It’s impossible to convince someone of something their livelihood depends on them being skeptical about. This is why you never want to be in a debate about white privilege with Rush Limbaugh.
Of course, that’s exactly where the hosts of the syndicated radio show, The Breakfast Club, found themselves on Monday afternoon, in a no-doubt highly rated episode the popular morning show taped with the longtime king of right-wing radio. The event was precipitated by Limbaugh’s surprising denunciation of Derek Chauvin, the policeman who murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, and his colleagues who stood by while it happened, which prompted his decision to engage in a conversation about it with people who disagree with him on everything else.
Interviews that touch on a controversial figure’s politics are super easy to Monday morning quarterback. To the audience, it always seems like there’s a neglected magic-bullet question or followup, and if only the interviewer had asked that expertly crafted query at the perfect time, their subject’s knees would have buckled. The truth, however, is that some people are just constitutionally incapable of ever admitting that they’re wrong, and especially when it involves a key component of the ideology that their brand is built around.
The documentarian Errol Morris, for instance, doesn’t even bother trying to force such moments. When I asked him why he didn’t hold political molotov-tosser Steve Bannon’s feet to the fire in his documentary, American Dharma, he said, “I sometimes think that when someone’s forced to answer questions, it’s far less interesting than the evasion. Or the attempt not to answer, it often tells you even more. It may not be as satisfying dramatically, but I think you learn a lot.”
But at least Morris had hours and hours to spend with Bannon. What more can the Breakfast Club hosts learn in 26 minutes about recent Presidential Medal of Freedom Award recipient Rush Limbaugh that they don’t already know from his more than 30-year radio career, several books, and controversial TV stints? Particularly on the subject of race relations during the most pivotal moment in the history of the Black Lives Matter movement?
At the top of the episode, DJ Envy explains their reasoning. “The dialogue has to be opened beyond who we know and who we talk to every morning,” he says. “Today, Rush’s listeners will hear us, probably for the first time ever.”
This is almost certainly true.
But there is also a lot of middle ground in between talking to someone like Tory Lanez or, gulp, Joe Biden, who had a disastrous appearance on the show a couple weeks ago, and talking to Rush Limbaugh, the guy who is on the record as saying, “If any race of people should not have guilt about slavery, it’s Caucasians.”
The ensuing conversation weaved into popcorn-munching territory once or twice, but ultimately, it likely accomplished nothing and swayed no one.
Here’s how the interview went down.
It’s immediately apparent that, to Rush Limbaugh, the unfortunate part of unarmed black people like George Floyd being murdered by police is that it hamstrings his narrative of how America otherwise operates. Rather than being among the most heartbreaking symptoms of an overarching problem, it’s an inconvenient anomaly that somehow keeps happening over and over again.
“To me, it’s not America,” Limbaugh says.
“Oh no, it’s definitely America,” host Charlamagne tha God replies.
“But it’s not what we can be, it’s not what we have been,” Limbaugh says. “We’re the greatest nation in the world.”
“But for who, though, Rush?” Charlamagne counters. “I think it’s easy for you to say that because you’re a white male and that comes with a certain amount of privilege. And I do think America works, but it works for the people it was designed to work for. It doesn’t work for everybody else the way it works for you.”
It’s a great point that should be obvious to anyone with some open-mindedness to spare.
But this is Rush Limbaugh we’re talking about. He handily dodges any enlightenment, and the topic turns to just who is doing the looting during the recent protests. Here’s where Limbaugh really starts coming into his Bannon-like element, flooding the zone with too many refutable statements to respond to. In practically the same breath, he refers to all destructive protesters as “Antifa types,” as though that’s just a fact, and when the hosts suggest that some of the looters were desperate, newly unemployed people waiting on stimulus checks, Limbaugh describes the recent curve-flattening lockdown as “unnecessary.”
It’s too much for the hosts to push back on without making an itemized list. Later on, they return to some subjects that Limbaugh throws out here, like his black prosperity gospel, in which he asserts that the Breakfast Club hosts are proof that any person of color can be successful if they simply work hard enough at it. (Just as long as they don’t get killed by police first! You know, that minor hiccup?)
“This is a country, America, that denies black people justice—and just plain decency—and then they act like we’re just supposed to be happy to be here because it allows a few of us to get ahead when the majority of us catch hell,” Charlamagne responds.
Instead of engaging with the point, Limbaugh sidesteps it, accusing him of twisting his words. Then he pivots again—always by saying, “Let me ask you something”—this time, to the very strange hypothetical of whether the Minnesota Vikings signing Kaepernick a few nights ago would have prevented the ensuing riots. “Nobody gives a shit about that” is the reply (and in my opinion, the correct one.)
Weaving, dodging, and what-abouting is what people like Limbaugh will always do. You can’t defeat them with logic, because they will concede nothing.
When Charlemagne asks what Limbaugh will do with the privilege of being a white male to combat prejudice in the future, the right-wing talker admits that he doesn’t “buy into the notion of white privilege.” He calls it a liberal invention, like “political correctness.”
Here’s where things should get spicy: a debate between the Breakfast Club and Rush Limbaugh about the existence of white privilege.
It goes nowhere.
They insist that what happened to George Floyd would never happen to a white man. Limbaugh counters that if it did happen to a white man, we’d never hear about it. The hosts disagrees, and round and round we go. Whee!
The result of having Rush Limbaugh on your show to talk about race will always be that the existence of white privilege—as abundant and yet somehow difficult to see as ocean water to a fish—becomes the subject of inconclusive debate.
Several more infuriating things happen in the remainder of the interview, including Limbaugh giving this as his reason for Trump inciting violence at the protests: “Everyone and their uncle [has been] telling lies and falsehoods about him for three and a half years now, and he’s probably fed up about it.”
But it all comes back to the white privilege conversation. Limbaugh will not concede a single point on the issue, refusing to acknowledge that three people of color might have a more comprehensive viewpoint on the topic than he does.
“You have no idea how I have been mistreated by various elements,” Limbaugh says. “It’s called life and it happens. We’re all mistreated.”
“Have you ever gotten thrown out of your car just for having a nice car?” Charlamagne asks.
Limbaugh cites having been fired nine times and having his car keyed as examples of his lack of privilege, as though enduring any kind of hardship in life is the same thing as being judged by the color of your skin, and as though there isn’t a chance that he ever got canned or vandalized simply by virtue of being a professional a–hole. He almost admits that he has never been pulled over by police who assumed he’d stolen his own car, but incredibly he takes that point back, too: “Oh actually that’s not true; I have been pursued by the cops!”
In Limbaugh’s mind, he’s won the argument right there. To his listeners, he’d won before the interview even started, because they’re as unlikely to be won over to the Breakfast Club’s side as their fans are to be won over by him.
Everybody wins and nobody wins.
But Limbaugh gets the added bonus of having survived unscathed an interview on the same radio show where Joe Biden deeply embarrassed himself 10 days ago—a talking point he might get months of mileage out of.
They say if you give someone enough rope they’ll hang themselves. But sometimes if you give them enough rope, they’ll just use it as a lasso and get whatever they want.