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Wed 19 February 2020
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CJ Werleman on why the President’s awarding of the Medal of Freedom to the right-wing ideologue Rush Limbaugh is indicative of his entire approach to changing America’s political culture.

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Donald Trump promised to “Make American Great Again” by hiring “the best people”. On the campaign trail in 2016, he spoke so often about the “best people” that ABC News put together a 10-minute montage of him talking non-stop about rewarding the “best people”.

This was the promise he gave to voters nearly four years ago, but it can now be marked down as just another notch in his documented 16,000 lies, falsehoods and broken pledges. Because, in Trump’s America, the worst people seem to receive a prize – including convicted criminals, sycophants, polluters of the environment and racists.

When giving his State of the Union address before Congress last week, Trump awarded Rush Limbaugh, a right-wing radio shock jock, with the Medal of Freedom, describing him as a “special man beloved by millions of Americans”. The honour came despite Limbaugh’s contribution towards American political discourse – his brand of right-wing populism built entirely upon stigmatising, demonising and scapegoating racial, sexual and religious minorities, particularly Hispanics, black people, Asians and Muslims, while also cruelly mocking perceived political opponents, such as “liberal Hollywood elites”.

He mocked Back to the Future actor Michael J. Fox’s struggle with Parkinson’s, accusing the star of “exaggerating the effects of the disease”, and suggested that Robin Williams committed suicide because liberals are “always angry about something”. But his worst venom has been reserved for non-white Americans. 

Limbaugh has spent decades portraying white Americans to be locked in a ‘do-or-die’ struggle with non-white immigrants, using the same kind of racist tropes that splatter the respective manifestos of recent white nationalist mass shooters.

A few days after a guest on Fox News suggested that it should be acceptable to “shoot invaders” at the US-Mexico border, Limbaugh told his millions of listeners that the country was at risk of losing its identity because of approaching migrant caravans, as observed by The New York Times. “The objective is to dilute and eventually eliminate or erase what is known as the distinct or unique American culture,” Limbaugh said. “This is why people call this an invasion.”

Nine months later, a 21-year-old gunman entered a mall in El Paso, Texas, and murdered 22 people, most of whom were Hispanic. His manifesto, which he posted online several hours prior to the attack, mirrored Limbaugh’s words. The murderer said he was “defending” his country “from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion”.

Limbaugh has also defended slavery, even absurdly claiming that the “white race” has “done more to end” slavery than “any other race”, while “Caucasians” have little to feel guilty about regarding the history of slavery in the United States. He has mocked poor children as “dumpster kids” for their dependency on food assistance programmes and suggested that same-sex marriage will lead to people marrying animals.

There are too many examples to mention – none of which have prevented the President from bestowing upon him one of the country’s highest civilian honours. But that’s the point.


Normalising Bad Behaviour

“Trump is the worst boss who hires the worst people: people who confess to crimes, are secretly operating as foreign agents, allegedly beat their wives and have absolutely no expertise in the area in which they work,” observes syndicated columnist Charles Blow. “When you choose loyalists and sycophants over experts and professionals, this disaster of an administration is what you get.”

This “disaster” played out like a Hollywood-produced political scandal during Trump’s impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives and his trial in the Senate, where evidence was heard regarding Trump’s attempts to coerce an ally at war into investigating his then presumed political rival by withholding congressional approved military aid – a constitutionally prohibited conspiracy that wouldn’t occur with qualified foreign diplomats at the centre of a president’s foreign policy orbit. Instead, Trump has around him shady opportunists such as Gordon Sondland, a hotelier who was awarded his European Union ambassadorship only because of his $1 million donation to Trump’s 2016 campaign.

In a short space of time, Trump has shifted the country away from its plutocratic roots, where wealthy elites control the levers of power, to that of a kleptocracy, where corrupt opportunists move in and embezzle the nations’ wealth and resources. The fact that eight of his hires – including his 2016 campaign manager, his personal lawyer, his campaign advisor and political advisor – have been indicted of federal crimes, while others close to him await trial, speaks to Trump’s corrupting of the office of the presidency.

But, at the core of his political success is his willingness and ability to normalise moral and ethical misdeeds. If everyone is just as craven as he, then there is no one more fit to rule than him or his appointed mobsters – so the logic goes. In looking for an explanation as to why Trump recently pardoned a Navy Seal of war crimes who was described by his colleagues as “freaking evil”, and despite the loud protestations of the military, the answer is here.

“I’m sure Trump thinks they will strike fear into the hearts of America-hating Muslims everywhere, but they brand the United States as a nation that loves its outlaws, from the White House right on down through the ranks,” observes New York Mag writer Ed Kilgore.

Rather than “Make America Great Again” by elevating the country’s “best people”, Trump has debased the world’s most powerful democracy by rewarding the most immoral among us. How much longer will he be rewarded for this?


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