Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | February 17
The crisis in Texas continues, with almost 2 million people still without power in frigid temperatures. Pipes are bursting in homes, pulling down ceilings and flooding living spaces, while 7 million Texans are under a water boil advisory.
Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, put on Facebook: “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!… If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you because your lazy is direct result of your raising! [sic]…. This is sadly a product of a socialist government where they feed people to believe that the FEW will work and others will become dependent for handouts…. I’ll be damned if I’m going to provide for anyone that is capable of doing it themselves!… Bottom line quit crying and looking for a handout! Get off your ass and take care of your own family!” “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic],” he said.
After an outcry, Boyd resigned.
Boyd’s post was a fitting tribute to talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who passed today from lung cancer at age 70. It was Limbaugh who popularized the idea that hardworking white men were under attack in America. According to him, minorities and feminists were too lazy to work, and instead expected a handout from the government, paid for by tax dollars levied from hardworking white men. This, he explained, was “socialism,” and it was destroying America.
Limbaugh didn’t invent this theory; it was the driving principle behind Movement Conservatism, which rose in the 1950s to combat the New Deal government that regulated business, provided a basic social safety net, and promoted infrastructure. But Movement Conservatives’ efforts to get voters to reject the system that they credited for creating widespread prosperity had little success.
In 1971, Lewis Powell, an attorney for the tobacco industry, wrote a confidential memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce outlining how business interests could overturn the New Deal and retake control of America. Powell focused on putting like-minded scholars and speakers on college campuses, rewriting textbooks, stacking the courts, and pressuring politicians. He also called for “reaching the public generally” through television, newspapers, and radio. “[E]very available means should be employed to challenge and refute unfair attacks,” he wrote, “as well as to present the affirmative case through this media.”
Pressing the Movement Conservative case faced headwinds, however, since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enforced a policy that, in the interests of serving the community, required any outlet that held a federal broadcast license to present issues honestly, equitably, and with balance. This “Fairness Doctrine” meant that Movement Conservatives had trouble gaining traction, since voters rejected their ideas when they were stacked up against the ideas of Democrats and traditional Republicans, who agreed that the government had a role to play in the economy (even though they squabbled about the extent of that role).
In 1985, under a chair appointed by President Ronald Reagan, the FCC stated that the Fairness Doctrine hurt the public interest. Two years later, under another Reagan-appointed chair, the FCC abolished the rule.
With the Fairness Doctrine gone, Rush Limbaugh stepped into the role of promoting the Movement Conservative narrative. He gave it the concrete examples, color, and passion it needed to jump from think tanks and businessmen to ordinary voters who could help make it the driving force behind national policy. While politicians talked with veiled language about “welfare queens” and same-sex bathrooms, and “makers” and “takers,” Limbaugh played “Barack the Magic Negro,” talked of “femiNazis,” and said “Liberals” were “socialists,” redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to the undeserving.
Constantly, he hammered on the idea that the federal government threatened the freedom of white men, and he did so in a style that his listeners found entertaining and liberating.
By the end of the 1980s, Limbaugh’s show was carried on more than 650 radio stations, and in 1992, he briefly branched out into television with a show produced by Roger Ailes, who had packaged Richard Nixon in 1968 and would go on to become the head of the Fox News Channel. Before the 1994 midterm elections, Limbaugh was so effective in pushing the Republicans’ “Contract With America” that when the party won control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952, the Republican revolutionaries made him an honorary member of their group.
Limbaugh told them that, under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Republicans must “begin an emergency dismantling of the welfare system, which is shredding the social fabric,” bankrupting the country, and “gutting the work ethic, educational performance, and moral discipline of the poor.” Next, Congress should cut capital gains taxes, which would drive economic growth, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and generate billions in federal revenue.
Limbaugh kept staff in Washington to make sure Republican positions got through to voters. At the same time, every congressman knew that taking a stand against Limbaugh would earn instant condemnation on radio channels across the country, and they acted accordingly.
Limbaugh saw politics as entertainment that pays well for the people who can rile up their base with compelling stories—Limbaugh’s net worth when he died was estimated at $600 million—but he sold the Movement Conservative narrative well. He laid the groundwork for the political career of Donald Trump, who awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a made-for-tv moment at Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address. His influence runs deep in the current party: former Mayor Boyd, an elected official, began his diatribe with: “Let me hurt some feelings while I have a minute!!”
Like Boyd, other Texas politicians are also falling back on the Movement Conservative narrative to explain the disaster in their state. The crisis was caused by a lack of maintenance on Texas’s unregulated energy grid, which meant that instruments at coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants froze, at the same time that supplies of natural gas fell short. Nonetheless, Governor Greg Abbott and his allies in the fossil fuel industry went after “liberal” ideas. They blamed the crisis on the frozen wind turbines and solar plants which account for about 13% of Texas’s winter power. Abbott told Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity that “this shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” Tucker Carlson told his viewers that Texas was “totally reliant on windmills.”
The former Texas governor and former Secretary of Energy under Trump, Rick Perry, wrote on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s website to warn against regulation of Texas’s energy system: “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” he said. The website warned that “Those watching on the left may see the situation in Texas as an opportunity to expand their top-down, radical proposals. Two phrases come to mind: don’t mess with Texas, and don’t let a crisis go to waste.”
At Abbott’s request, President Biden has declared that Texas is in a state of emergency, freeing up federal money and supplies for the state. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sent 60 generators to state hospitals, water plants, and other critical facilities, along with blankets, food, and bottled water. It is also delivering diesel fuel for backup power.