First there were the Town Halls.
Then there was the Tea Party.
Then the rise of Donald Trump.
During the televised Town Halls of 2005-10, we saw people rise up in angry confrontations with their congressmen and senators. Their statements were tightly reasoned, tightly focused and internally coherent, but seemed to be based on a set of beliefs that bore no relation to any reality we knew. “Why are you betraying the sovereignty of the United States?” “What have you done to stop sharia law here?” “You should be in jail for treason.” Arrow-point eyes impaled the hapless senators.
Then, in the outdoor gatherings of the Tea Party we saw a broader spectrum of the same accusations, the same dreadfully limited understanding of how things actually work, the same readiness to believe in nonexistent but alarming ‘facts’, and in the conspiracies allegedly behind them. We saw dunce-level mis-joinings of cause and effect. All of this hid behind or opportunistically joined with a concern for the budget and the Constitution --- when it did not parade happily hand-in-hand with them.
Plainly these feelings and opinions were widespread before Donald Trump rode in to harvest them.
Where did they come from?
During the Town Halls, observers --- Jimmy Carter and Chris Matthews --- attributed the inexplicable behavior to ‘racism’. This is largely incorrect. There are other irrationals in this world besides racism.
When the Tea Party arrived, observers credited the Koch brothers’ money with creating a slew of ‘astroturf’ organizations and rousing the rabble. Again, incorrect. Money brought organization to the wild and tangled garden but did not create it.
In the 1990’s, people began to listen to talk radio the same way I listened to rock ‘n’ roll radio at the age of fourteen. Back then, I was getting the Word. It was remaking my soul. It was pulling me from one stance to another. I was hungry & I was ready. The chords, the direct emotion that was the same as mine, the tones of voice that bespoke adolescent longing and celebratory triumph --- it was pulling me from the trapped nowhere-to-go world of schoolboy hopelessness to one of orgiastic celebration. It was defining my condition and showing me the way. It seemed to me that there was a culture of musicians or singers or Negroes out there who Knew Something they were trying to tell me, sending their regards over the airwaves and waiting for me to pick up on it. I was hooked, I listened every day and night, I could not get enough of it. I began to play those magical chords on the piano --- I was one aroused little budgie, flapping his wings and beating against the thin bars of his cage. O blessed days! Dion, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Shirelles, the Drifters, Gene McDaniels. Little Richard! And the somewhat faded Elvis. The deceased Buddy Holly.
Rock ‘n’ roll radio was creating millions of adolescent fanatics, ready for something --- we didn’t know what. It was a lightning stroke, searing us and lifting us above the storm wind and flinging us God-knows-where.
In the 90’s, right-wing radio came to be the same beacon for millions of adults. People listened avidly. They were fanatics. They couldn’t get enough. It was a life-changer. They were True Believers. It pierced through the dull turgidity of their days and gave them not hope but explanations. Blocked or frozen masses of energy in the psyche, in the nervous system, in the musculature were suddenly un-blocked and released to flow from point to point in a great angry cascade, and the explanations did it. One woman I know listened religiously --- and I mean religiously. She had a framed photo of Rush Limbaugh on her desk. When asked about contrary accounts on the major news networks, she said, “They’re lying. They’re just lying.” A man I worked for in construction put up two enormous speakers at the job site and blasted us with Limbaugh/Hannity and our two local toads all day. He was doing his part for the cause. One caller asked a national host, “Golly, Mr Beck --- how do you turn it off?” He meant, how do you stop the linked string of firecracker revelations that kept popping in his brain all day, one leading to the next to the next to the next. Mr. Beck agreed that it was difficult.
People entered into an erotic relationship with talk radio. It put its tongue inside them and licked places
they didn’t even know existed. They had to have more. Only, these people had no firewalls. They didn’t know the difference between speaking in a manner that did you credit, even if it was harsh, and speaking in a manner that disgraced you because you gave yourself over to the Beast and mimed his crippled dance. I heard a depth of ignorance and hatred --- yes, real hatred --- that I had never known existed outside of a caricature of an old-time racist. And these people were not racists. Their hate transcended racial categories. Let me compare two women I knew, both now, sadly, deceased from cancer. One was a lifelong hard worker, the work-your-fingers-to-the-bone type. She had been married to a big-time preacher who beat her and had affairs with the women in his congregation. She had children. She helped him build a real-estate empire. They divorced. She started over. She became an avid talk radio listener. She developed an animosity for Bill and Hillary Clinton --- this was in the 1990’s --- because in talk radio she heard a level of irrational, unrestricted hatred that matched something inside her. She could not wait for her daily dose. And she was incapable of starting a conversation without throwing out some cutting comment on the Clintons --- and when she did, she glowed with an incandescent intensity. Talk radio had truly liberated something inside her --- something unholy. She glowed with that alien light and was begging you to join her. We shrugged and turned it aside. Best not to go there. She had a pit of darkness inside and could only light that one cold blaze to illuminate it.
