To these radio hosts, Trump’s voters are the ones who are really under attack: “He’s a surrogate for their hatred for us,” said Limbaugh. Given this robust defense, it’s not surprising that Trump regularly retweets or quotes hosts like Limbaugh, Levin and Laura Ingraham.
But there’s more to these apologetics than the fact that right-wing talk radio hosts agree with the president’s views. Trump sounds just like them. Reality TV may have enshrined his celebrity, but Trump’s tone, his concerns and his willingness to shock people are most at home on the radio waves during rush hour.
He calls the House investigation “The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!” and a “hoax.” He asserts without evidence that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is “a corrupt politician and a criminal” and that Republicans are dealing with “human scum.”
It’s rants like these — which mimic what millions of conservative Americans consume on the airwaves — that have helped Trump build and cement a durable bond with these voters. This relationship might prove to be the president’s political salvation, propelling him not only past impeachment but maybe even to a second term.
When Trump declared his candidacy in 2015, reporters and analysts of all political stripes dismissed him as a sideshow. Not only did he lack political experience, but he kept saying things that politicians just weren’t allowed to say. One astute observer thought otherwise: Limbaugh. He said he and his producer were “laughing ourselves silly” during Trump’s announcement speech, but he also presciently observed: “This is gonna resonate with a lot of people, I guarantee you, and the Drive-Bys” — Limbaugh’s term for mainstream journalists — “are gonna pooh-pooh it. They’re gonna relegate it to the carnival characteristics of the campaign and so forth, but it’s gonna resonate, just like [1992 and 1996 presidential candidate Ross] Perot did.”
How did Limbaugh know that Trump’s message would connect? Maybe because a lot of what the candidate said sounded like his show. The most controversial line in Trump’s campaign announcement speech was his assertion that Mexico was sending the United States “rapists” and others who brought drugs and crime with them. This claim horrified many Americans. But later that summer, after Trump was pushed on the point during the first Republican primary debate, Limbaugh defended him, arguing: “You know, they try to dump on Trump, demand proof from him that the Mexican government is knowingly sending rapists, murderers and purse snatchers, and this kind of thing. They are! It’s something I know full well. We’ve had the stories. We’ve done them on this program.” And indeed, he had: For more than a decade, Limbaugh had been railing about “violent criminals” that “countries like Mexico” were “unwilling to take back.” To Limbaugh and his audience, Trump was showing a refreshing willingness to tell uncomfortable truths that Republican politicians shy away from because they are afraid of offending liberal sensibilities or being accused of bigotry.
Stylistically, Trump is far more talk-radio host than buttoned-down politician. For instance, he employs snarky nicknames to rip the mainstream media. While Levin bemoans the “Washington Compost” and “MSLSD,” Trump lashes out at the “Failing New York Times,” “Deface the Nation” and “Very Low Ratings” CNN.
The extreme rhetoric Trump uses, especially on immigration, has long been a staple of talk radio (and other conservative media, like Fox News and Breitbart). During the 2007 debate over bipartisan immigration reform, Limbaugh warned that the Senate bill would “fundamentally, and perhaps permanently, alter American society for the worse.” Fellow talker Michael Savage said then-Senate Republican leader Trent Lott (Miss.) was engaged in “gansterism” after Lott compained about talk-radio hosts.
Seven years later, when Republican House Speaker John Boehner revealed his principles for immigration reform, Limbaugh exploded again. To him, the push to admit immigrants who, he claimed, saw the United States as “no place special” was one more part of the left’s campaign to degrade America. Liberals were teaching young Americans in public schools, he said, “not only not to love the country, but they’re being lied to about how the country was founded, why it was founded, who founded it and what its purpose is.” And now, with immigration reform, Limbaugh fumed, the Republican Party wanted “the end of the country as we know it.” While Ingraham admitted in 2014 that she personally liked Boehner, she, too, declared that what he was doing on immigration was “a nightmare. It is political suicide both for the free market and ultimately for small-government conservatism.”
