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 “gangsterism” after Lott complained 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 officials 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 impeachment “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 think 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.