Rush Limbaugh’s Kid Control
Here’s how it all began. From BookPeople, located in Austin’s international airport, my friend texted me a photo of Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere chapter book series for kids. Limbaugh’s chicken-sausage pallor was superimposed on an illustrated rendering of Paul Revere. “Disturbing” my friend wrote. I texted back that the photo was even more disturbing because on the shelf above was all of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potters—a transphobic Brit and a rightwing conservative vying for young minds against the backdrop of book bans in Texas. As I pictured books like Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation and M.L.K.: Journey of a King being pulled from school library shelves, I wondered what sorts of books would fill the gaps.
If school districts wanted literature that upheld white supremacy, then Limbaugh’s Rush Revere series presented a sanitized option for teaching fragile white kids about history without hurting their feelings.
Limbaugh’s quite the role model. He unabashedly built his career on bigotry—making fun of people with AIDS, calling rape victims “hoes”, and expressing a particularly strong disdain for people facing homelessness. He was sixteen when he first appeared on local radio. In 1987, when the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which called for contrasting viewpoints to controversial topics, an explosion of conservative radio shows soon followed. Limbaugh took the lead, helping to spawn, in Gremlins form, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Alex Jones. Limbaugh, a college dropout who hated school, eventually gained an average of 15 million listeners a week and earned over a billion dollars. He died in 2021 at the age of seventy from lung cancer. Trump awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom a year before he croaked.
I put all five books—Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims; Rush Revere and the First Patriots; Rush Revere and the American Revolution; Rush Revere and the Star-Spangled Banner; and Rush Revere and the Presidency—on hold at my local library. When I went to pick them up I was thankful for self-checkout. I walked two miles with the heavy hardbacks, weighing six pounds, sweat dripping down my back in the Texas heat. The books sat on my window seat for weeks. I’ve spent nearly a decade reviewing books and can cruise through pages, but I couldn’t bring myself to even open book one. Plus, it wasn’t clear which book was book one. I had to go the website to find the reading order.
After disinfecting each volume with a Clorox wipe, I finally sat down to read Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans. On instinct, I knew not to eat while reading, the same way I know not to eat dinner while watching Hoarders. The first page had a red American flag symbol on it—the imprint of Threshold Editions, a division of Simon & Schuster that specializes in conservative nonfiction. On the back cover Limbaugh is sitting on a stool, hair slicked back, wearing a collared black leather jacket looking like a backroom poker player.
Rush Revere is basically Mr. Ed meets Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure funneled through the voice of a talking hemorrhoid. As for the plot, Rush Revere is a substitute teacher at Manchester Middle, who covers for Mrs. Borrington while she’s out on leave. Mr. Revere, as his students call him, dresses in waistcoat, knickers, stockings, and wears his white hair tied back in a red bow under his three-corned hat. (If anyone is guessing what sort of foreplay probably went down in the Limbaugh household, I’m guessing colonial cosplay was what kicked off the Viagra.) Curiously, Mr. Revere seems to have no legitimate qualifications to teach—like how in Arizona you can teach middle school without a bachelor’s degree.
Rush Revere has a horse named Liberty, who can talk, time travel, and recite the preamble to the Constitution. Readers meet Freedom, a girl with long black hair with a purple feather in it—she’s shy and we later learn that she can talk to animals with her mind, so she can read Liberty’s thoughts. By the end of the series, Freedom’s feather is replaced by a red, white, and blue ribbon. Mr. Revere’s first time-traveling recruit is a kid named Tommy, who has blond hair and wears a red baseball cap. They “time-jump” back to the Mayflower through a time portal that Liberty controls by saying the magic words “Rush, rush, rushing to history.” On the way back to the present, Liberty says, “Rush, rush, rushing from history.” It’s all very nuanced. Rush Revere is eager to share with his students the new land the pilgrims discovered. “There are Indians to befriend and a new colony to build. And a celebration to be had called Thanksgiving!”