Now let us compare her to the other unfortunately deceased lady. She too was a hard worker, super-competent, an office organizer. She had a dry sense of humor, knew how to have fun, and had an extensive erotic life. She knew men and men knew her. She hung out and played board games with her women friends. If she encountered political fanaticism she would shake her head, smile a little, and go around the topic. She was just too smart to fall into that trap, probably because she knew life a little better than the first woman, and knew what was good in life and what led nowhere. Loyal friends mourned her. She was still joking on her deathbed. It was a form of leadership.
The second woman had never martyred herself to an ideal that was no ideal at all, just a hand-me-down illusion, a waste. She had no resentment to displace, or was wise enough, if she had it, not to do it. The first was not.
Talk radio listeners never realize that in grinding out their extravaganzas of hatred they are revealing themselves as dwellers in a pit that the rest of us prefer to avoid. They pretend, for the sake of their pride, that they are just patriotic Americans who see things more clearly than the rest of us, whom they call ‘sheeple’, or ‘libtards’.
It was talk radio, with its daily dose of paranoia, that created and pulled together the Town Hall scaries and the rowdies with their guns. Come and tell your senator what you think of him! The local talk jocks were showing their strength, both to management and to their local rivals. Go where I direct you, my people!
There are many avenues to explore when we discuss talk radio, but the point I want to make in this section is that talk radio was a de facto nervous system, transforming its listeners every day, plugging into their brains like the Borg, offering illicit thrills and satisfactions, summoning up trapped energies among the susceptible, tilling the fallow fields, planting and harvesting, growing fatter and stronger and more outrageous as the talkmeisters competed for audience share and jostled for syndication deals. Some people were naturally resistant and some were not. It had nothing to do with income level or education. Service-industry employees and cab drivers I knew were disbelieving and appalled. “How can anybody listen to that stuff?” Chemical engineers and sales reps and church ladies grew more and more enraptured. You either had to have common decency running through your bloodstream, plus a balanced mental outlook, or not. These two things together immunized you. Without them, all of it sounded credible and you hungered for more. To the benighted, the thrill of finally ‘understanding’ something was precious; that string of firecrackers going off in your brain powered your head through a hell of a ride. Truth didn’t matter. What was ‘true’ was what produced the greatest cascade of snapping synapses, the greatest expansion of neuro-electrical torrent, whatever joined the batteries to the starter and made the engine turn over. Thus was an alternate world created.
What ‘explanation’ did talk radio offer? What revelation set loose such rambunctious energies? The “truth” was simply that a dark inky squid-ejecta called ‘liberalism’ had begun to circulate through the United States and had RUINED EVERYTHING. The good times would not return because LIBERALISM had infected us all --- politicians, educators, entertainers, news-writers, parents, their children, priests, judges, legislators, economists, EVERYTHING. Everything except talk-radio hosts. And their avid listeners. Every show was an exorcism. The rattling electro-chemical current of truth flooded the transfixed brain of the listener and CLEANSED IT. “You know, he’s right,” said the listener. The proof? The cascade of rage that shot up the spine and blew the brain apart --- that was proof enough. The listener could no longer distinguish truth from fiction and, truth be told, did not want to.
In the world of science, whoever publishes first gets the credit. While I was listening to talk radio, in amazement, worrying about the army of grotesques it was creating --- an enthusiastic, limping, flapping mob of incompetents --- and wondering how they were going to impinge upon or desecrate the future, mainstream observers dismissed it as unimportant. It was beneath their notice. It was like Jerry Springer --- bizarre, funny, but of no consequence. How could it be? It was too whacked-out. But bit by bit, axon to dendrite, its ‘hosts’ were re-routing nervous systems and creating a new monster on a slab. I listened to their techniques.
Their first technique mimicked the action of cocaine addiction. Through placing the elements of a story together and coaxing ten thousand minds to course through these linked elements, a shitload of rage was released. It was more than intoxicating. Rage shot up the spinal cord and burst in the brain like fireworks, like revelation. The listener had to have more. He/she tuned in every day to get a rage fix that became essential to life. The listeners became not cocaine addicts but rage addicts. The talkmeister who could provide the best rage fix became the host of choice, pulling listeners away from his competitors.
In the listeners’ scramble to find the best ‘stuff’, truth ceased to matter. Indeed, ‘true’ or ‘false’ was measured by the sensation it produced. If it sent the rush up your spine and exploded in your head like revelation, then it had to be true. It was the good stuff. If the mainstream, the ’lamestream’ media denied it was true, or qualified the story till it no longer produced the atomic brain burst, then they had denatured the story, purely to thwart you --- they were trying to deprive you of the best sensation in your life. Which were you gonna believe? Arousal or dullness? They knew.
Thus was an alternate world created, in which the truth of a proposition, allegation, or explanation was measured by the thrill it gave you. Thus was the modern Republican base called up from the slime, animated, and sent on its way.
