NEW YORK — One stark difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats appear to be far more willing to confront and publicly denounce bigots and extremists in their own fold. This has been highlighted by the GOP leadership’s failure to condemn Rush Limbaugh’s divisive, race-baiting diatribes.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama unambiguously rejected and repudiated Louis Farrakhan, calling the Nation of Islam leader’s anti-Israel and anti-Jewish tirades “unacceptable and reprehensible.” Despite a very real concern that distancing himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright risked alienating a significant part of the Democratic base, Obama also condemned as “ridiculous” and “divisive” what he described as his former pastor’s “rants that aren’t grounded in truth.”
Similarly, in a June 1992 speech to the Rainbow Coalition, presidential candidate Bill Clinton denounced the incendiary anti-white rhetoric of the hip-hop rap artist, Sister Souljah, thereby incurring the Rev. Jesses Jackson’s wrath.
In sharp contrast and with rare exceptions, the Republican leadership consistently refuses to even address, let alone condemn, Limbaugh’s inflammatory, offensive and vitriol-laced radio broadcasts, either because they condone his sentiments or because they are terrified of losing the votes of his millions of faithful listeners.
Most recently, Limbaugh not only listed “the similarities between the Democrat Party of today and the Nazi Party in Germany,” but compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler.
Here’s what Limbaugh told his nationwide audience: “Obama’s got a health care logo that’s right out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook”; “Obama is asking citizens to rat each other out like Hitler did”; the president “is sending out his brownshirts to head up opposition to genuine American citizens who want no part of what Barack Obama stands for and is trying to stuff down our throats”; and “Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate.”
Limbaugh has a long history of inciting the far-right grass-roots against any political figures who do not reflect his white, fundamentalist Christian, conservative, anti-minority, anti-pluralistic, anti-egalitarian view of the world.
He considers feminists to be “feminazis,” dismissed Justice Sonia Sotomayor as a “hack” and a “reverse racist,” and was outraged when President Obama declared in his April address to the Turkish Parliament that one of the “great strengths of the United States” is that although “we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”
Limbaugh further appealed to his followers’ most xenophobic instincts by telling them that that it is “really uncool to be a white male today,” and that U.S. Rep. David Scott or one of his supporters, rather than a Ku Klux Klan wannabe, most probably had painted a large swastika on a sign outside the African-American congressman’s Georgia district office.
For Holocaust survivors and their families in particular, Limbaugh’s demagogic screeds have ominous overtones with which we are all too familiar.
One would have expected Republican Party leaders who purport to be in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to speak out against Limbaugh’s hate mongering. Instead, Colin Powell has been one of the very few prominent Republicans with the integrity to take on the talk show host.
“The problem I have with the [Republican] party right now,” Powell told Larry King last month, is that when Limbaugh “says things that I consider to be completely outrageous, and I respond to it, I would like to see other members of the party do likewise. But they don’t.”
Indeed, John McCain considers Limbaugh to be “a voice of a significant portion of our conservative movement in America” who “has a lot of people who listen very carefully to him.” Mitt Romney calls Limbaugh “a very powerful voice among conservatives. And I listen to him.” Rudy Giuliani has said, “to the extent that Rush Limbaugh energizes the base of the Republican Party, he’s a very valuable and important voice.” And House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, believes that “Rush has got ideas. He’s got a following. He believes in the conservative principles that many of us believe in.”
By tolerating and encouraging Limbaugh, the Republican leadership is fomenting racial and ethnic hatred that could have disastrous consequences for our country. Limbaugh’s extremist rhetoric is transforming the Republican side of the American political discourse from one of legitimate political and ideological disagreement among fellow citizens into a demonization of the “other,” that is, everyone who is nonwhite, nonfundamentalist Christian and nonconservative.
MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann regularly refers to Limbaugh as a “comedian.” That’s a mistake. Limbaugh may have an act, a “shtick,” as it were, but there is nothing funny or entertaining about him. As McCain, Romney, Giuliani and Cantor all acknowledge, Limbaugh wields a great deal of influence in both the Republican Party and the conservative movement. That makes him a dangerous, destructive cancer on both the Republican Party and the American body politic.
The GOP’s leaders now have to make a choice: They can either allow themselves and their party to be defined by Rush Limbaugh, or they must denounce and renounce him once and for all.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft is an adjunct professor of law at Cornell University and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.)