What enraged hosts and listeners the most was that, instead of going to war to defeat such dangerous ideas, establishment Republicans like Boehner were proposing them and trying to punish the few courageous conservatives who dared to fight back. That’s what happened to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) in 2015 when he voted against a procedural rule on a trade bill that would have given President Barack Obama authority to negotiate deals faster. Leadership’s attempt to punish Meadows enraged Levin, who called Boehner a “fool” and a “moron” and demanded: “We need a new Republican Party that’s principled, that’s conservative, that believes in America. Not this crap that goes on inside the Beltway.”
Listening to talk radio, it was clear that many of the people in right-wing audiences wanted this sort of fire from politicians, too. But they had concluded that most Republican politicians were too weak or too interested in currying favor in the clubby world of Washington to adequately battle Democrats. Later that summer, after analysts panned Trump’s performance in the first Republican debate, a Limbaugh caller named Chris epitomized this sentiment, explaining that pundits underestimated the anger of Republicans like him toward their party. These voters felt “almost betrayed.” To Chris, instead of two parties arrayed against each other, “like Republican versus Democrat,” it was “almost like two versions of one party, and the other side is the outsiders that aren’t part of it.”
This belief created fertile ground for Trump: His blunt calls to build a border wall, his willingness to sneer at norms dictating what he couldn’t say or do, and his instinct to punch back at critics thrilled conservatives who had been looking for a pugilistic politician who sounded like their favorite warriors on the airwaves.
And far from becoming more presidential after winning office, Trump has continued to shred norms, sticking to the sort of rhetoric more commonly found on talk radio than in the White House — especially on his Twitter feed. A New York Times analysis last month revealed that between Inauguration Day in 2017 and early this November, Trump had attacked someone or something in 5,889 tweets, while 1,710 tweets promoted conspiracy theories, also common on conservative airwaves. The impeachment inquiry has turned the president’s Twitter feed positively molten: He has labeled Schiff “sick” and suggested that the chairman be arrested for treason. He has dubbed Democrats a “disgrace” and questioned their sanity. Like the radio hosts, he has called the impeachment investigation “bulls—,” a “coup” intended to take away people’s “freedoms.” He has demanded that lawmakers such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) be impeached (which isn’t constitutionally possible) and even endorsed the theory that his removal might lead to a “Civil War like fracture.”
To Trump’s base, rather than being unpresidential or dangerous, this rhetoric proves he’s a fighter willing to tell inconvenient truths and take on their burden — just as hosts like Limbaugh, Levin and Ingraham have for decades. Listeners believe that their values — such as a belief in traditional nuclear families and gender roles, patriotism, religiosity and economic freedom from government intrusion — which they see as crucial to American greatness, are under attack. And Trump has the power, the megaphone and the willingness to battle back against a cruel and intolerant liberal establishment that increasingly dominates society, no matter the firestorm he creates. As long as he’s doing that, his base isn’t going to let him be destroyed by the forces seeking to cripple the country they love.
Fox News demanded a government shutdown — and got one
A lot of conservatives with big platforms were very, very angry at Trump this week.
If the government shuts down tonight over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5 billion for a border wall, feel free to blame conservative punditry.
This week Ann Coulter described Trump as a gutless “sociopath” who, without a border wall, “will just have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people.”
Radio host Rush Limbaugh said on his show Wednesday that without the $5 billion, any signing of a budget stop gap would show “Trump gets nothing and the Democrats get everything.”
Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy said that without wall funding, “the swamp wins,” adding that Trump will “look like a loser” without wall funding and stating, “This is worth shutting down” the government.
There’s no way around it: A lot of people on the right are very upset with Trump (and each other) right now. And they’re taking it out on the president — on his favorite television network, on talk radio, on podcasts, and online — and it’s worked to put the pressure on him. Trump has abruptly changed course to demand $5 billion for a border wall (a demand the Senate isn’t likely to give in to). And now the government is facing a “very long” shutdown.
In the words of Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), referring to Coulter and Limbaugh, “We have two talk-radio show hosts who basically influenced the president, and we’re in a shutdown mode. It’s just—that’s tyranny, isn’t it?”
.. Republican voters are still solidly behind Trump (his approval rating among Republicans polled by Gallup is at 86 percent). But unlike some portions of Trump’s base, the voices of the party who supported Trump because of what he could do as president rather than who he is as president are deeply displeased with him.
