Conservatives and Racism, Take MXLVI

Rush Limbaugh is apparently not impressed with Barack Obama's presidency. That doesn't make him a racist.

Adam Serwer correctly observes, “it’s wrong to suggest that opposition to Obama’s agenda is ‘race-based,’ because that suggests conservatives would feel differently if Obama weren’t president. I think the GOP’s general positions on the issues would be the same if Hillary Clinton were president.”

He goes on, however, to assert, “What’s clear, though, is that conservatives deploy racially tinged rhetoric against liberal policy priorities and Democratic politicians, and that Obama being president has a lot to do with these arguments being used. Rush Limbaugh wouldn’t be comparing him to gang members if he weren’t black. With Clinton, Limbaugh’s sexism, rather than his racism, would be amplified.”

Now, I haven’t listened to more than a few minutes of Limbaugh’s show over the last several years.  And, while he’s decidedly not a bigot (Clarence Thomas presided over one of his many marriages!) he has occasionally crossed the line on some of his parody bits.   But comparing Obama to a gang member doesn’t make much sense.  The link goes to an Andrew Sullivan post that I saw yesterday, noting that the image above image above appears on Rush Limbaugh’s Web site and commenting, “Is any American more adept at exploiting racial dog whistles?”

My reaction to the image was, Meh.     Sully then highlights some key words in the accompanying text:

This guy is an utter wrecking ball all by himself on the world stage to the point now of getting embarrassing.  This presidency of Obama’s, it doesn’t take much to irritate the left. Try this:  “Barack Obama’s presidency is graffiti on the walls of American history.” That’s what his administration is.  No more than graffiti on the walls of American history.  We have a juvenile delinquent for a president who has ruined so much public and private property, not even his gang is making much of an effort here to protect him.  It’s an utter disaster.

Now, this kind of tripe is why I got tired of Limbaugh’s shtick.   It’s just not very illuminating.   But there’s nothing racist about it.   Reading the transcription of the linked “Obama’s Administration is Graffiti on the Walls of American History” bit reveals pretty standard talking points, some of which Obama’s Democratic opponents were using way back in 2008.

  • Obama’s constant apologizing for America diminishes the country and makes him look weak overseas
  • The liberal media helped get Obama elected by hiding his mistakes and covering up for the fact that he didn’t have the experience to be president
  • Obama really hates America because he studied under Jeremiah Wright
  • Obama is a cipher who no one really knows
  • Obama is an elitist
  • Democrats are finally wising up to all the above and desperately trying to find an alternative for 2012

The fact that these charges are not only tired but contradictory makes the diatribe rather hollow.  But it’s clearly not racist.  In this context, “graffiti” simply stands for the idea that Obama is a disgrace, “juvenile delinquent” means he’s a wet-behind-the-ears amateur in over his head, and”gang” a benign term for his acolytes.

Indeed, I use “gang” in that manner all the time.  It’s identical in connotation to his repeated description of the Politico staff as a “bunch.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. TG Chicago says:

    You start off pointing out (correctly) that Limbaugh would also be highly opposed to a Hillary Clinton presidency.

    But do you think he would have used the “graffiti” metaphor for Hillary? No, he probably would have used something gender-based.

    “juvenile delinquent” means he’s a wet-behind-the-ears amateur in over his head

    It also means that Rush is calling Obama “boy”. But in a non-racist way!

  2. Franklin says:

    “juvenile delinquent” means he’s a wet-behind-the-ears amateur in over his head

    In my mind, this term means a young person who gets in trouble with the law. Literally, Rush is correct here as Obama flirted with drugs in his youth.

    /whereas Rush waited until he was much older.

  3. john personna says:

    Racism is much more subtle than who you consciously choose to preside at your wedding. It has more to do with where your metaphors come from. It is your impulse, your immediate reaction, and then finally your control of those.

    When Obama critics go to racial symbolism, you’ve got to wonder what’s under there, as well as what kind of self-control they think is appropriate.

    (Re. contradiction, etc. Do you really have a theory of mind that our prejudices are or must be consistent?)

  4. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    “Now, this kind of tripe is why I got tired of Limbaugh’s shtick. It’s just not very illuminating.”

    On the contrary, it is highly illuminating. Rush Limbaugh has an estimated 20-30 million listeners. These people, myself included, listen to him because he speaks their values and expresses their frustration on the airwaves. His “tripe”, as you put it, is what a large segment of this country is all about.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Are “juvenile delinquent” or “gang” inherently “racial dog whistles” or must they be in this case because Limbaugh is a racist? In what direction does the reasoning proceed?

