Near the end of his life, William F. Buckley Jr. remarked to an interviewer, “There’s nothing I hoped for that wasn’t reasonably achieved. Now, I’m going to have a cocktail.”
Buckley had earned the drink, no question. As the interviewer, Joseph Rago, put it, Buckley “drew conservatism from the fringes of American life to its center, with such side-effects as the utter collapse of the Soviet empire.” Not bad at all.
The central political instrument of Buckley’s success was, of course, Ronald Reagan. The folksy, down-to-earth actor-turned-president so expertly channeled the ideas of the tart, urbane Yalie intellectual that Buckley would sometimes have to remind journalists that it was he who had “started it all,” when Reagan, a charter subscriber to Buckley’s National Review, was still a liberal.
I doubt the relationship between Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh is quite so direct. It was only at the start of 2016, after all, that Trump tweeted, “Just got to listen to Rush Limbaugh – the guy is fantastic!” And anyway, Trumpism seems less a structure built around an elegant framework of ideas and more an organic outgrowth of a tough, successful businessman’s gut understandings.
But watching Trump award Rush the Medal of Freedom at this week’s State of the Union Address, I couldn’t help thinking that Rush shares a lot with his idol Buckley. He, too, “drew conservatism from the fringes of American life to its center,” and helped create the world in which a conservative president could win and thrive.
The differences between Buckley and Rush, like the differences between Reagan and Trump, tell us a lot about where we’ve come in fifty years. Buckley cut his way through the opposition with a rapier. Rush hammers through the armies of the night like Thor. Buckley sowed the seeds of a movement through an intellectual journal of ideas which was always, as its current editor Rich Lowry put it, “a mission and a cause, not a profit-making business.” Rush broadcasts broadsides through the golden Excellence-in-Broadcasting microphone, where the profits are delightfully and gleefully “obscene.”
And Buckley paved the way for a President Reagan who could disarm Democrats with graceful wit and Irish charm. Rush cleared the path for a President Trump who treats the opposition pretty much the way Godzilla treated Bambi in the old comical cartoon: splat.
But if the world has gotten rougher, harsher, less intellectual, more pugilistic, it isn’t Rush and Trump who are to blame. The triumph of Buckley and Reagan, and the complete moral and practical failure of Soviet socialism that followed, gave us a left wing that had no point or purpose, only stratagems and angles of attack.
Unable to compete through argument and reason, leftists instead seized our culture and fought their un-jolly corner by other, more dishonest, means. They turned our academies into factories of ignorance. They transformed our news media into vehicles of propaganda. They made our entertainment industry into an empire of lies.
With every instrument of communication corrupted and every conservative speaker and idea excoriated as racist and hateful, the elegant conservatism of Buckley and National Review were no longer up to the task at hand. If Rush and Trump are rougher customers, it’s because the fight to preserve our freedoms is now a bare-knuckled brawl.
Last month – with its stock market records, trade deals and Iranian smackdowns – was one of the most successful months of any presidency I can remember. This past week has been so full of triumphs even Trump can’t exaggerate it. After their Iowa fiasco, their disgraceful behavior during the State of the Union, and the final collapse of their ridiculous impeachment show, the Democrat Party is a shambles. Trump, meanwhile, marches on, adding more jobs, killing more terrorists, appointing more judges, and relentlessly exposing American journalism for the corrupt operation it has become.
Rush Limbaugh made this moment of victory possible. By translating Buckley’s ideas into popular lingo, by understanding the mean-streets rumble of the modern fight for freedom, and by having the simple moral courage to withstand the Left’s relentless meanness and bullying, he created the tone and atmosphere of a new conservative media that could carry the American crusade into the 21st century.
Rush is suffering from stage four lung cancer now and will have to fight for his life. But the fight of his life is already won. There is nothing he hoped for that wasn’t reasonably achieved.