I heard what was going on, analyzed their techniques, and worried about the future, but I kept it to myself.
The second technique relied upon their listeners’ lack of knowledge of history, of how things ‘got this way’, of why past decisions were made and what bad outcomes they were meant to avert. In the absence of this knowledge, or even of an ability to swing with a quiet wisdom the way a body bobs in a fight or swings in a dance --- in the listeners’ blockheaded two-left-feet approach to the mental life --- the talkmeisters were able to say anything at all about cause and effect and get away with it --- so long as it was sufficiently thrilling, that is, so long as it set off the bombs in the cranium and made the listeners go Oh-wow-I’m-glad-I-know-now. Thus, decisions made in good faith by men trying to keep the country from coming apart were represented as nefarious steps in a dark long-range plot. To do what? To Take Away Our Liberties, of course, and install a federal tyranny that would lead us down the road to . . . whatever. Only we, your talk-radio hosts, are guarding you against this! Aren’t you glad you have us?
Decisions made by men of good faith --- of better faith than the radio ragemeisters --- were cracked open and drained of high intent and replaced by imputed rottenness. The circumstances that necessitated these decisions were obscured, hidden, never mentioned. Only --- oddly enough --- it was only decisions that broke in what we’d call a ‘liberal’ direction that were subject to this treatment. Decisions that went the other way were never mentioned. Thus a tapestry of ‘liberal’ treachery was woven and hung before the listeners daily. Limbaugh and Beck were the prime practitioners of this art, Praeger occasionally. And their adoring listeners called in, kneeling, like ragged parishioners pouring out their gratitude before the saint’s statue.
Alone at my keyboard I typed astonishment at what I heard. “Listening to talk radio,” I wrote, “was like lifting the manhole cover to the pits of hell.” “The tonal quality of the voices alone, the brutish sniggering snarl & triumph, reminded me of the growl of a mentally ill dog before he goes for your ankle. It sounded like a lynch mob.”
I heard men of limited mental means finally given the chance to elevate themselves. It was a welfare program for the mentally lazy. Just throw your thoughts out there and be rewarded. It was an unearned grant of sanctity for the morally challenged. It was something they’d craved all their lives. “We can come out and party now!”
As I groped toward an understanding of what I was hearing I went to the typewriter again, a decade later. Things had not improved. Still, the sensation of being sucked under the surface into an eel-world. I was groping. I typed:
“One of our local talk-show hosts, hoping to ignite audience enthusiasm, and expand his listening audience to other cities --- he’s in negotiation --- has developed the ‘crazy dance’ to perfection. Pretending to be outraged --- pretending that moral outrage has driven him over the edge --- he gives himself over to a voodoo god and lets it ride him, a technique he picked up in Haiti one night in the dark of the moon. Citing an imaginary list of high crimes, treachery, covert treason, assaults on the sacredness of the United States, racial pandering, and communist teachings come to life, he builds for a good five minutes, calling for Obama’s impeachment and jailing, until, overcome by his own emotion, he slows to a halt, gasping like an old-time radio preacher. He stops just in time: he seems to be flying apart.
“His crazy dance is highly entertaining, and don’t think for a minute it doesn’t require careful mental preparation. If only he were physically talented --- perhaps he is, I don’t know --- a video of him flopping, flailing, rolling his eyes and dancing on the edge of lunacy would be the hit of Youtube. As it is, we must be content with the audio version.
“It is this simulation of outrage that gives his audience something they need --- something they tune in for --- whether it is entertainment or catharsis I cannot say.
“The trouble with our little man is, he’s trapped in a small pond, and he faces a dozen similar competitors in every city. Be content with your income stream, you-whom-I-will-not-name.
“The tone in which the radio hater speaks --- and in speaking gives his listeners something to identify with, or aspire to --- is one of overweening authority, lean-your-elbows-on-the-table-and-put-your-face-right-into-mine ego-monster authority, grown beyond sensible bounds. It’s the voice of a hollow handsome head with a bad attitude, although the radio guy is probably not handsome . . . it is just who he would like to be. That vocal ego is what substitutes for real authority, which comes from knowledge and experience. A bloated ego covers up the hollowness inside. Real knowledge does not need to speak that way: it may be firm, but it is always thoughtful and complex. It rests in its own security. The sad thing is, this swollen monster of ego-driven authority is who the listeners really want to be, because it gives them cover for their own lack of mental work and intellectual commitment and serious engagement. That’s way too hard. “Let me be the big-belly bully who throws his weight around. That’s who I want to be!”
Well you know something, I wrote that years before anyone ever dreamed up Donald Trump. But I was still feeling around the edges of the phenomenon.
