I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio and still can’t say I am an expert because I cannot cover everything that is out there, but I can give my impressions of what I have heard so far in 2016.
The presidential campaign of Donald Trump has decisively caused a fracture to appear in the on-air conservative universe. There were certainly fissures before the summer of 2015, when arguments over Trump’s candidacy really took off, but the divide that has developed since then was not as easy to discern as it is now. Differences in philosophy, in what it means to say, “I’m a conservative,” were always there but not so clear as they have become.
Rush Limbaugh is a good place to start only because he is right when he only half-jokingly says, “When they say ‘talk radio’, they really mean me.” He has been on the national airwaves since 1988, and I have been listening to him since the early 1990s, when there were no other national conservative talkers. Limbaugh has always been a curious mixture. Born in 1950 and a radio personality since his teens, he knows the radio business inside and out. He can talk almost without pause for three hours a day, five days a week, with very few vacations. The grandson, son and brother of attorneys, Limbaugh has a sharp mind, but sometimes his college dropout status shows, as when he has been serially misusing a set of words, including “dichotomy,” for twenty-eight years. (I have finally decided that he is misusing those words deliberately; after a quarter century, you would think he would find out what they really mean.) There is a reason why survey have shown that most of those in Limbaugh’s audience have more education than he does: His knowledge of politics and his incisive analysis social trends are uncannily prescient.
Limbaugh has never endorsed a Republican candidate during a primary season. In 1992, Limbaugh only attacked Ross Perot out of the gate because Perot was always a third-party candidate. I always had the impression that Limbaugh calculated whether he was a conservative or a Republican first, but I believed him when he said that he was a conservative first, but that he regarded the Republican Party as the only viable vessel of conservatism. More recently, however, Limbaugh has said that he does not want to be the curator of conservatism, even as he has admitted that, among the current candidates for the Republican nomination for president, Ted Cruz is Mr. Conservative, while Donald Trump does not understand conservatism and answers questions about his purported conservative beliefs by relying on what his liberal friends have told him conservatives believe. (Hence The Donald’s expressed opinion that women who have abortions should be punished when virtually no actual conservative takes such a position.)
Limbaugh wants to keep himself pristine for the general election. After the Republican Party chooses its nominee in Cleveland this July, Limbaugh wants to be able to come out for whoever that nominee is, without having criticized said nominee up to that point. The only criticism Limbaugh has ever given Trump has taken the form of friendly advice. Strongly worded advice at one or two points, but friendly advice, nonetheless.
Another talk-show host, Mark Levin, tried at first to take a neutral position just as Limbaugh did, but this did not last. As volatile of temper as he is brilliant of intellect, and an attorney and author who worked in the administration of President Ronald Reagan for eight years, Levin began to criticize Trump for the same things that Limbaugh did, but where Limbaugh offered it as friendly advice, Levin angrily rebuked Trump’s rhetoric and below-the-belt attacks on his rivals. By March, Levin had had enough of looking the other way and trying to excuse Trump. Levin openly endorsed Cruz and declared that Trump had lost him when he turned from the issues to personal attacks, making it nearly impossible for the debates and campaigns to focus on important issues.
Transcending Limbaugh’s strict impartiality so far as the nomination is concerned, Levin has repeatedly harped on the polls that show that Trump cannot defeat likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a general election. What good does it do to refrain from criticizing Trump, Levin implicitly is asking Limbaugh, if it means sitting by while the worst standard bearer for the Republican Party leads the party to certain defeat?
Glenn Beck is perhaps the most popular American day-time radio talk-show host. He has long been a critic of the Republican Party, but he generally supported the Republican nominees of the past several elections, even when he expressed serious policy disagreements with George W. Bush and the weak campaign tactics of the John McCain and Mitt Romney debacles. This time around, he has declared that he is tired of backing someone that he has to make excuses for. He endorsed and has actively campaigned for Ted Cruz, saying that this is the guy for whom no excuses are necessary. He has to correct people’s misconceptions, yes, but that is different from hearing criticism of a candidate and having to say, You are right but he is still better than the Democratic party’s alternative.
