As a kid growing up in the 1990s, I did not like listening to Rush Limbaugh. I was a Democrat. He was a Republican. I was an intellectual who wanted to go to Yale University. He was a proud populist. I liked the Clintons. He didn’t. I often found his arguments to be shallow and reactive. (Mine were anything but that, of course.)
Yet, as I reflected on Limbaugh’s death this week, I realized those many hours I was forced to listen to his radio show—usually in the car with my parents or grandparents, if they weren’t listening to Laura Schlesinger or Jim Rome, two other radio titans of that era—taught me as much about debating politics as any class I ever took or book I ever read.
Rush had a talent for spinning stories. He delivered politics to the masses. He made conservative arguments through real-world examples that everybody could relate to. Sure, he was sometimes vile, as when he called Hillary Clinton a “witch with a capital B.” Or when he said Barack Obama hated America.
I could go on, but that’s not the point. What matters is that a character like Limbaugh could only exist in America. As a Democrat, I had to deal with him. And I did. We all did.
As President of our country and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day — (laughter) — and I will always defend their right to do so. (Applause.)
Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.
We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech— the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.
Those words are a distant memory. Today, Democratic Party leaders (including one of Obama’s top advisers) want to create “truth commissions” and punish people who supported Donald Trump as a threat to national security. Obama has been silent in the face of these attacks on America’s most important freedom.
He shouldn’t be. In October 2019, Obama slammed the growing number of young wokesters on the left, telling them to “get over that quickly.” “The world is messy,” he added. “There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.”
Rush Limbaugh was part of that messy American world I grew up in. Ignoring him would have been easy. Dealing with him made me a better person, a better student, and a better lawyer. The leftists should take that lesson to heart and get back to protecting speech, not silencing it.