Opinion: Limbaugh’s comments reflect problem with today’s conservatism

If you think Rush Limbaugh is fatally wounded, think again. By way of explanation, let me tell you how a certain subset of my readers will react to this column.

Experience dictates that once I’ve taken my last swipe at their dear leader, Limbaugh’s followers will, well … rush to fire off angry emails in his defense.

They will do this though there is no defense for what he did on his program Feb. 29 — calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “prostitute” and a “slut” after she testified in support of requiring health insurers to pay for women’s contraception. His followers will declare, through some arcane “logic” peculiar to true believers, that “Rush” — it’s always “Rush,” as if they and the multimillionaire talk-show host were in the same bowling league — didn’t say what I thought he said, or didn’t mean what I thought he meant.

Point being, he reportedly reaches 15 million people a week who worship him robotically and sycophantically. So it is a fact of life that the advertisers he’s lost as a result of his diarrheic mouth – at least 10 at last count — will soon return, or be replaced.

Which is not to say Limbaugh was not stung by the defections. To the contrary, after several days of doubling down on his coarseness — at one point suggesting women whose contraception is paid for by insurance post sex videos online — he abruptly reversed himself as the advertiser revolt grew.

“I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choice,” he said in a statement.

The timing suggests he was sincere only in his concern for lost revenue. Two days later, Limbaugh elaborated on the air, saying that in fighting those dreaded liberals, “I became like them against my own instincts, against my own knowledge, against everything I know to be right and wrong, I descended to their level when I used those two words to describe Sandra Fluke.”

So even when it’s his fault, it’s not his fault. The liberals made him do it. But repugnant as he is, last week’s attack says less about Limbaugh than about the social and political atmosphere he has come to symbolize.

“Severely conservative,” said Mitt Romney some weeks ago in self-description. He’d been driven to Freudian candor by the need to “out-conservative” his opponents and thus, spoke more truly than he perhaps intended.

So “severe” are conservatives now that Ronald Reagan would not know them. Nor, given that he raised taxes and was not above compromising with opponents, would they know him. That’s because what now passes for conservatism is less an ideology than an excuse for ideological rigidity, extreme language, shameless (indeed, proud) ignorance and situational ethics wherein the only thing that matters is victory and any tactic — fear, misogyny, bigotry, lies — is acceptable so long as it advances that goal.

Spare me the false moral equivalence of noting that liberals are sometimes guilty of the same crimes. Duh. Of course they are. But the frequency and intensity on the left do not begin to compare with that of the right.

Think the late Andrew Breitbart sliming Shirley Sherrod. Think James O’Keefe dressing like Superfly in his campaign of video mendacity. Think Fox “News” lying abed with birthers. Think Sarah Palin reading off her palm. Think Herman Cain trying to answer a question on foreign policy. Think Rick Perry trying to remember the third agency. And think a presidential primary that’s raised such a stench many party elders are holding their noses.

The GOP has been so overrun by extremists that “moderate” is now an epithet and the moderate Republican Olympia Snowe just ran for the door. Sacking Rush Limbaugh would not fix that. The problem is not a conservative talk show host, but conservatism itself as presently construed. It has become a landfill. Limbaugh is just a seagull circling the top.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.