Some on the right are upset about the administration’s decision to pull out of Syria and, perhaps, Afghanistan — and are very worried by news of James Mattis’s resignation from his role as defense secretary.
Others are angry that more than two years into Republican control of all three branches of the federal government, Planned Parenthood still hasn’t been fully defunded. Then there’s that executive order banning bump stocks. And the continued existence of Obamacare.
.. But this week, many of the right’s biggest names were more or less united on one particular issue, with Fox News pundits and some of Trump’s most important surrogates and supporters leading the way: build a wall, or you’re done. As Fox News’s Laura Ingraham said on her show Wednesday night, “Not funding the wall is going to go down as one of the worst, worst things to have happened to this administration.”
.. They urged a government shutdown (and even the closing of the United States’ border with Mexico) in full knowledge that Trump was listening, even as Republican senators prepared to fly home for the holidays with no expectations they’d need to be present for a vote to keep the government open.
House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows said Wednesday that Trump’s “base will go crazy” if border wall money wasn’t provided in the stopgap government funding measure, and he was joined by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who tweetedabout wall funding with the hashtag #DoWhatWeSaid.
That same day, Ann Coulter published a syndicated piece titled “Gutless President in a Wall-Less Country,” in which she wrote that contrary to what some might believe, many of Trump’s supporters were well aware that he was a “gigantic douchebag.” She wrote, “If anything, Trump’s vulgar narcissism made his vow to build a wall more believable. Respectable politicians had made similar promises over the years — and they always betrayed the voters. Maybe it took a sociopath to ignore elite opinion and keep his word.”
But she added, “Unfortunately, that’s all he does: talk. He’s not interested in doing anything that would require the tiniest bit of effort.”
That piece may have gotten her unfollowed on Twitter by the president. Then she went on the Daily Caller’s podcast to say that the entire purpose of Trump’s presidency appears to be “making sure Ivanka and Jared can make money.” But by Wednesday evening, Trump was arguing that the wall would in fact be built, “one way or the other,” saying that perhaps the military could construct it.
On Thursday, Trump said during a signing ceremony for the farm bill that “any measure the funds the government must include border security,” but added, that the wall is “also called steel slats, so that I give them a little bit of an out — steel slats. … We don’t use the word ‘wall’ necessarily.”
That same day, Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show that Trump had contacted him and said, “if whatever happens in the House and Senate comes back to him with no allocation of $5 billion for the wall, then he’s going to veto it.” But that doesn’t seem to have soothed many of conservative media’s loudest voices, like Coulter, who tweeted a “border wall construction update” on Friday: “Miles completed yesterday–Zero; Miles completed since Inauguration–Zero. NEXT UPDATE TOMORROW.” (For the record, border wall replacement is already taking place, and new construction is slated for next year.)
That’s because contrary to popular opinion, many on the right who voted for Trump, particularly in conservative media, didn’t vote for a personality. As Coulter put it in her column, “The Washington Post loves to find the one crazy, trailer park lady who supports Trump because she’s had religious ecstasies about him, but most people who voted for him did so with a boatload of qualms.”
Rather, they had specific reasons for voting for Trump.
- Getting out of foreign wars, for example, or
- ending Obamacare, or
- curbing abortion. Or, most importantly for many,
- curtailing immigration and
- building a border wall.
And they aren’t seeing much progress. And they’re not happy about it.
I reached out to Coulter, and asked her if her support for Trump was contingent on a wall, or whether toughened border security would be enough. She responded via email: “WALL — or whatever Israel has,” with a link to a Jerusalem Post article about Israel’s border security mechanisms, adding “definitely NOT a B.S., completely meaningless promise of “border security.”
It’s Now Donald Trump’s America. But George Bush’s Stamp Endures.
Arguably, that moment proved a precursor to this one as conservatives angry at his apostasy, led by a onetime backbench congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich, rose to power within the Republican Party and toppled the old establishment. The harder-edged Gingrich revolution in some ways foreshadowed Mr. Trump’s extraordinary takeover of the party.
