The Four Horsemen: Rush, Roger, Rupert, and The Donald May Ride ForeverRoundup
tags: conservatism, media, Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch
Robert Lipsyte is a TomDispatch regular and a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.
The Four Horsemen of our media apocalypse — Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, and Donald Trump — have ridden roughshod over us this past half-century leaving their hoofprints on our politics, our culture, and our lives. Two of them are gone now, but their legacies, including the News Corporation, the Fox News empire, and a gang of broadcast barbarians will ensure that a lasting plague of misinformation, propaganda masquerading as journalism, and plain old fake news will be our inheritance.
The original Four Horsemen were biblical characters seen as punishments from God. By the time they became common literary and then film currency, they generally went by the names of Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. Matching each with Limbaugh, Ailes, Murdoch, and Trump should prove a grisly but all-too-relevant parlor game. The originals were supposed to signal end times and sometimes, when I think about their modern American descendants, I wonder if we’re heading in just that direction.
Reflecting on the lives of those modern embodiments of (self-) punishment makes me wonder how we ever let them happen. Isn’t there any protection against evil of their sort in a democracy, even when you know about it early? Maybe when evil plays so cleverly into fears and resentments or is just so damn entertaining, not enough people can resist it. Hey, I even worked for one of the horsemen. It was my favorite job… until it wasn’t.
But first, let me start with Rush Limbaugh. The nation’s leading right-wing bullhorn died last month at 70. His vicious wit (“feminazis”) and ability to squeeze complex subjects into catchy sound bites (“In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the Black kids cheering”) stirred and nourished a devoted mass who would become a crucial part of Trump’s base. Limbaugh, earning by the end more than $80 million a year, left his heirs a reported $600 million.
Those numbers, I believe, defined him far more than any political stance he took and, at the same time, made him indefensible. He was Pestilence, spreading poison without either genuine ideology or principle of any sort. He was doing shtick, whatever worked for him (and work it certainly did). He was, by nature, a great entertainer. One more thing: don’t kid yourself, he was smart.
I realized this in 1995 when Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., was approaching Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive baseball games. The Yankee star set that record in 1939 when, after 17 big league seasons, he finally took himself out of the lineup because he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, later known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Tongue-in-cheek, in my then-weekly New York Times sports column, I called on Cal to take a day off to avoid breaking the record. I wrote that, if he did, he would “be remembered forever as an athlete who stepped proudly over the statistical rubble of his sport to lead us all into a higher level of consciousness. He will end up a bigger Calvin than Klein.”
The response from pundits, sportswriters, and fans was overwhelmingly negative. I was called clueless and stupid or, at least, a running dog of a new, much-mocked and demeaned “participation culture,” unaware of the competitive nature of sports. Worse yet, I was trying to deny a hero his due.
It seemed that, of all people, only Limbaugh picked up on the mindless paradox of the situation — after all, Ripken would merely have to show up at work that day to claim his trophy — or even how obviously I had been offering my advice tongue in cheek. And he said so on a national radio network carrying his shows.
As the saying goes, it takes one to know one. That he saw what I was actually doing convinced me that he, too, often had his tongue tucked firmly in that cheek of his and away from anything that might pass for his rational brain. And this would, in the end, make it all that much worse. My guess: he wasn’t ever truly a believer in the right-wing trash he talked. From the beginning, he was a mercenary, a commercial provocateur who found fame and fortune by spreading ever more toxic takes.
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