How Conservative Talk Radio Paved The Road For Donald Trump

Download Audio
"Talk Radio's America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States" by Brian Rosenwald (Allison Hagan/Here & Now)
"Talk Radio's America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States" by Brian Rosenwald (Allison Hagan/Here & Now)

On August 1, 1988, a radio DJ from a small town in Missouri hit the national airwaves.

Rush Limbaugh had already been fired several times by the time he was discovered by Ed McLaughlin, former president of ABC Radio. But the moment his political, call-in radio show hit cars and homes across the U.S., it was clear he was like nothing else on the radio, according to Brian Rosenwald, author of "Talk Radio's America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States."

"He's doing parodies, he's doing theme songs," Rosenwald says. "And the reaction is instantaneous in markets."

Limbaugh's success fundamentally altered the gatekeeping role of the national media, and his large profit margins were evident when Fox News launched in 1996.

Rosenwald says conservative talk radio would eventually help push the GOP to the right, grind bipartisanship to a halt and create an atmosphere of anger and frustration that would help elect President Trump in 2016.

Interview Highlights

On how The Rush Limbaugh Show took off

"In a word, his show is about entertainment. This is a guy who had been a DJ, gotten fired four times in the ‘70s but he took the high jinks from those DJs at times and infused it into a topical talk show where he was sort of applying it to the values that he had gotten at the dinner table from his father growing up. And he starts in Sacramento in '84. He ends up getting discovered by Ed McLaughlin, who used to be the president of ABC Radio, goes national August 1st of 1988.

"No one had ever heard anything like it before … It's something totally different from the staid world of talk radio at that point where a lot of the hosts actually leaned left. But you didn't hear their perspective.”

On how much Trump’s election is a product of talk radio

"I think a lot. In 1988, Donald Trump sort of floats himself as a vice-presidential possibility and President Bush is incredulous. Who is this guy? What credentials does he have? And that's the beginning of the arc of my book. And at the end of the arc is President Donald Trump … He's tapping into the anger on the right that has been built up in part because of what hosts sense in their audiences and what they're stoking as well. There's this sense that Republicans just won't fight. The Democrats will go to war over anything and they're always fighting and they're always winning because Republicans just roll over like a bunch of weak nothings. And Donald Trump comes along and the one thing he won't ever do is he won't roll over. He sounds much more like people's favorite hosts than he does like Republican politicians. It's eerie to me how much people talking about Donald Trump at his rallies and stuff sounded a lot like people talking about Rush Limbaugh to reporters in the early ‘90s. And that ethos, that talk radio ethos, with Trump, the one thing you can never say about him is that he's boring.

"They're entertained, they're engaged. What talk radio is it's a show. It's a soap opera. And Donald Trump knew how to be the good guy, so to speak, in this world. Everything's black and white in his world. You're with him or you're against him. There's no real gray area. And that's the world of talk radio in a nutshell."

On why infotainment is dangerous

"This is what I call infotainment, which is to say that when Limbaugh wakes up every morning or Hannity, they say, 'How can I put the best show on today?' The goal of the host is not journalism and it's dangers if the audience sees that as their news source ... When Hannity says something that's not true, he says, 'Well I'm a talk show host' or 'I'm an entertainer.' He doesn't say, 'Oh, I'm sorry. We got the facts wrong.' His show doesn't go through Fox News' editorial process. And that's dangerous because the more you have people who are thinking that's news, the more that you have Americans who are ill-informed and the more that Americans are retreating into echo chambers.

“We're sort of living in two Americas. If you ever have a chance of being like a gym where somebody's got Fox on, CNN and MSNBC on in the same hour, you watch a couple of minutes of it and you say to yourself, 'Are these shows from different planets or something?' The danger is that to have a robust democracy, we have to be able to speak a common language and have a common base of facts to argue over. Instead, these products make us think that the other side is almost demonic — that they want to destroy America. They want to destroy and trample upon our values. And that's really dangerous."

On where Limbaugh’s ideas come from

"It was coming from what he thought and what he believed. He would read the newspaper in the morning he would joke, 'I read the news so you don't have to. I'm gonna tell you what's important.' And Republican politicians are slow to catch on. It's really only with the rise of Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey and Tom DeLay as the Republican leadership that Republicans are really fully operational using this media."

On the bond between the Republican party and talk radio cementing in the 1994 midterm election

"Before then, it's really just marginalized figures in politics that understand the opportunity presented — starts with far-right conservatives in the House who are the minority of the minorities so no one really cares what they think. And then it really includes candidate Bill Clinton, ironically enough, who when he's hurting for money in the spring of ‘92, he really gets it and it really connects to the medium. Whereas George Herbert Walker Bush doesn't need it. But in '94, Republicans pulled a stunning upset. They take the house for the first time in 40 years and talk radio was a huge help. And Limbaugh is made an honorary member of the freshman class and he's invited to speak at the freshman orientation where he's mobbed like a rock star, signing autographs and taking pictures and that kind of thing. It really is the eureka moment where Republicans really jumped fully onboard."

On talk radio’s success at killing legislation

"It's hard to put a number on it but talk radio is a very powerful negative in the policymaking process and I don't mean that as like a moral judgment. I mean as in killing things. It's a lot easier for talk radio to take advantage of the levers of power in Congress to kill a bill than it is for them to bring something across the finish line and deliver legislation. And especially over the last decade, they've had a lot of success at forcing Republicans to sort of resist the impulse to cut deals because they're worried about their next primary. Whereas when Limbaugh starts, most people are worried about general elections and they had the freedom especially on low profile matters, the bills that nobody ever hears about that don't get covered on the nightly news. They had the freedom to do what they thought was right for the country without worrying about electoral repercussions. And that's kind of changed in the world with not just talk radio but then conservative cable news, which sounds a lot like talk radio, the conservative blogosphere, social media. It's really, really changed the legislative process."

On Fox News paying Limbaugh to read ads for the network on his show

"Absolutely. And this was one of the most surprising things I found doing this research because it came about by accident. I'm just listening to one of the Limbaugh shows I was able to get my hands on and he does this live read where he reads the commercial himself for Fox. And he's saying, ‘You've been frustrated. We've talked about the media bias, there's this new product out there this new fair and balanced product. And call your cable company and tell them you want to hear Fox News.’ And it shows that there's this synergy, that he not only innovates a programming type, this sort of conservative ‘infotainment’ model that Hannity applies at night. Now Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, folks like that. But he is helping to promote this. There's an understanding that their audience is Limbaugh's audience. Those are potential customers out there. And if you look at the shows, they use the exact same kind of programming model that he puts out there. It's fun, it's entertaining, it's combative."

On if the rise of Fox News has stunted the influence of talk radio

“Not really. To some extent, it has hurt the singularity of it. So if Republicans in the ‘90s want to talk to their base, wanted to get a message out there, it had to be talk radio. And with the rise of cable news, they have different options. But the thing is, most of the time, talk radio and cable news are almost invariably on the same page. And Limbaugh's show, in fact, actually drives a lot of what other conservative talk radio and even cable news is saying because these guys are listening to him. So I don't think it's hurt his influence at all and if anything, it's created an even bigger megaphone when they decide to go after a policy topic or go after a candidate or in terms of sort of shaping the thinking on the right."

Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on October 2, 2019.

Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live