The radio talk-show host --- the talkmeister, the ragemeister --- senses the lines of least resistance in his listeners; he knows the undefended entryways; the gaping wounds; the caves ripe for plunder; the weaknesses in which the souls of imperfect men abound. He has a nose for what is exploitable. He knows what makes you mumble into your drink when you’ve had too many; he knows the places where the weld doesn’t hold. It is not because he is superhuman in his knowledge. It is because it is his business to know these things. Not just to know them but to but to know how to slide his hand into a wet inviting crevice, and twist. His business is to know how to work you. He plans his show with this purpose in mind. His dream is to have a responsive flock under his direction. He flings his hand left, they break left; he flings it right, they break right. Sometimes, when he feels his power, he dreams of rounding up a lynch mob. Often enough we’ve heard this happen.
His audience may have only the vaguest of political feelings. Their knowledge of the world and its history may be dark, diffuse, cloudy. They know how to do their jobs and how to read others, to a certain extent. They are beset by financial worries and status worries. They want more money and feel keenly the limitations life imposes on their boundless dreams, on what they thought they were promised. They have learned that it is the liberals who have ruined life and turned it into this joyless mockery they inhabit today.
Talk radio was a meeting-place where listeners gathered daily to wait their turn to go on-air or see what new assault on decency might be perpetrated. They were like bad boys in the back of the classroom --- a low mumble, a snigger, then a look all around and a burst of transgressive overweening laughter --- you don’t know what it was about, but you know it warn’t nothin’ good. Several types of caller/listener interaction prevailed. The first was hilarity based on insult --- a shared lowdown whiskey-sippin’ brotherhood as each caller wove his contribution into the program’s pattern. “They wanta give your money away to these” --- fill in the blank --- unworthies --- how stupid these libruls must be --- the second was the sexual propensities of Hillary Clinton, whose affairs with male and female staffers were legendary. A retired SS agent pushing his book made the talkers’ rounds, describing the Clintons’ sacrilegious first Christmas in the White House. Cocaine angel-favors were hanging on the Christmas tree, while an unnamed figure --- plainly George Stephanopolous --- was said to have been fucked on the Oval Office desk by another male staffer. The third was the Clinton’s murder empire. Vince Foster, of course --- he knew too much --- and then Ron Brown, whose plane went down. It was Ron Brown’s death that showed the ‘conservative’ listeners up for the vicious pretenders to morality they were, because it was a day of national hilarity on talk radio. “Hillary done got her another one.” I heard it over and over. They were delirious with indecency. A death: their dream come true. Speaking of deaths, I remember the day after Princess Diana died. “What’s everybody acting so sad for,” a caller wanted to know. “She was into charity to Africa, AIDS relief --- she was a lib’rul. That’s one less lib’rul in the world.” Succeeding callers agreed. Not a one spoke up for decency. One less lib’rul --- a really good thing.
Another line of talk exposition was the weaving of improbable theories. Not just improbable --- whacked-out crazy. Was this a circus of low-IQ comedy? Were they just putting me on? Was this Larry the Cable Guy? No—they really believed this stuff. National talk-show hosts who had reputations to lose never lost them no matter how much mis-info and bad-info and invented info they promoted. Michael Reagan, for instance, first-wife son of the ex-President, had a guest on his show with some inside info. The DNC was going to ask Bill Clinton to resign --- this was in 1994 --- because he had AIDS. It was coming any day. You heard it here first. And the blue helmets, of course, were coming every day. The helicopters would drop them in every town square and the days of American sovereignty would be over. “I’m really scared of what this man” --- Clinton --- “is going to do.” The host backed her up, recognizing her as a loyal listener. But no matter how many times the dire predictions failed to materialize, no matter how many times the plots and conspiracies failed to pull off their aims --- or even take a first step --- the talk-show hosts never lost credibility. Their listeners’ credulity was unbounded. They thrived on these things, and when one faded away the next was ready to take its place. I remember Wayne LaPierre of the NRA on Hannity radio, just before the 2012 elections --- he had it on unimpeachable inside authority that if Obama were elected, he would immediately call in the UN to take all our guns. He had the straight dope from inside. Inside somewhere. Probably the FBI. Or inside his own head. Does Hannity or LaPierre ever pay a price in credibility for this garbage? A real newscaster would be busted, fired, disgraced, never work again. Do right-wingers ever pay a price? No. Because we expect this of them. They give their audiences what they want, namely, the sensation of alarm which galvanizes the nervous system and paints the universe in clear black and white, and gives them a corner to huddle in, hunker down in. “I’m really scared of what this man is going to do.”
The conspiracy theories promulgated on talk radio were the familiar standards of right-wing Republicanism. God created free-market capitalism and took His people to America so that they might work hard, embody His ways and spread them over the earth. Liberals were the insidious doubters, the spawn of Satan. They were the dark force. They would ruin America if they could. Liberals wanted to steal the fruits of hard work and give them to the lazy and the inept --- to bleed us with taxes and welfare. Once this simple line was established --- USA holy, money = God’s grace, liberals Satan --- anything was believable. One day Limbaugh’s satellite link went down for a half an hour. Excited viewers called the network. “Rush,” they exclaimed, “the liberals have managed to get you off the air!” Deprived of the Truth for a few minutes, they were like chickens with their heads cut off. Soon returning, Limbaugh reassured them.