Donald Trump’s campaign tried to say that Beck only turned against Trump after Trump refused to go on Beck’s program; however, the evidence is clear that Beck was taking Trump to task for two or more months before he asked Trump to submit to a radio interview. Who was getting back at whom for perceived slights is the opposite way around from the way Trump would like us to think. Beck has been relentless in attacking Trump for a lack of principles in or out of politics. He goes so far as to suggest that Trump is like President Barack Obama in unflattering ways: a narcissistic know-it-all who lacks any real-world understanding of political-economy and a dictator’s approach to getting things done in government.
Other talk-show hosts have either remained neutral, like Sean Hannity, or come out in favor of Trump, like Laura Ingraham. I recently heard Betsy McCoughey, sitting in (or “standing in,” as she preferred) for Ingraham, interview Ann Coulter, a columnist and very frequent talk-show guest who has come out strongly in favor of Trump. The level of rationalization in the conversation was breath-taking as Coulter accused Trump opponents of “groupthink” without any sense of the irony that it takes enormous groupthink on her part tow the campaign party line and make excuses for Trump’s verbal and behavioral gaffes throughout his campaign in general and during the last few weeks in particular.
Everything New is Alt Right
During all of this, I have discovered, especially due to Limbaugh’s openness to listening to Trump supporters of all ilks, that there is something called “Alternative right” or Alt right for short. It turns out that this is nothing new. At its most intellectual level, this is what Beck labeled the European Right years ago. This is what Europe thinks is conservatism, an amalgamation of monarchists, authoritarians and crypto-(and-not-so-crypto)fascists. In its American branch, Alt right is not infrequently—though by no means always—neo-Nazi or Ku Klux Klan-friendly. This is not to say that all Alt-right thinkers are either monarchists or fascists. For one thing, those ideologies do not fit comfortably into Americanism, which is why Beck labeled it “European.” Instictively, I believe that many American Alt-righters think of themselves as beign in the American tradition of populism. Unfortunately, like the nineteenth-century American populists, Alt-righters are consciously or unconsciously progressives and post-constitutionalsts. To them, the U.s. Constitution has not necessarily got any answers to our problems. Cutting the Gordian knot of our social problems means putting the right people in charge and establishing the right policies, and has nothing to do with adhering to traditional American principles.
What does mark the Alt right is a visceral xenophobia that rejects flood-level immigration not because it makes cultural assimilation difficult to impossible, but because they reject assimilation virtually altogether. One gets the impression, in talking to Alt-righters, that they regard ethnic conflict as stemming from ethnicity itself and not merely from bad political-economic policies toward immigration.
To the extent that Alt-right implies nationalism, I find myself rejecting Alt right for an Alt-right reason: it isn’t American. Not that Alt right is quite nationalistic in some of its forms. The blogsite http://alternative-right.blogspot.com/ is very international in its outlook, viewing cultural purity as an aspiration of every culture. This leads to some strange bedfellows as a friendly interview treats Russian philosopher and the political theorist of “Eurasianism,” Alexader Dugin, quite seriously as he talks down U.S. hegemony while promoting Russian aggression and hegemony. The Ukraine is the aggressor in its conflict with Russia according to Dugin and his Alt-right proponents. Dugin meddles in American politics by promoting Ron Paul and Donald Trump because they both seem to favor a less energetic U.S. foreign policy. (Does Trump really? While he has suggested that the U.S. get out of NATO, Trump has also made very aggressive noises toward ISIS.) The bottom line on the Alt right is opposition to cultural mixing. Whatever else he is for, Dugin is most in synch with his Alt-right allies when he talks about keeping Britain for the Brits, France for the French, Russia for the Russians (except where the Ukraine is concerned on the grounds that the Ukraine has always been part of Russia*), and America for the Americans. He sympathizes with Trump’s position against immigration (never mind that Trump cannot keep the ins and outs of his own policy straight) as do the broad coalition of Alt-righters in the United States. Trump may not be a crypto-fascist himself, but he is pandering to crypto-fascists.
*Indeed, in medieval times the Ukraine RULED Russia; how would Dugin like to go back to that?