The tawdry triumph of talk radio
IN THE last half-century, driving across America one could hear the screech of anger — first, as tinny rants amid the static of a fading AM signal, later as the frenzied yet insinuating voices of talk-show hosts who enriched themselves by peddling lies, slanders, paranoia, conspiracy theories, and unreasoning rage meant to create a hothouse of hysteria. But the frenzy has burst its bounds. The malign ethic of right-wing talk radio now pervades the White House.
The Visigoths of talk have breached the walls of civil society to implant an alternate reality, in which America’s enemies are everyone outside their tribe: Democrats, moderates, Muslims, minorities, immigrants, mainstream conservatives, the media, the courts, Congress, and, until now, the president. In this existential cage match, facts are inimical; ignorance invaluable; reason contemptible; alienation indispensable. For the war can be won only when millions of Americans believe in nothing but their own hatred.
The reckoning draws nearer. Several of our most prominent news organizations, President Trump informs us, are purveyors of “fake news” who, collectively, are “the enemy of the American people.” So a question: To what journalistic paragon did Trump say: “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down”?
The candidates are numerous. Laura Ingraham. Rush Limbaugh. Mark Levin. Michael Savage. Sean Hannity. All are Trump supporters; all have waxed prosperous in the distorted world of talk radio. But Trump’s praise was for a man whose venom and pathology is distinctive — Alex Jones.
If you are reading this, you are probably not among the millions enlightened by Jones’s rabid railings. So you may not know that the Sandy Hook school shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, the tragedy of Sept. 11, and the demolition of the federal building in Oklahoma City were “false flag” operations carried out by the federal government to increase its stranglehold on power.
Here lunacy competes with inhumanity — it is dubious that the parents of children slaughtered at Sandy Hook derive consolation from Jones’s insistence that their murders were faked. Surely, one thinks, not even Donald Trump would praise a man so morally and intellectually shriveled.
But in what way, truly, are they different? For, time and again, Trump has passed off Jones’s contagious bilge as truth. Instances include Trump’s insistence that a crowd of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11; that the mass media covers up terrorist acts; that there is massive voter fraud; that California never suffered a drought — as well has his implications that Hillary Clinton is addicted to drugs and Antonin Scalia may have been murdered. It is toxic that our president believes such nonsense — or hopes we will.
But Trump’s intellectual environment nurtures the fantastic and grotesque. Before decamping, former national security advisor Michael Flynn spread Jones’s assertion that Clinton was running a pedophilia ring through a chain of pizza parlors. And now Jones’s organization has applied for White House press credentials.
Little wonder. Talk radio is a stronghold for Trump, its alumni among his closest advisors. Mike Pence began as a radio host who derided global warming. Steve Bannon honed his ethno-nationalist philosophy on his own daily show. But perhaps the most fevered is Bannon’s 31-year-old ally Stephen Miller, whose power reflects his pathology.
Miller is the kind of intellectually insular oddity who has never left the petri dish of his own teenage mind. As a 16-year-old, he railed against the use of Spanish in high school announcements. But talk radio became his reality and his megaphone: Before graduation, he had appeared 70 times on a right-wing show to decry multiculturalism as un-American.
College left his obsessions untouched — as a staffer for Michele Bachmann, then Jeff Sessions, he opposed immigration reform with such fanaticism that colleagues used their spam filters to screen out Miller’s e-mails. Yet Trump made him a principal spokesperson and speechwriter. He arrived at the White House as the same callow monomaniac, bereft of any respect for government save as an instrument of his rage.
This is the nasty and mendacious zealot who helped Bannon draft the seven-country Muslim ban, and who snarled on television that Trump’s national security decisions “will not be questioned”; that courts had no power to suspend the president’s executive order; and that the country was awash in voter fraud.
Once such fringe “thinkers” were confined to studios. No more. Trump’s White House is a wellspring of disinformation — such as the accusation that President Obama wiretapped his successor — fed by narrow men to secure their ethnocentric ends. It is talk radio writ large — weaponized by Donald Trump.
Richard North Patterson is the author of 22 books. His latest is “Fever Swamp,’’ a narrative of the 2016 presidential campaign.