Mr. Meacham said the current world of cable talk and relentless partisanship took shape during Mr. Bush’s era. “He saw it all coming, and he didn’t like it,” he said.
Mark K. Updegrove, the author of “The Last Republicans,” about the two Bush presidencies, said, “In so many ways, Bush was the antithesis of the Republican leadership we see today.” He embodied, Mr. Updegrove added, “the
- civility and
of the best of the World War II generation. He played tough but fair, making friends on both sides of the aisle and rejecting the notion of politics as a zero-sum game.”
.. For all of the condolences and tributes pouring in to the Bush home in Houston from every corner of the world on Saturday, Mr. Trump’s very presidency stands as a rebuke to Mr. Bush. Never a proponent of “kinder and gentler” politics, Mr. Trump prefers a brawl, even with his own party. The “new world order” of free-trade, alliance-building internationalism that Mr. Bush championed has been replaced by Mr. Trump’s “America First” defiance of globalism.
.. Mr. Trump has demonstrated that he sees the go-along-to-get-along style that defined Mr. Bush’s presidency as inadequate to advance the nation in a hostile world. Gentility and dignity, hallmarks of Mr. Bush, are signs of weakness to Mr. Trump. In his view, Mr. Bush’s version of leadership left the United States exploited by allies and adversaries, whether on economics or security.
.. Mr. Bush was, in effect, president of the presidents’ club, the father of one other commander in chief and the father figure to another, Bill Clinton. Jimmy Carter always appreciated that Mr. Bush’s administration treated him better than Ronald Reagan’s or Mr. Clinton’s, while Barack Obama expressed admiration for the elder Mr. Bush when he ran for the White House.
.. Mr. Obama was among the last people to see Mr. Bush alive.
.. “What the hell was that, by the way, thousand points of light?” Mr. Trump asked scornfully at a campaign rally in Great Falls, Mont., in July. “What did that mean? Does anyone know? I know one thing: Make America great again, we understand. Putting America first, we understand. Thousand points of light, I never quite got that one.”
.. “It’s so easy to be presidential,” Mr. Trump said at a campaign rally in Wheeling, W.Va. “But instead of having 10,000 people outside trying to get into this packed arena, we’d have about 200 people standing right there. O.K.? It’s so easy to be presidential. All I have to do is ‘Thank you very much for being here, ladies and gentlemen. It’s great to see you off — you’re great Americans. Thousand points of light.’ Which nobody has really figured out.”
.. In 1988, when Mr. Bush was seeking the presidency, Mr. Trump offered himself as a running mate. Mr. Bush never took the idea seriously, deeming it “strange and unbelievable,”
.. “I don’t know much about him, but I know he’s a blowhard. And I’m not too excited about him being a leader.” Rather than being motivated by public service, Mr. Bush said, Mr. Trump seemed to be driven by “a certain ego.”
Fusionism was an idea championed most forcefully by Frank Meyer, the longtime literary editor of National Review. He argued that libertarianism — then often called “individualism” — and traditionalism are the twin pillars of conservatism and, more broadly, of a just and free society. The chief obligation of the state is to protect individual liberty, but the chief obligation of the individual is to live virtuously. Coerced virtue is tyrannical: Virtue not freely chosen is not virtuous.
.. But as both a philosophical and a prudential matter, we understand — just as Meyer did to some extent — that freedom is a concept with limits, that each principle must be circumscribed at the extremes by other important principles. A society where literally everything is permitted isn’t free except according to some quasi-Hobbesian or fully Rousseauian or Randian theory about the freedom inherent in a state of nature or an anarcho-capitalist utopia. Some forms of authority must be morally permissible, even to the lover of liberty.
.. Decisions made by others can profoundly affect the ease or difficulty of one’s pursuit of virtue or salvation. If I tell my daughter that her mother and I will not punish her if she uses drugs or ignores her responsibilities, I’m making it harder for her to live a decent, virtuous life. She will have the ultimate choice, but as an authority over her, I can make some choices easier or more difficult.
.. Here’s how I think about it: When presented with a political or philosophical challenge, the conservative, particularly the conservative of the Buckleyan variety, asks two important questions: Does the challenge threaten freedom? Does it hinder the practice of virtue? And he asks the same questions about the proposed response to the challenge.