The kind of person so devoted to the Truth that he immediately knows the Forces of Evil have sabotaged his beacon --- probably fired a missile at the satellite, or jammed it with microwaves --- is a person who has little sense of the world outside his overheated bathtub of belief. Indeed, the real world, and the actual forces that operate in it, that impinge on one another or deflect one another or dovetail with one another --- a realistic knowledge of this world is beyond him. Everything becomes vague outside his bathtub. It was always astonishing how the listeners could call up with their outlandish explanations of How Things Worked, of the dark Satanic machinations of liberals and their plans for the future, that bespoke in their impossibility the callers’ utter ignorance of reality. And Limbaugh always confirmed them. “Well, I don’t know that you may be right.” This was code for: you’re a lunatic, but you’re MY listener.
So now, astonished commentators tell us we’re divided as never before. They say we don’t listen to each other. They say, we must learn to talk to one another. But they don’t know a damn thing. I have been listening to the Other Side for twenty-five years. I have been turning it over in my mind. I have been thinking not only of what I do hear, but of what I don’t hear. One is just as important as the other.
Habits of mind that develop among decent, reasonable people are not to be found among talk-radio listeners. Habits of mind spring from what we become as we leap or struggle into existence, up out of the darkness and into the light. Embryo becomes baby becomes child. No one develops in isolation. The baby needs human flesh-to-flesh contact; needs benevolence in the atmosphere; needs spiritual recognition and mental response; and what it asks for and begs for but does not get shrinks down to a nub of a few anguished neurons. A leathery, unfeeling surface replaces responsive flesh; numbness wins, because numbness replaces the pain of need cried out for but unmet. Eventually, unloved in some essential way, the child becomes the little hardass who knows that the hands of mercy do not really exist because they never reached down to caress him and receive him. He resents the idea that merciful watchfulness might exist somewhere, and that other people might receive its ministrations while he did not. This is to him an intolerable unfairness. You never came for me! So the very fact that ‘bleeding-heart liberals’ exist is an abominable violation of the order of nature. You love all the wrong people, he says to ‘liberals’, you love all the unworthies. What about me? What about me? Simultaneously, he devises an ideology in which loving-kindness does not really exist. It is only a con game, played by ‘libruls’ to win the votes of chumps. In his bleak world, there are only players and chumps. Inside him is a burning rage, an uncontrollable hatred, for those who never answered his infantile plea --- actually these were his own parents, or those in whose charge he was put, in some neglectful way --- children of emotional neglect have the choice of closing off, hardening over, or becoming lifelong seekers, believers, chumps --- or ‘co-dependents’. Will you be weak or strong? That’s the only question. He zipped it up. His pride is that he is an individual; his contempt is for the needy.
At the heart of the right-winger is an actual hatred of God. I laid myself out, he says, bet everything on the proposition that you existed and loved me --- I was four months old, six months old, ten months old, five years old, and you did not love me and the pain was unbearable and I had to die and become this leathery thing, this grotesque troglodyte, and I hate you for it. You are a con game for suckers. For tree-huggers. For bleeding-heart liberals. For washers of the feet of beggars. For refugees --- send them back to the hell they came from! You’re only in it for yourselves! You just want their votes.
What alarmed me about talk radio? It was first of all the sound of the voices: the low sniggering tone associated with fence-sitters watching a horse-mating; with gas-station loafers; with louts, bullies, and, occasionally, the sound of a man out of control, torn apart by the sheer hatred erupting from Down Below (“I hear your passion, brother”). All these were preened, caressed, polished as with a chamois cloth, by the interlocutor, who sedulously gave each fugitive from decency, each refugee from sanity, his place in the sun, gave him room to exercise his crippled mind and parade it before an audience of his similarly crippled peers. There was no higher vision, just a thirst to defile. This was the raw material that was taught to call itself and think of itself as ‘conservative’.
Those whom one would think were guardians of an older and more humane style of ’conservatism’ did not step up to the plate and whack this foul wandering stinkball out of the park; they said nothing; they kept quiet even when it had grown --- we are shifting metaphors now --- beyond all bounds; and by allowing this ugly stink-weed to grow in their garden and take over the name they’d branded, they betrayed the word ‘conservative’ and emptied it of all moral content. I’d been fooled by the public image George Will, for instance, had cultivated. You pretend to represent something, George, why don’t you represent it? The answer: because you’re just pretending. You adorn your columns with quotes from eighteenth-century notables; you are said to have a man who digs them up for you; you use them to cultivate the image of a well-read man, a guardian of standards. I actually believed your public image. Let me tell you something: you don’t deserve to use the name Edmund Burke ever again. I listened to talk-radio hosts calling themselves ‘conservative’ wallow in vulgarity every day, create a parallel universe of seething hatred, call out from their broadcasting towers to convene an audience of moral reprobates, and you said nothing about it even though you had years to do so, because you thought it benefitted the causes you backed; but that makes me wonder, just what causes did you back that would justify this silence. And the answer was: the personal destruction of Bill Clinton, by fair means or foul, chiefly foul, and the defunding of the EPA. No shame, George. Your ends justify their means. No shame in your game.
