The Monday after Joe Biden was projected as the winner of the 2020 presidential election was a dismal one for the right-wing talk show circuit. Rush Limbaugh, the venerated elder of the realm, sounded dejected. The president needed to appoint an “election czar,” he intoned repeatedly. Then he reminded viewers that the coming week was a “treatment week” for him. Not only had the election been lost, one of the most legendary conservative talk show hosts in the country was going to be out of commission as he coped with his advanced case of lung cancer.
The bad news kept coming. On The Dan Bongino Show, the host—a former NYPD officer and Secret Service agent—bellowed that the result should not be accepted by his listeners. More militant than Limbaugh, who was still interested in evidence that he hoped an election czar would produce, Bongino wanted to keep the Trump base riled up with his “No Surrender” tagline. On Monday, he outlined the “path to victory,” which depended in part on the Arizona count flipping the state for Trump. “We don’t owe the quitter caucus squat,” he said. There is nothing to concede. Donate to Trump’s campaign and legal funds, he urged. On Tuesday, Bongino made mention of his on his own cancer treatment. He needed to have a port installed in his neck for the administration of chemotherapy for his lymphoma; he would record the show prior to his early morning surgery anyway.
Together they set a macabre mood (with an uncomfortable smattering of Shakespearean symbolisms) for the first days of post-Trump talk shows. It was also surprising to hear how little of the Sturm und Drang material they had to activate the base. Perhaps my expectations had been overblown or perhaps the fact that I had never had the stomach to actually listen to either Bongino or Limbaugh erased the context that I needed to truly understand their individual forms of disseminating ire. Despite all of this, the relative reserve was startling. After all, Trump was broadcasting his victory in all caps from his official Twitter account and his talk-show trolls did not seem to be echoing the certainty he had won in quite such explicit terms.
Since those first days of devastated hopes, the lot of them have come up with a playlist for keeping things going when nothing is going right for you. Dan Bongino’s conspiracy of choice has been the theft of the election through technology. On the show that aired on Friday, November 13, Bongino tried to bolster the conspiracy theory around the foreign ownership of Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion had deleted 2.7 million votes nationwide, he alleged, 941,000 of which were erased altogether and 435,000 switched from Trump to Biden. It was a shot in the dark, but listeners clinging to hope for a second Trump presidency could take it and use it to affirm their belief the election had been stolen. They hadn’t lost; they had been cheated. That there was no credible source for the rumors of election fraud was, of course, entirely irrelevant.
The conservative talk show game is like the Trump presidency, an entertainment enterprise. It follows, then, that the single swansong of a “stolen” election can only be played once every hour. The other material that is being added to the mix is revealing to the extent that it shows how the four horsemen of the Trump base (I’m thinking Limbaugh, Bongino, Ben Shapiro, and Mark Levin) expect to keep their base simmering in rage for the long four years ahead.
The bruised egos of male Trump supporters left in the lurch after truck rallies and boat parades were given assurance that they remained the real men of America.
It follows that beyond coddling the dying embers of widespread electoral fraud via machines or mysterious foreign servers or dead people voting, they’ve returned to the long tried and always true. Two weeks after the election Ben Shapiro turned to “the attack on masculinity” instead of the election, devoting nearly the whole show to Vogue magazine’s depiction of Harry Styles in a dress. “Anyone who pretends that it is not a referendum for men to don floofy dresses is treating you like a full-on idiot,” Shapiro tweeted angrily, going on to add that the whole point of the shoot was an effort by the left to “feminize masculinity.” On his podcast/radio show, Shapiro insisted that the shoot was a means to delegitimize the structure of American families and of men as providers for their families. The bruised egos of male Trump supporters left in the lurch after truck rallies and boat parades were thus petted and preened by the ennobling assurance that they remained the real men of America despite all of the left’s attempts (with Vogue magazine at the ramparts) to put them in dresses.
The same day Shapiro raved about dresses, radio host Mark Levin turned to talking about the American Revolution and the colonialists’ refusal to pay taxes to the British and their decision to sink the tea that the British wanted them to drink. The subsequently passed Coercive Acts, through which the British used to force payment for restitution for the sunk tea, had contemporary parallels. On November 12, Levin had intoned with solemnity that “we’ve mayors that are cancelling Thanksgiving” or that “you will not meet in your own homes in groups greater than ten” or “you will not go to church.” Trump (who later cancelled his own Thanksgiving trip to Mar-a-Lago) had fallen a few rungs in the lineup (he reappears as the show goes on), his place surrendered thus to the War on Thanksgiving. The media, that beloved fallback omnipresent enemy, Levin declared, had joined in with the tyrants. The right had capitulated too much; demands for hand washing and masks and social distancing were superfluous; the reprieve would not come from them but from “true” science. That “true” science was the science supported by Donald Trump.
Levin’s “Thanksgiving as resistance” and “mask-wearing as capitulation” are terribly dangerous prescriptions but not new ones. For the entire duration of the Covid-19 pandemic, these purveyors of right-wing talk show garbage have painted common-sense health regulations as a politically inflected denial of individual liberty. In the aftermath of a lost election whose actual overturning is at best improbable, throwing oneself in the path of Covid-19 is now an even more ennobled performance of resistance against the tyranny of newly elected leaders, even if it does mean dying oneself.
The cabal of talk show hosts that so unnervingly mesmerizes too many Americans is threading a thin line. They want to keep their listeners fuming and listening without, in literal terms, prescribing actual overthrow and violent rebellion. The latter would be bad for business, for the revenue streams attached to their shows. The post-election content repeats old rants: the left has a paramilitary wing (Black Lives Matter and Antifa); the left has wolfpacks (says Levin) that attack ordinary citizens; the left wants men to be feminized (says Shapiro); the left is waging a War on Thanksgiving (says Levin). All of this drivel is disseminated via the nouns and adjectives of an appropriated vocabulary of “evidence” and “facts” and “true” science and with vehement attestations that “(insert name of talk show host) is not actually a proponent of conspiracy theories.”
The incontinent blather of these men is the best proof of what some have long suspected. Trumpism has no substantive content; there is no ideology or even a particular policy agenda beyond the hodgepodge of sundry grievances. Valor, by this playbook, is the performative rebellion of “owning the libs,” even if that means dancing in one’s own excrement or courting a deadly virus. The riddle of the matter is why such a formless, limp and parasitic agenda appeals to over 73 million Americans. Rage is undoubtedly satisfying, its inherent ability to shift blame for one’s own condition onto someone, anyone else, is magnetic.
If the Democratic coalition wants to win again in four years, they may have to consider some directed dissections of this otherwise untouched realm of disinformation and decrepitude. The obvious antidotes, invocations of facts and figures and truth, have not worked. But orchestrated pressure campaigns against the sponsors of these #MAGA shows may do the job. In my ten long days of immersion in the distorted universe of #MAGA talk, I did learn that the one thing these men fear more than any electoral loss is the loss of the money that keeps them pouring hatred into the ears of their pissed off listeners. #MAGA is over; a new president has won; it is time that some chemotherapy was administered to the stubborn tumors still devoted to killing the good cells, the healthy cells, the cells we want to keep.