Brave Pilgrims was almost two hundred pages of dialogue. I had to keep track of five characters on a single page, and it was like Limbaugh was an octopus with sock puppets on his tentacles, each one ventriloquizing his distinctive timbre—dry, humorless, utterly maladroit given the task of writing for kids. There’s a lot of winking. Rush Revere winking at kids, kids winking at Rush Revere. When I got to a page with a picture, I felt momentary relief.
In Rush Revere and the First Patriots: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans, the winking continues. Rush Revere gives Tommy some musket balls for good luck during his football game. Mr. Revere says, “I held out my hand to show Tommy and Freedom the musket balls. They were as small as marbles but made of lead. They were round, smooth, and very shiny.” Tommy rubs the balls for good luck on game day. It’s not clear whether Rush Revere has fully offered Tommy his musket balls or just allowed him to rub them. Later in the book, Rush Revere gives Tommy the musket balls for keeps.
Readers are also introduced to Cam, a boy with a dark complexion and curly hair as described in the book. Cam, in the illustrations, is Black. Over the course of the series Cam ends up handcuffed by the British, meets Patrick Henry (a slave owner who sort of apologizes for owning slaves), and is nearly inoculated by a doctor for smallpox. Cam’s dad is in the Marines and is shipped off during the school year. During one of their time travels, Cam is surrounded by Redcoat gunfire during the Battle of Lexington Green.
By the time I got to book three my skin had broken out in cystic acne, and when I looked down at the carpet I saw that I’d pulled out clumps of my own hair. My stress response was kicking into overdrive. It was impossible to flip through the pages without contorting my body into a strange position. I wasn’t serious enough about the Founding Fathers. I wasn’t smiling like the pictures of kid readers Limbaugh included, holding up his books—young patriots, who seemed, um, plied with stuffed animal bears dressed in colonial garb, Liberty the horse, and a prize for Rush Revere’s Cereal Box Challenge—Rushie O’s.
It’s in Rush Revere and the American Revolution that a few more names get added to the title page: Kathryn Adams Limbaugh, wife, “visionary,” and coauthor; Jonathan Adams Rogers, historical consultant; and Chris Schoebinger, children’s writing consultant. Despite these additions, the books still manage to be clueless about kids. Christopher Hiers’s illustrations make the middle schoolers appear five years old on one page and twelve on the next. The cultural references are a hodgepodge of different eras: Mario Kart, The Incredible Hulk, Pop Rocks, The Terminator, X-Men, and kid characters who say, “get real.”
Limbaugh never had kids, and in reading the books I felt like I was somehow entering the psyche of Limbaugh as a child. I sensed some old wound. Maybe Little Limbaugh wanted to play Patriots vs. Red Coats, with muskets and spyglasses, but none of the neighborhood kids wanted to play, so when he grew up to be a big boy, he created a world where kids would be forced to share his love of Paul Revere. It comes at a frightful cost. Mr. Revere is the sort of substitute teacher who has his time-traveling crew stay after school for history club; they take classes with him during summer break and go to Washington, D.C. He quizzes his students and gives them coupons for discounts on ice cream. What middle schooler doesn’t love a coupon.
I lost Rush Revere and the Star-Spangled Banner somewhere between North Lamar Boulevard and Medical Parkway in Central Austin. I didn’t want to gross out my fellow bus passengers so I set the book coverside down and slipped it on top of my insulated grocery bag. When I ran to catch another bus, the book must have slipped off. Later, when I searched around for my Limbaugh, it hit me why the bus driver had been honking. If I’d paid attention, I probably would have found the book on the sidewalk. I’ll owe the Austin Public Library $21.00.
It was too bad because I was midway through, and I was actually learning something. I found the map of the National Mall useful. It was handy to see the Capitol Building, where white nationalist rioters smashed windows on January 6, 2021. I also stared at the Supreme Court building where the justices reversed Roe v. Wade, prompting me to google “if I get raped in Texas can I get sued by my rapist for having an abortion?” Being slapped with legal fees would suck, because I owe $57,000 in student loans that will demand a full-time job and two side hustles to afford once those payments return in October. Governor Gregg Abbott has suggested free “baby supplies” for sexual assault survivors and victims of rape, so I guess that’s something to log in my gratitude journal.