I actually tried to write you a letter about this at the time, but I lacked the organizational ability to shape it and the belief in myself to finish it.
However, I had my plans. I knew that a hell-of-a-documentary could be pieced together from radio pieces quoted, tied together, and analyzed. One show, in particular, a local guy, a former state legislator --- he had a shell of moral pretense that hid the stunted soul of a Lester Maddox. Naïve youngster that I was, I called the station and asked if I could copy the tapes of his show. The lady explained to me that they made no tapes. It all drifted off into the ether. I felt my soul tear in half. I had just been separated from my destiny.
At the time, an electro-mechanical contraption was being offered for sale on talk radio, a tape recorder that could be keyed to individual stations, timed, automated. All you had to do was change the tapes. This was being sold to talk radio fanatics --- away from their radios, they missed their guru, their inspiration, the man who made their little dickies stand up straight, the man who reduced them to an algal mat of heavy-breathing Clinton haters. I sent for the machine. It arrived. I was Wiley Coyote with his latest toy. Only, like Wiley, I could never figure out how to make it work right.
After the 1994 congress was elected --- the ‘talk radio congress’ --- and its new members gave credit to Rush Limbaugh as their godfather, their campaign-manager-in-chief, I knew my anticipations were right. I wrote a letter to the Dean of the School of Communications at our local university. I said that the impact talk radio was having on our culture and politics was enormous. I said that a record should be made of this phenomenon, and preserved, so that future scholars could see the progress of the change in its entirety. He wrote back and agreed, and, if I remember correctly, asked what I’d suggest be done toward this end. And at this point I froze. I felt that I had to round up funding before I made Napoleonic suggestions about what to do and how to do it --- because space, equipment, and storage would be called for. I had no standing. I couldn’t just turn myself into my own general without an army. I felt it was incumbent upon me to round up funding before I issued any more suggestions. So I stalled. I didn’t have what it took. I was too small. I didn’t know any potential funders. The project went undone --- a valuable cultural history went unrecorded.
So I had to express myself through poetry. Try this one.
Their mouths race like tyros: recklessly, unprofessionally, they whip around the edge of the course. Liberals are traitors. Liberalism equals socialism equals communism. Clinton this. Clinton that. Growl, growl. Your crowd. Your crowd just wants to weaken America. Tax cuts, tax cuts.
around a dark sun:
an unexperienced vision is singing,
A black hole, unseen is calling.
Let go. Spiral in toward Me.
One can tell it is there
& calculate its gravitational mass
by the callers’ savage disregard as they brush past thought,
analysis, opportunities for learning.
As each sits in his house, listening
a vision is banging on his door
clamoring for entry.
It is a vision of something sorely missed
in this country for the last seventy years.
How can they open the door? Let it in?
It is the vision of a lynching.
It is the vision, simply, of the hated Other
with smashed lips and broken teeth, strung up, taunted,
pants jerked down, flick of the knife, the severed part elevated in triumph,
then the fire lit beneath . . . they long for this
with a visceral hunger.
We have had nothing like it for seventy years. We want it back! We want it back!
Is this not the vision that warms and pleases your secret dreams?
We are not talking ‘race’ here; those days are long gone.
But the need to expel the black gob of poison,
to project all manner of evil intent and treachery on the Other
and then form a mob
so that one is personally safe in laying hands on the Other
--- that’s still here.
Cain’s resentment of Abel is still here. Through the radio
every Cain finds his fellows.
Go from door to door. You got any lib’rals in there?
That is why the point of all discourse
which today calls itself ‘conservative’
is to vilify, not to understand.
They seek the thunderous expulsion of a long-pent-up wretchedness
which can know its freedom only as it flies in a wet gob
toward the face of another.
The point of their ranting monologues
is to create a cartoon bayonetting-dummy with Jap eyes and buck teeth,
then find some way to get to a real person. Clinton, Clinton.
Because, you see, reality is spiritual. It’s not rational.
Lib’rals want to be rational. The joke is on them. The Devil wants them for
lynching fodder, but they don’t believe in the Devil.
