It didn’t take long to determine who’s running the Republican Party. Hours after criticizing Rush Limbaugh, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele apologized.

“Please, Rush, don’t hurt me!” he wailed, or might as well have. It was a clarifying moment.

That, and Limbaugh’s widely discussed stem-winder at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee gathering, made clear the GOP and the conservative movement are stuck on stupid. The Republican establishment doesn’t inspire confidence, but if Limbaugh’s vision represents the future of American conservatism, count this conservative out.

The Limbaugh speech is an example of why popular conservatism today is, as the saying goes, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The first thing we learn from the Master’s orotund remarks is there is nothing conservatives need to rethink in light of dramatically changed circumstances.”All we need is to nominate the right candidate,” he said. “It’s no more complicated than that.”

Really? The free market is in global systemic collapse. The culture war is lost. The Iraq debacle destroyed conservative credibility on foreign policy. The new Democratic president is socializing large swaths of the economy, obliterating Reagan’s legacy – and remains far more popular than Reagan’s unloved and disempowered heirs.

And Limbaugh thinks the problem is poor public relations? No wonder these people had no idea that Bobby Jindal’s potted-red-meat food product of a speech was going to bomb. Like long-lost Japanese soldiers hiding out in jungle dens, they really don’t grasp that the world has changed and that conservatism must change with it.

What Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, said of nations – “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation” – is also true of political movements. The thinking conservative will learn from experience, reinterpreting conservative principles in light of new conditions.

Yet to Limbaugh, conservatism is a fixed set of doctrines, and he is as inflexible as any medieval pope. “Conservatism is what it is, and it is forever,” he thundered. Nonsense like that turns politics into a religion – which explains why these people are forever hunting down heretics. This crackpot fundamentalism strangles reform and dissent.

Besides, Limbaugh’s conservatism is only tangentially related to traditional conservative values. “We believe that [a] person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path, like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government,” he told the CPAC crowd.

Well, now. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment philosopher whose theories were critical to modern liberalism. Man is good, he taught, but is corrupted by society. Limbaugh preaches a right-wing version of Rousseauism, which is bizarre.

It denies two bedrock conservative truths: that humankind is fallen and that we must learn to live within limits prescribed by nature. Would-be conservatives who build their philosophy upon the progressive gospel of limitless human potential and the sanctity of individual autonomy are in no position to criticize utopian liberals.

Limbaugh’s ideology makes an idol of nationalism and optimism. He dunned Barack Obama for saying hard times were ahead, denouncing him for his lack of faith in America. What kind of cockeyed conservatism calls reality unpatriotic? Did these people learn nothing from Iraq?

Hope, a virtue, is not the same as optimism – and optimism is not a synonym for crazy.

Closing the circle tightly, Limbaugh assured his followers that they may know real conservatives – as opposed to the squishes – by the fact that they’re hated by the media (“our enemy”). Oppose Limbavian orthodoxy, and you are a traitor to the cause. This brings to mind the ultra-obnoxious evangelists who used to preach on my college campus, pious twerps who measured their righteousness by the heaps of scorn they attracted.

Funny, those ardent knotheads never converted anybody. And you have to wonder who Limbaugh expects to draw to the right with this cartoonish bunkum. It’s antithetical to the kind of intellectual depth, philosophical modesty and dispositional humility that constitutes political conservatism at its finest.

The traditionalist right offers a powerful critique not only of Obama’s statist liberalism but of the misguided conservatism that helped bring America to this low point. Eventually, a revitalized conservatism will emerge, most likely from reformers who grasp the conservative tradition didn’t begin with Reagan.

And, sad to say, we’ll get there not because of Rush Limbaugh but in spite of him.

Rod Dreher is an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News. E-mail [email protected]

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