Help! Talk Radio Ate the Presidency!

In November 2016, my Facebook feed was filled with friends’ dreaded anticipation of Thanksgiving with extended family, and particularly with that uncle: the unapologetic Trump supporter full of crude, bigoted bluster. So many white families seemed to have an uncle like this — even if in liberal families everyone had written him off as a mean, eccentric old coot — that political pundits felt the need to weigh in on dinner etiquette.

At the time, I noticed the pattern, but I assumed that the similarities among uncles were organic, coming out of similar subject positions as older white men angry to see their privilege eroding. But after reading historian Brian Rosenwald’s Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States, I suddenly understood those obnoxious uncles, and so much more about the past few years’ politics, in a new way. These men’s crude rants, their language of resentment, their belittling tone, their crazy conspiracy theories, their desire to “own the libs” – they modeled it on conservative talk radio hosts, and on television and internet personalities that emerged from talk radio. In some ways, they may be the isolated, angry old men their younger, more liberal relatives took them to be. But through decades of engagement with right-wing radio, they have coalesced into a community and voting coalition around a shared set of values, an agreed-upon litany of enemies, and a common rhetoric. And their avatar is Donald Trump.

Courtesy Harvard University Press

As Rosenwald explains, talk radio did not set out to be the propaganda arm of the Republican party. In the 1980s, a.m. radio was rapidly losing ground because of f.m. radio’s higher-quality sound for music broadcasting, and it desperately needed a new business model. Talk show hosts, especially Rush Limbaugh, created a new and highly entertaining format that did not require high-quality sound, and they quickly drew a dedicated and profitable audience. Stations reaped the profits and broadcast more hours of conservative talk radio to rake in the earnings. And further, Rosenwald argues, conservative media did not, in fact, come to be at the beck and call of the Republican party. If anything, in that relationship, conservative media has come out on top.

Rosenwald traces the rise of conservative media from the late 1980s to the 2016 election in highly readable, bite-sized chapters. The preconditions for the rise of Limbaugh and his ilk were an industry desperately seeking a new business model and the 1987 lifting of the Federal Communication Commission’s requirement that broadcasters present “fair and balanced” programming. Limbaugh and his imitators quickly drew a large audience of conservatives, predominantly white men, who perceived mainstream media as too liberal and enjoyed hearing Limbaugh skewer liberal politicians and policies. Over time, conservative hosts gained a profound level of trust from their listeners and advised them about how to apply their flavor of conservative values to elections. Fringe conservative politicians found in talk radio a direct way to reach a sympathetic audience, and these hard-right politicians used talk radio as a way to escape the discipline imposed by party leaders and prominent politicians who were more inclined to try to pull the party toward centrism and compromise to gain broad-based support.

Talk radio and other conservative media created fertile soil for Trump’s norm-breaking campaign. Why was so much of the country comfortable with Trump’s playground bully taunts, stupid nicknames for political rivals, and casual, winking racism? Because conservative audiences have been hearing the exact same thing on talk radio for decades. Why did Trump’s voters believe the conspiracy theories he promulgated, even when mainstream media debunked them? Because talk radio had been spreading those fantasies and disparaging mainstream media for a very long time.

Much of this came as a surprise to liberals like me because the ecology of talk radio developed out of view of the mainstream. My Facebook friends and I had no reason to assume that our Trumpy uncles were anything but isolated eccentrics. For decades, hosts could say things that would have drawn outrage from a broader audience and perhaps sparked suppression, or at least forced a subtler approach. Conservative talk radio pioneered the media “bubble” or “echo chamber” effect. The moderate conservative pundits who, over the past couple years, have been deploring the media “bubble” effect are, I think, speaking more to their own party than to liberals, even if they are cautious about saying so aloud.

Increasingly over the past decade, Republican lawmakers have found themselves unable to govern because talk show radio hosts demonized compromise and encouraged their audiences to demand conservative purity. Today the Republican party remains in thrall to conservative media that grew out of talk radio, with hard-right partisans taking over the party and moderates unable to push back as Trump shreds many of their purported values. Conservative media hosts still care about providing entertainment and making money, not governance, and they routinely defend themselves as entertainers, not politicians, allowing the chips to fall where they may.

Rosenwald is mostly unwilling to speculate as to how much radio hosts shaped their listeners’ values, and how much they reflected them; his research was not aimed at uncovering evidence to demonstrate this one way or the other. He leans toward regarding talk radio as a reflection of listeners’ values, rather than the creator of them. Certainly it would be naïve to regard talk radio’s listeners as simply dupes of manipulative hosts. On the other hand, conservative media hosts have fed their supporters conspiracy theories and encouraged ugly rhetoric that would not have been considered fit for public consumption before the rise of conservative talk radio, and that remains unacceptable outside conservative media’s bubble.

Rosenwald also does not spend more than a couple of pages analyzing the role of gender in this cultural phenomenon, except to note that the (mostly male) hosts tend to be anti-feminist in the extreme, and that a poll of Limbaugh’s readers suggests that his audience is two-thirds male. The development of conservative talk radio more or less tracks the voting gender gap, in which women have consistently voted in higher numbers than men for Democrats since 1980. Much of this gap is the result of men shifting to the Republican party. Because most Americans live in mixed-gender households, patriarchal backlash presumably affects a number of women in their homes. I can’t help wondering how talk radio listeners’ wives who are not of the Laura Ingraham persuasion are faring.

The most urgent question to me, after reading the book, is whether anything can be done to mitigate the worst influences of conservative media. In particular, conspiracy theories and other lies are clearly not legitimate expressions of political convictions, and have no place even in a democracy that encompasses people with widely diverging values. It would be foolish to think that we can convince very many talk radio listeners to abandon Trump. But voting preferences aside, it is crucial for the long-term well-being of the country that we push for bipartisan embrace of fact-based decision making and democratic rule of law. Rosenwald shows us that we have a heavy burden, as we struggle against the weight of 30 years’ history of conservative media.

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