Several years later the ’conservatives’ --- badly misnamed --- were given the chance to bust out of their talk–radio pens and trample everything in their path in a mania to get at Bill Clinton and do physical damage. Clandestine semi-sexual encounters with Monica Lewinski were held to be impeachable offenses. All Europe and Latin America asked: has America gone crazy? On talk radio, it was Oh joy, joy! Now the rest of you will hate him as much as we do! I listened in wonder and alarm. The image that came to my mind, insistently, was the gangplank lowered and the animals filing off the ark. Clopping down the wooden slant-board, the beasts were self-transformed. It was hilarious to hear how the most vulgar and godless of lowbrow wife-beaters suddenly waved the wand above themselves and became the sober, sanctimonious guardians of morality, the very embodiments of probity and respectability. They knew they had to assume this form to play social counterpoint and persecute Clinton properly. The object was not, How can we protect the nation from this notorious criminal horndog but, How can we ruin him --- what must we do and say and pretend to be so that we can ruin him? So that you-all will hate him as much as we do? Oh joy, oh joy, our day has come! They were dancing in the streets.
Well, that’s another story. I wish to dissect exactly how talk radio did what it did. When I say that it degraded the minds of its listeners, I mean to give clear definitions and diagrams, not just to express my disapproval. Yet I must approach the subject through similes, because I want the reader to understand the source of my holy wrath & execration, like unto finding the black candles guttering and the infant sacrificed on the church’s altar.
When Women’s Liberation was riding high in the late 60’s/early 70’s, a group of speakers, re-defining reality for the movement, went around the country claiming that men’s fundamental desire, hiding behind or entwined with sex, was to see women beaten, cut, and bleeding. This was the foundation of male desire and attraction. This was its root, its essence. As proof, they flourished a set of magazines no one had ever seen before, some horrible porn-shop specialty, featuring exactly that. The ‘objectivisation of women’ revealed.
To millions of young guys like myself, this was news. Not just news, but slander that seemed to have malice at its core. They wanted to seal me in a box I did not belong in --- me and twenty million other guys, because somewhere in New York, in some ratty porn-shop basement, they had found these magazines that revealed The Truth and their heads exploded. It was the truth, rather, that fit their pre-determined agenda. I’m sure there were lots of magazines with guys in dog collars being trained by their cruel dominatrices but those, uh, don’t count.
But these women were on the radio. They were giving speeches. They were writing books. They had taken over the discourse of the day. They were scooping out my core and planting something false where it had been. They had normalized their sickness and spread it over the scene --- the scene of 60’s kids, people who wanted a better world. They were printing false maps. If you are in face-to-face contact with someone who is insulting you, you may explode, and then this explosion confirms, for them, the truth of what they were saying. ‘Truth hurts’, right? In actuality, there is an outrage that swells up from the very bottom of your soul at a lie so foul it is unendurable.
Then we have the black people who misrepresent your motives, your personal history, everything. They enjoy this, because they live in a state of covert malice, and any way they can represent you as the White Devil is fun for them. They know they are remaking reality and in so doing acquiring power for themselves, because a certain number of black people will believe them and elevate them to guru-hood. Oh, I’m so glad you told me what beasts and monsters white people are, I didn’t know. They had me fooled. ‘Cave beasts’? You got that right.
Once again, your gorge rises at hearing yourself slandered by a clever devil who’s got his game in order.
Talk radio is the same as both of these. It took every public action, every deed of the day, done by the presidents or congress or labor leaders or advocacy groups, done by normal people out of human-heartedness or kindness or concern, done by people who worried at the imbalances of the day --- talk radio took every deed done after long thought had worked the situation over, and the most-involved people had worked out a solution, had worked it out for practical problem-solving reasons and they scooped the center out and replaced it with poisonous intent. It was actually being done for bad reasons, with a bad outcome in mind. I felt my anger rise, just like it had when I heard myself as a male being slandered by women or a person of good will being slandered by blacks. Somebody had an interest in smearing mud over me and replacing me with something that was not myself.
There seemed to be a credulous audience of tens of millions out there in radio-land who had a vague, hazy picture of the world, a crippled understanding of how things actually worked, and a hungry --- delirious --- appetite for slander; and by playing to these people, by driving the wedge into the crack, exploiting their low-info world, teaching them to prefer the explanation that activated the ‘alarm’ circuits in their nervous system, teaching them to choose the hurricane of grandiose paranoia that sweeps your head away, to prefer this to the slow enumeration of fact, by teaching them to summon the surge of lava from below that incinerates homes and trees, to choose, that is, the acid eruption from the gut over the slow hard work of understanding, by tapping a pool of anger and resentment that had been filled by their past lives --- by their inadequate families or neglectful parents or covertly abusive parents or self-centered psychopathic parents, by tapping the rage at having full personhood denied them and their resentment of those not so limited --- by, in fact, learning to blame those not so limited --- to transfer rage from their shitty familial environment to those not so unfortunate --- by traducing the mind and tapping into the pool of rage which surges up and sweeps the mind away, the talk kings, day by day, bit by bit, neuron by neuron, tidbit by poisoned tidbit, degraded the souls of those who listened to them and who ate these tidbits hungrily.