.. Rothbardians, Randians, and other hyper-individualists are often inmates of their single idea, refusing to temper it with others. “An individualist,” Ayn Rand wrote, “is a man who says: ‘I’ll not run anyone’s life — nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone — nor sacrifice anyone to myself.’” When thoughts are presented in such stark light, all nuance is lost in shadow. It is fine and good to say one will be neither master nor slave, but what about brother or sister, father or son? What about neighbor, friend, or simply fellow citizen? Social solidarity, whether at the intimate level of the family or the broad level of the nation, requires a vastly complex ecosystem of obligations and dependencies that fall to the cutting-room floor when we apply the razor of hyper-individualism.
.. The American tradition, as Tocqueville most famously chronicled, is a stew of both extreme individualism and remarkable associationism. Visitors such as Tocqueville have an easier time seeing this than do native-born Americans themselves. When you grow up in a tradition, that tradition becomes, if not entirely invisible, then certainly recessed into your background assumptions about how the world works.
.. Meyer understood that the strongest metal is an alloy. Steel is stronger than iron because of its blended nature. The Western tradition from antiquity onward was a conversation between two imperatives,
- freedom and order,
- liberty and virtue.
Prior to the Enlightenment, these imperatives were less of a tension and more of a process. Virtue was the way in which one achieved liberty, rightly understood. This conversation, Meyer wrote, was a “dialectic between doctrines which emphasize opposite sides of the same truth.”
.. When intellectuals such as Bozell and Rothbard emphasize one side of the coin, each side appears as a negation of the other. But, in reality, “on neither side is there a purposeful, philosophically founded rejection of the ends the other side proclaims,” Meyer wrote. “Rather, each side emphasizes so strongly the aspect of the great tradition of the West which it sees as decisive that distortion sets in.
.. The place of its goals in the total tradition of the West is lost sight of, and the complementary interdependence of freedom and virtue, of the individual person and political order, is forgotten.”
.. In short, tradition is not a philosophy but the arena in which competing philosophies shape the civilization around them. Libertarians and conservatives, despite all of their disagreements, can find common ground because they share some assumptions that Marxists, Randians, and others do not.
.. The libertarian individualists of the 1960s were more virtue-oriented than they appreciated. The traditionalists of the period were more concerned with freedom than they often let on. And many of the arguments about fusionism amounted to the sorts of squabbles we associate with the faculty lounge; they were so vicious because the stakes were so low.
Meanwhile, the more relevant debate was between populists and elitists. I say “elitists,” not “elites,” because this debate was also fought almost entirely among elites as well.
.. Kendall was an unapologetic majoritarian who believed that the masses were the virtuous citizens of “We the People.” He described himself as an “Appalachians-to-the-Rockies patriot.”
.. Conservatism, and America generally, got through the McCarthy period all right, in large part because elite institutions continued to play their role in constraining and channeling popular uprisings — though, as the 1960s demonstrated, there were also considerable failures. On the right, the competing elite factions disagreed about the extent to which populism should drive conservative political projects, but it was always assumed — if not always stated — that elites in the form of statesmen, intellectuals, etc. would still play an important role in channeling popular passions toward productive ends.
.. That system has largely broken down. The Internet and cable television deserve generous portions of blame, as do our educational system and the media generally. America is not immune to the tendency toward populism when high levels of immigration meet low or nonexistent levels of assimilation. The market itself is part of the problem, too. Division and anger are easily monetized, while moderation and prudence struggle to find a customer base.
.. Talk radio, cable news channels, and various PACs and interest groups have replaced the parties as the main educators of voters and drivers of turnout, and they have done so by stoking partisan anger, often collecting a tidy profit in the process. Much of the conservative movement has become a de facto consultant class for the Republican party, and any effort to provide intellectual correction from a critical distance is deemed an act of betrayal or heresy. What was once a healthy tension has become a kind of co-dependence, and in some instances little more than a racket.
.. Simply put, we live in a populist moment when many of the gatekeepers have either abandoned their posts to join the mob or stand lonely vigil at gates that are no longer needed because the walls are crumbling.