GREENVILLE, S.C. — Bob McLain introduces himself on air as “president of Insensitivity University for non-politically-correct studies,” a talk radio host in the reddest enclave of one of the reddest states in America.
For four hours every weekday afternoon, from his studio tucked behind a strip mall outside downtown Greenville, McLain rules a universe in which Bernie Sanders is known as “Bolshevik Bernie” and Jeb Bush becomes “Juan W. Bush.”
It’s an equal-opportunity firing squad against illegal immigration, Muslim refugees, and the establishment GOP. The border between fact and fiction is routinely blurred, if not completely obliterated.
“There’s nuts and then there’s really nuts,” McLain, known to listeners as “Bobby Mac,” told a reporter off air this week after cutting off a caller spinning 9/11 conspiracies. The 69-year-old former sportscaster and weatherman says he does not traffic in gossip and innuendo, but admits that “unfortunately we don’t have a lot of time to do a deep dive and correct it.”
In a state notorious for dirty politics, the airwaves are one tool in a bag of dirty tricks. Campaigns regularly plant callers coached with talking points — callers whom the show hosts refer to as “seminar callers,” the radio equivalent of Internet spammers.
Listeners declare Ted Cruz ineligible to run for president because he was born in Canada. Some pin the 9/11 terrorist attacks on a George W. Bush administration plot. Others gleefully inflate a long-dismissed Marco Rubio misdemeanor arrest into a rumor about him soliciting a gay prostitute as a teenager in Miami.
The stakes in Saturday’s Republican primary are particularly high here in the conservative “upstate” region around Greenville, an area close to the mountains, where more than a third of GOP primary ballots were cast in 2012.
The region is where, in 2000, a smear campaign originated that falsely claimed John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child, that his wife was a drug addict, and that he was mentally unstable. (Senator McCain, after winning the New Hampshire primary, lost South Carolina to George W. Bush.)
“It’s a back-alley knife fight,” McLain said, in an interview in his studio. “Certainly the consultants recognize the importance of carrying this part of South Carolina. That’s why we have a reputation for playing fast and loose with the facts.”
Days before the primary, a Globe reporter sat in during McLain’s show. A computer screen displayed callers’ first names, locations, and topics, after being vetted by the producer, who McLain calls “Moneypenny,’’ a reference to the secretary in James Bond films. They dialed in from work, while stuck in traffic, even while pumping gas. First-time callers get introduced with a cowbell.
The most frequent subject? Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, Trump — a reality TV star as well as a casino and real estate mogul — makes great radio fodder here in the Appalachian foothills.
Poor Donald, some lamented. The Republican National Committee stacked the decks against him at the debate here Saturday night, filling the audience with Bush supporters, the callers claimed.
“The RNC looks at Donald Trump the way Dracula looks at a cross,” said Rob from the town of Moore.
Others have claimed that Trump, the front-runner, is not even officially on the Republican ballot in South Carolina. They dismissed “potty mouth traitor Trump” as a Democrat, pointing to his criticisms of George W. Bush’s entree into the Iraq war as “leftist talking points.”
McLain delights in stoking the fire, between sips of diet wild cherry Pepsi. He floated the possibility that Trump is purposefully using loaded language about the Iraq war to appeal to Democrats because the state’s open primary system allows voters to cast a ballot in either primary.
Wes from Greer validated his theory, citing a friend who works for the Trump campaign: “Believe you me, it is well thought out and absolutely part of the plan.”
Trump’s aides did not respond to a Globe request for comment on their radio strategy.
Some South Carolina observers believe things have gone too far already in this election.
Tony Beam, a pastor and host of a morning Christian talk show on another station in Greenville who has endorsed Cruz, has grown so discouraged by his evangelical listeners jumping on the Trump bandwagon that he is considering going off air after 12 years.
“I get frustrated by the nature and tone of what I’m doing,” Beam said about giving voters a platform to spew what he considers Trump vitriol against women and Muslims. “Talk radio can become so attack-oriented, there’s a point where I don’t think it contributes to the general welfare.”
McLain has no such qualms. Trump took part in the show — live in the studio — for 20 minutes this week, after a volatile news conference on the other side of the state in which he unleashed criticisms against the Bush family and threatened to sue Cruz for running “false ads” against him.
“Welcome to the Palmetto State, home of adversarial back-stabbing political advisers with a bag full of dirty tricks,” McLain said, opening his segment with Trump on Monday.
A listener texted the station accusing McLain of having a “bromance with Trump” and “foisting this classless clown on this country” because of the “admiration he displays to Trump’s conniving ways.”
McLain told listeners all the candidates except Bush have appeared on his show this cycle. Cruz called in for half an hour the day after the New Hampshire primaries.
“Look, there’s a reason why every talk show host in America is talking about Donald Trump,” McLain said. “He’s the leading candidate and he’s sucked all the air out of the room for everybody else.”
McLain has not endorsed a candidate, saying he remains undecided among Trump, Cruz, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. He’s ruled out John Kasich “because if I wanted a Democrat, I’d vote for a Democrat.”
Bush is out “because I don’t believe that illegal immigration is an act of love.” Same with Rubio “because he’s an open borders guy,” adding that the country has enough fast-food workers, gardeners, and construction workers.
“Progressives call me a xenophobe. Think of a phobia and I’m a carrier,” McLain said.
He eggs on his listeners who are as quick to float conspiracy theories about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination as they are to flood his phone lines with claims of the government trying to forcibly diversify their neighborhoods through immigration and refugee resettlement policies.
Mariana, a “legacy caller” now living in Nashville, ranted against Rubio’s immigration bill, saying one could “live on the lam for 10 years, committing all sorts of deceit and fraud, having as many children as you can” and then become an American citizen after paying a $2,000 fine.
That claim prompted McLain to announce, in his booming used-car salesman voice, that Rubio wants to “sell American citizenship for only $2,000. Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
(The bill, which Rubio has since backed away from, would have required illegal immigrants to pay the fine, wait at least 10 years, and pass a background check before having the opportunity to become a permanent resident, a step that precedes citizenship.)
All the while, McLain’s producer, Moneypenny, whose real name is Angela Fleming, sat across from him in the studio, watching for his cue on when to cut off callers. Fleming, 43, is a lesbian who was scheduled to marry her girlfriend of five years on Thursday — a fact that, if they knew, would drive many of the station’s listeners to distraction.
“They have no idea who Moneypenny is,” said Fleming, who has yet to make up her mind about whom to vote for — or which primary to vote in, for that matter. “I want the Democrats out of my wallet and the Republicans out of my bedroom.”
“It’s not Bob who ticks me off most of the time,” she said. “It’s the callers.”