Seeder was doing the interview great stuff.

Frank Schaeffer he can bring the entire Christian mafia down.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 3/29/2009 8:54 PM:

There's a lot of revivalism going on from the right at the moment.


Blogger Ralph Brauer on 3/31/2009 11:10 AM:

The religious theme running through the comments and obviously the essay brings up an issue that was left on the cutting room floor: the religious right. One very interesting theme of Limbaugh's speech is that there is very little ranting about the "social issues" that used to be such a huge part of what I have termed the Counterrevolution. That raises several questions: Has that part of the base lost power? Does this mean all the talk about Sarah Palin running in 2012 is dead? Why have the religious voices--the Dobson's etc.--been so quiet during this crisis?

The second part that was left on the cutting room floor is historical. Partly because I am not a colonial historian I also left out a second theme which has to do with the thesis that the Great Awakening helped to sew the seeds for the American Revolution. The argument is similar to a familiar Reformation argument that by emphasizing an individual's relationship with God it set the stage for a larger philosophical expansion of the idea of individual rights. Mark Bloch's classic on feudal society defined it as a series of relationships and obligations which had their parallel in the religious order of the day. The Reformation helped to change this. There is a fascinating study of Ulrich von Hutten--a "knight"--and his changing views of allegiance.

Similarly the argument in American history as I understand it, maintains that the by emphasizing an emotional connection with God, preachers like Edwards undercut the power of the regular clergy. People found their "voice." This empowerment later enabled those "voices" to speak out against colonial injustices. I could not find the source easily, but if my memory is right--which is a questionable proposition for someone with a disability--there is a demographic study of those who participated in the Awakening and those who become part of groups like the Sons of Liberty.

Limbaugh's speech, on the other hand, does not have the revolutionary implications of Edwards' sermon. It is a defense of the elite. Edwards' is an implied indictment of the elite. As I write this I remember the title of an important article: it is Perry Miller's famous "From Edwards to Emerson" which sees the roots of transcendentalism in Edwards' message about an individual, emotional relationship with the "oversoul," as Emerson termed it.

Edwards, then, looks forward. Limbaugh looks backward (pun intended). Limbaugh thus far has been very good at cleverly packaging that backward look in nostalgia.

But the historical issue is whether anyone has successfully packaged a counterrevolutionary movement during a depression/recession in nostalgic terms that defend the elite? Reagan may be one, but the Iran hostage crisis and foreign policy complicate that thesis. Given my own thesis about this depression more resembling 1893 than 1933, Cleveland and McKinley may be more appropriate (I have argued in these pages that Bill Clinton is a "new Bourbon"), but those were not mass movements of the type Limbaugh envisions.

The lack of emphasis on social issues in Limbaugh's speech then becomes important because it narrows the "base" he has to work with. Hence that two-edged sentence about watching our neighbors but then not caring what they do when they close the door becomes crucial. The ambiguity of that sentence says a great deal about the philosophical conundrum the GOP faces.

Yet as my other essay implies, if the Democrats continue to practice modern "Bourbonism" all bets are off. The commentator who mentions a third party in a comment on the first economic series may be on to something.

Final note: this is a role I can see this blog playing. Traditional historical journals have shied away from making contemporary parallels, but what does the past tell us about situations like Limbaugh's speech?