    I think this is of a piece with condemning the use of the word “niggardly” due to racial connotations (of which it has none—it has a completely different derivation).

  6. sam says:

    Dunno if it counts as racism, but Dill’s current caption contest sure counts as some kind of nadir for your blog, James. Come to think of it, it is racism.

  7. Mithras says:

    Sure, James:

    “The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.”

  8. john personna says:

    I was going to go with “where did i put my sandals?” as a mild and not unkind joke for that picture. I don’t really want to go back to see what is there now.

  9. G.A.Phillips says:

    lol! Media tweeeeeeek, hahahaha…….

    And I thought Obama was half white rich people? lol…………Liberals if want to see a racist look at the VP or the leader of the Senate or the Reverend of Obama’s church, lol….

  10. Linda says:

    Personally, I think it’s far too easy to call Obama’s opponents “racist”. How does one defend against it? It’s too easy a weapon, and it’s a cheap shot. It says you can’t support your positions or break my arguments, so you call me a racist? Is that any way to win a debate? I prefer to win or lose based on the strength or weakness of my intellect and reasoning. If you have to resort to ad hominem attacks, it shows me that you don’t have a well thought out argument.

    I was recently called a racist while trying to explain my position on why raising taxes in this economy is not a good idea. When the other person called me that, I stated what I wrote above, and walked away, because trying to open such a closed mind would have been a waste of time and energy.

    Funny though, I thought Obama’s presidency was supposed to be “post-racial”, and yet his supporters are always quick to bring race into it, even when race has absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand.

  11. JKB says:

    Rush’s symbolism isn’t racist but it sure does reveal the racism in his detractors. To automatically assume that the imagery is because he is black uncovers hidden stereotypes and attitudes. Although black form gangs, gangs are formed by all sorts of racial and ethnic groups. And while tagging is more evident in urban environments, it is not exclusive to urban environments. So when people immediately associate graffiti with black, it reveals more about the racist them than the person they are accusing.

    The image does imply Obama is young, desperate for external attention, willing to do damage to impose himself on others and will best be dealt with by applying a strong cleanser or new coat of paint.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    Oh, for God’s sake, arguing over whether or not Limbaugh plays the game of dog whistle racism is asinine. Of course he does. It’s he core of what he does. It’s how he holds viewers. And frankly you have to be deaf, dumb, blind and willfully clueless not to get it.

    Yes, Limbaugh is a race-baiter. Yes, this means a significant segment of the GOP enjoys hearing that dog whistle. Yes, this in turn means that a significant portion of the GOP is racist.

    Yes, James, you belong to a party that wins elections to a significant degree by appealing to white racists.

  13. says:

    When I saw this yesterday I didn’t really consider it as overtly racist, but with Limbaugh’s history I have no problems with anyone no longer willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    He excells at toeing the line between misunderstood and offensive and plays the victim to his audience when anybody attempts to call him on it. It plays well and shows his brilliance. Personally I think that and his blatant hypocrisy make him fairly loathsome, but everyone gets to make that choice for themselves.

  14. Pete says:

    Reynolds, assuming you are a democrat, you belong to a party which strips people of their dignity by trapping them in dependency on government. You belong to a party which believes they alone are the only intelligent life on earth; yet, keep coming up with grand sounding, unrealistic ideas. And you sir are a bigot: “obstinately convinced of the superiority or correctness of one’s own opinions and prejudiced against those who hold different opinions” (from the dictionary)


  15. michael reynolds says:


    Gotta love any rant that starts with “assuming” and then instantly reaches broad conclusions based entirely on said assumption.

    Deep thinking there, dude.

  16. reid says:

    This just reinforces my opinion of Limbaugh as a rabble-rousing, lowbrow, partisan a-hole. That’s assuming he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. It’s sad if 20-30 million people enjoy listening to him.

  17. mantis says:

    His “tripe”, as you put it, is what a large segment of this country is all about.

    Yeah, we know.

  18. mannning says:

    It has been said many times that Limbaugh is basically a right-wing showman that uses hype to sell his opinions. He is not a leader of anything but himself and his radio show, but his fundamental belief system is conservative all around. He has been quite successful in helping to form conservative minds against liberal minds, which is perhaps his greatest sin, according to the left-wingers.

    That he is anti-intellectual is his second sin in their view, and I suppose that his use of hype runs third, as it grates on the elitest’s mindset. The fourth sin I believe Limbaugh is accused of is being successful in several dimensions, such as his large and largely faithful audience, and his financial status. Do I see envy as yet another left-wing motivation for the contumely heaped on Limbaugh, including those false accusations of racial bias?