I wound up listening to the rest of book four on audio tape, which rivaled the torture of reading the books. Limbaugh’s voice has the nasal tone of a cigar smoker—a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and McGruff, the eighties animated crime dog meant to educate kids on crime. He does voices. Each audio book is nearly five to six hours long.
In the introduction, Limbaugh states that “America is not perfect. No country is because there is no such thing as perfect.” (Imagine seeing that welcome banner in every major U.S. airport “America: it’s not perfect.”) In book four, I finally encountered what I’d been expecting to find: homeschoolers. If white parents want their children to refer to their genitalia as a pee pee well into their teens, and if they want their kids to believe that the pilgrims arrived with nothing but bibles and pure intentions, that can be accomplished. When Rush Revere takes the time travelers to Washington, D.C., they meet a homeschooler named Margaret. This offers Limbaugh the perfect opportunity to break the fourth wall and say that “homeschooling is so admirable. I’ve met a lot of homeschool families and I really appreciate the sacrifices you make to educate your children directly.”
By Rush Revere and the Presidency, I figured out what’s really happening. The series was published from 2013-2016. Rush Revere points out that a national election is happening. Cam decides that he wants to run for student body president. Rush Revere time jumps with Cam to meet George Washington so that Cam can get a sense of what being a president is like. Cam’s political opponent for president is Elizabeth Sherman. Elizabeth Sherman is basically Hillary Clinton. She has connections, lots of cheerleading friends (“feminazis” as Limbaugh would say), and nearly everyone hates her because she’s mean and unlikeable. And she’d be a horrible president.
While blond-haired, red-hat-wearing Tommy would be the obvious stand-in for Trump, Limbaugh picks Cam instead. Cam learns to come up with a campaign strategy that’s focused on a strong message and reaching unpopular kid voters. Rush Revere plays campaign advisor, urging him to come up with a slogan. He says, “The American patriots were always the underdogs. No one ever thought they would beat the huge British superpower.”
After absorbing all Rush Revere books, it wouldn’t be a longshot to say that Limbaugh had a hand in shaping Trump’s campaign. Speaking to disaffected voters in rural areas and putting on a show was a part of Trump’s playbook. It makes sense that Limbaugh knew Trump would run years in advance giving him ample time to push rightwing propaganda on kids, who if they started reading the books in 2013, would be old enough to vote in the 2020 election.
Limbaugh had an uncanny ability to see into the future. Red baseball caps, slogans and all. Liberty, patriots, American exceptionalism, freedom, MAGA, the American flag—these are all terms that if you plug into a search engine are bound to deliver disturbing results. I searched “‘Merica” and was glad I decided not to bring children into the world.
Meanwhile, a Texas-based company Brave Books has pumped out elementary school picture books by the likes of U.S. representative Dan Crenshaw, who wrote a critique of cancel culture called Fame, Blame, and the Raft of Shame. They followed that with Paws off My Cannon by Dana Loesch, who also wrote Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America, on the cover of which she poses in a red dress holding an assault rifle with a scope. Exceptional Americans? Or Seussian Sneetches fighting on the beaches? You decide.
A few months after my friend texted me the photo of the Limbaugh books in the airport bookstore, a parent in Katy, Texas, demanded a Michelle Obama biography written for children be removed from the school library, saying that it unfairly portrayed Trump as a bully and made white girls feel bad about themselves. As parents and school districts decide what books stay and what books go, it’s critical to see that Rush Limbaugh’s legacy is still shouting into a microphone—with 15 million listeners, he wanted to make sure that he’d continue to have more. “I told you that American politics is hip,” Rush Revere tells his time-traveling team. Oh yeah, kids, American politics is spiffy af.