The leftist would warn me against looking down on the working people of America. He would say it is their economic circumstances that render them prey to the demagogue. He is absolutely wrong. There are ‘working people’ who are sucked into this alt-world and ‘working people’ who are not. There are petit-bourgeois people who are pulled in by the radio Satan and those who are not. It depends on personal susceptibility. It depends on infant and family life. It depends on whether you hear the warning bells ring or whether you don’t. It depends on character.
By replacing the actual aims and intentions of ‘liberals’, of anti-war warriors, of poverty activists, and so on, with an imaginary set of motives --- all of which were inimical to Holy America, the true object of veneration --- they carried their listeners further away from reality , and their listeners liked it. Talk radio was a church bell ringing in the valley, rebounding off the mountains, and the lonely monsters who heard it in their caves came out, found each other and partied.
So over two-and-a-half decades AM talk radio, reaching millions and teaching millions, has created an alt-reality for a huge segment of the American electorate that rejects facts and prefers fantasy. Why? Because fantasy panders. Just as the right-winger disdains the welfare-collector who will not work --- an almost nonexistent figure, but a sprawling giant in fantasy-land --- I disdain the radio listener who shuns mental work but prefers to have congenial fantasy dumped into his brain. Fantasy meets your inner needs; talk radio is a shared fantasy built up between host and listeners. The ‘id’ guides its creation. It’s whatever you want it to be. I have listened to the radio voice as, pursuing a line of thought, the caller discovers himself at the gates to a dark kingdom; the voice is suddenly energized, it throbs with a voltage higher than the wire can carry as a load of rage is released from below and together the host and listener enter a new world. The gates open. It is self-creation, a dark birth assisted by an experienced trip guide. The enemy is seen at last, and the caller aches to swing at the enemy; wants more than a swing, wants to smash and obliterate him. His self-identification, his birth as a new self into the dark but awesome kingdom, depends entirely on his picturing and drawing out and identifying the enemy. Me, the two-fisted hero; the enemy, all that is clever and evil and has drained and ruined and limited my life UNTIL NOW, before I knew what it was doing with me. But I know now; my eyes are open.
So when we wonder how Trump can spin his foolish falsehoods out of a roiling inner world, and why his followers never penalize him for this, it is because a portion of the American electorate has been trained, over twenty-five years, to think this way: to accept as communally agreed-upon fact whatever fantasy kisses their ass, whatever non-fact confirms their embattled sanctity by painting the Other as a hideous dragon. Some people need this; and some don’t.
HILLARY AND THE MILLENIALS
Talking to a 30-something girl --- pardon me, woman --- the other day. She said 1/ she didn’t vote for Hillary, she voted Green, and 2/Hillary is bad & corrupt, she discovered it by her research on the internet; 3/she mentioned Benghazi.
When somebody mentions Benghazi, that’s when the doors swing open in the forehead and the cuckoo pops out. No further conversation is necessary. In most cases, an obsessive, fixed notion has taken hold at a level way below the cerebral, and is impervious to discussion. An alien spiritual darkness has settled in, arranged the neural pathways about it, and is heavily defended --- has, in fact, become part of the personal identity. Truth and facts are irrelevant --- mere droplets of water on a duck’s back.
I saw this millennial dude on Youtube a few weeks ago. He was whipping up on Hillary. He spoke of her liking for regime change --- a valid point --- but then he went medieval. The true hate was popping out of his eyes. It was governing him, ruling him. He was carried away.
Why does this happen?
I believe it’s a millennial reaction against the boomers. They’ve lived under the moral cloud of the boomers all their lives. We’re the ones that faced the guns, that stopped the war, that threw Nixon out, that supported Black empowerment, that marched and got tear-gassed, arrested and jailed, left our places in the assembly line --- “Rise up and abandon the creeping meatball” --- dumped materialism, smoked dope, got dragged before the withered judges of Babylon AND DEFIED THEM. What have you done, you little wimps?
Demonizing Hillary is their way to jerk back some moral capital. Stop raining on our parade, they say. Plus, they don’t know how the boomers started out and where we had to go. They haven’t seen enough of life. Big blanks in their history. I remember Hillary making her valedictory address at Wellesley in ’69. She was in Time or Newsweek. I said, that girl’s got it going on. She’s pointed in the right direction. She’s gonna help us get to where we’ve gotta go. A person who could articulate our sentiments so precisely was speaking from the real heart & soul of our generational zeitgeist. She nailed it, and I looked forward to more help from her through the years.
So I’m like Merle Haggard. When you’re running down our baby, hoss, you’re walking on the fighting side of me.
Last night I read the whole text of her speech; the two hot lines was what the magazine quoted. On the whole is was so moderate it was unremarkable. It wasn’t Patrick Henry; it wasn’t Bryan’s Cross of Gold. She was being responsible. But on the whole it was the Ivy League class of ’69 serving notice on its progenitors: we’re here, and things are going to be be different.