    From my perspective, if he holds 20 or 30 million voting citizens fast in the conservative camp with his orations that is all to the good, and he can be forgiven the occasional hype he uses to make a more dramatic point. I did say hype and not lies; that is more in the style of the opposition.

  19. michael reynolds says:


    Yeah, what’s a little race-baiting so long as he holds conservatives together.

    GOP morality in a nutshell: evil is only evil when someone else does it.

  20. sam says:

    Shorter Manning:

    Rush is in the Yahoo Candy business, is very successful, and you’re just jealous.

  21. mantis says:

    I did say hype and not lies; that is more in the style of the opposition.

    Only the left lies. The right “hypes.” Got it.

  22. reid says:

    If your hate of liberals is strong enough, you can excuse anything your team does.

  23. john personna says:

    Rush’s symbolism isn’t racist but it sure does reveal the racism in his detractors.

    It has been many years since I found “I know you are, but what am I?” a compelling argument.

    Sometimes funny, but never compelling.

  24. matt says:

    Patrick : I’m one of those 20-30 million and I only listen for the comedic value and out of boredom..

  25. tom p says:

    Conservatives and Racism, Take MXLVII: Introduced by Leo Berman (R), Texas House Bill 303-

    “A money transmission business shall charge a fee on a money transmission that originates in this state and is transmitted to a destination in Mexico or in Central or South America for a personal, family, or household purpose. The amount of the fee is eight percent of the total amount sent by the money transmission.”

    I guess money transfers by illegals back to Europe are OK?

    (I should note that he has neglected to object to illegal immigrants from Africa sending money back home… I suspect that will get fixed in committee)

  26. Grewgills says:

    And, while he’s decidedly not a bigot (Clarence Thomas presided over one of his many marriages!)

    Come on James, you lived in Alabama long enough to hear “I don’t have a problem with black people, it’s the niggers I don’t like” often enough to know that bigots can have friendly personal relationships with people in groups that are the subject of their bigotry. For the uninitiated nigger in this context generally means african american (particularly young) that I don’t know personally.

    That said, I do doubt that Rush is particularly bigoted but he is comfortable and adept at exploiting dog whistle racism and sexism when it suits him and then playing the victim when he is called on it.

  27. george says:

    “If your hate of liberals is strong enough, you can excuse anything your team does.”

    Yup. This and the converse about conservatives more or less explains why so many people don’t bother voting – its mainly about team sports on both sides rather than good gov’t, and for those who aren’t fans of a particular team its hard to stomach what both sides will accept from their team.

  28. mannning says:

    @ Mantis (what an awful image!)

    Hyperbole (hype) is not lying, but it is extravagant exaggeration. There are books out now on true liberal lies, from one on Obama alone to something on most well-known members of the breed, but too much material to put in here.

    It isn’t a question of hate, but of loathing for those who would lie, cheat and steal from the public. Rangel is the latest to be uncovered, but I will bet he gets merely a slap on the hand from a Democratic Congress for 40 years of theivery. My loathing for liars applies to all of our elected and appointed rulers without regard for their race, color, creed, sex, or party affiliation. A lie is a lie, period.

    @ MR

    You persist in your accusation of racism–a much used tactic of the left to shut off argument, rather than meet the man head on in argument. Show the nation that you have written Limbaugh and called him to task for anything, anything at all, rather than cowardly poisoning the well here without taking responsibility for your statements where it might draw really hard fire.

  29. mannning says:

    Shorter Sam:

    I am a liberal, and I say it is so!

  30. mannning says:


    “The fact that these charges are not only tired but contradictory makes the diatribe rather hollow.”

    The list of charges you presented are basically valid, but they are “tired” only for those who have worked hard for or against Obama over time. A tired charge is still a valid and useful charge if it is true. As for contradictions, sure, to some degree, but that is mostly an editorial problem of this list: the individual charges can still hold true. It all depends on how many different hats Obama is putting on this week.

    Are we supposed to forget about valid charges simply because they are “tired”?

  31. Pete says:

    Reynolds, if you return here, I wasn’t ranting at all; I was just stating an obvious conclusion based on your remarks. You sound like Richard Nixon. I suspect your publisher is either brain dead or just as big a bigot as you are.

  32. An Interested Party says:

    “And you sir are a bigot: ‘obstinately convinced of the superiority or correctness of one’s own opinions and prejudiced against those who hold different opinions’ (from the dictionary)”

    That definition could also apply to you, Pete, considering what I’ve seen of your comments here…