July 26. Rush Limbaugh on his three-hour daily show on Fox News Radio is answering an e-mail about an iPhone problem. “I get lots of these calls all the time,” Limbaugh says, and the solution comes fast: “It could well be because you hold the phone in your pocket the wrong way. You might have lint in the charge port.” This may sound like a commercial for iPhones, but the truth is that he loves Apple products and advertises them unpaid. The right way to carry the iPhone in your pocket, he tells his questioner, is with the screen against your leg; that way, if you bump into something, the screen won’t get the bump. And keep the bottom port on top—otherwise, it’s in the part of your pocket that could have lint. “What are you laughing about?”
He’s off, talking now to his staff, who shoot him comments on his earphones. “Now they’re really laughing in there. You don’t think this is useful knowledge?” Why talk about the iPhone, they say, when we’ve just discovered water on Mars? This prompts an irritable riposte that quickly turns into a rant: on the irrelevance of Mars to a comfortable life on earth, on Elon Musk, who wants to go there and good riddance, and finally, of course, on the Democrats. Why, he asks, should he care about the water and microbial life on Mars? “It would prove the existence of life off our planet.” This last remark from his staff sets off the chain of explosions:
Fine. That proof will not last long because as far as the left is concerned, if there is life elsewhere in the universe, it’s gotta be much smarter than we are. If there’s life elsewhere, they’ve already solved abortion. They’ve solved nuclear disaster. They have solved racism, discrimination. They’re a perfect world, and the only reason they would be coming here would be to try to fix us. But then it’s decided we’re too far gone, and we’re not even worth saving, and that’s why aliens haven’t come yet…. I read the tech blogs every day, and they fantasize about every asteroid going by having an advanced civilization of life and that the asteroid’s actually coming here, and they’re examining us, and they keep going…. We’re so racist, we’re so sexist, we’re so anti-LGBTQ, that we’re not worth saving. So the asteroid keeps going and then the next one shows up and they start the fantasy all over again. I am not making this up! Well, no, the asteroid will never land. It will crash into earth and wipe us all out and our free health care with it.
The invaders coming down to inspect and reject us as a life form are doubtless an involuntary memory of It Came from Outer Space (1953)—a movie probably known to few Democrats under seventy. But this sort of memory check, like most fact checks on Donald Trump, is really beside the point.
The iPhone cadenza affords a vivid illustration of why Limbaugh’s audience loves him. He mixes it up in unpredictable ways and he is having, as he likes to say, “more fun than any human being should be allowed to have.” A reader and decoder of the press, he analyzes news stories as well as opinion columns to explain why the slant of an article matches the author. He has been in talk radio for thirty-four years and his memory, short-term and long, serves him extremely well. To the question of why Hillary Clinton would be so foolish as to keep official e-mails on a private server, he answered at once when the news hit: because she doesn’t want them to do to her what they did to David Petraeus when he mishandled classified material.
Limbaugh is mischievous and surly—moods that bleed into each other in his monologues—but above all he is at home in politics. This posture of a political guide, one who is authoritative and carefree, is his largest attraction for his listeners. Many of them (to judge by the call-ins) have no other regular source of public information; without him, they wouldn’t know how to assess what they hear about what’s happening in the nation. Limbaugh has an air of omnicompetence, much in the manner of Trump, though he is faster, surer, and better with language. Trump is a businessman temporarily displaced into politics—something Limbaugh said about him early on, without intending it as criticism: Trump is a guy who knows about money and he’s on our side.
July 27. President Trump calls up the Sean Hannity Show, which airs right after Limbaugh: Limbaugh has the noon to 3 slot, Hannity 3 to 6, and if you are a truck driver on a long haul or a roofer (like Hannity before talk radio found him), you can spend all afternoon listening to both. “The president has graciously agreed to spend more time with us,” Hannity says, and Trump does stay, through a second commercial break, in which Hannity personally delivers the ad for defendfamily.com, a friendly gun outfit with a special pitch for the “guide” included with membership: “Kids & Guns: 5 Simple Steps to a Safer Home.” The cover (check it out online) shows a father and mother face to face, wearing jeans with holstered guns; the father holds in his arms a girl of about six, the mother a toddler boy.
The Hannity interview of Trump is conducted in a familiar but respectful style, as is usual with this host; unlike the egotist Limbaugh, he comes across as an average guy, and the approach is obviously satisfying to Trump. They are friends and don’t try to conceal the fact: Hannity has visited Mar-a-Lago, used Michael Cohen as a lawyer, and is said to have asked to be named Trump’s chief of staff. Even so, the conversation has a touch of decorous distance, more high-toned than the usual encounter between a radio talker and a celebrity friend. Hannity says that the Democrats “want to stop all investigations into deep corruption”—a baffling reference unless you have been listening to Hannity a lot. In this world, the real “investigations” are those of Congressman Devin Nunes’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. This is the committee that has demanded various caches of documents from the Justice Department, at regular intervals over the past several months, in the hope of linking the Mueller investigation to a supposed conspiracy by a Clintonite FBI cell to delegitimize the 2016 election. But Hannity never deigns to call the Mueller probe an investigation. It is referred to, in these precincts, simply as “the witch hunt.” Hannity and Trump agree that the future of the nation hangs in the balance. So much depends on the results of the midterm elections.
The lead-in announcement for Hannity, which in the last few years had declared in stentorian tones “Welcome to the Revolution,” in August of this year acquired a fresh urgency:
E minus 71 days
Until YOU decide the midterm election
TO KEEP AMERICA GREAT
It is more than a megaphone, more like the intercom of a military-class submarine. The last line is a reminder and also a command.
Dinesh D’Souza, lately pardoned by the president for making illegal contributions to a New York Senate campaign, is a favorite guest of Hannity’s, though on TV more than radio. D’Souza’s documentary Death of a Nation, which played in select theaters in August, is the successor to his 2016 film Hillary’s America. It belongs to the genre of docudrama that was pioneered by early Fox TV . D’Souza himself narrates, and he is photographed now and then, with a brooding downward look, walking in the streets of New York, Berlin, and other endangered metropolitan centers of the West.
But the film opens with a baffling sequence: B-24 Liberators dropping bombs on Berlin to the sound of military music. Cut to Adolf and Eva in their bunker: he hands her the cyanide pill, her suffocation is graphically portrayed, he shoots himself; and outside, a few second later, German officers pour gas on the bodies and incinerate them. Cut to a close-up of a child who looks like a young D’Souza. “When I was a boy, I was fascinated with the world. I wondered why nations live and nations die.”
The United States today—this is the governing conceit of the film—is in a condition no better than Germany under the Weimar Republic. Our chief protections against further decay are family, faith, and country. But who are the Nazis in this allegory? They will turn out to be the Democratic Party, and the lead-up is weird enough to be worth recounting. D’Souza’s strongest stuff is a montage that starts with the image of a black-clad Antifa in combat-ready posture, followed by clips of left-liberal celebrities and politicians (John Oliver, George Clooney, Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama) all predicting, with a barely concealed smugness, that Trump has no chance at all to win the 2016 election.
Intercut with these embarrassing memories are shots of Trump assuring his campaign crowds—the real American people—“I am your voice” and “We will make America great again.” Meryl Streep, in a blouse with a tasteful red-white-and-blue pattern, lets out a whoop of ecstasy at the coming triumph of Hillary, and D’Souza remarks that his film Hillary’s America “played a role” in defeating her. The entire sequence is clinched by a string of newscasters, politicians, and entertainers publicly mourning Hillary’s loss. (One of them directly addresses Trump voters: “Shame on you!”) All these people, D’Souza suggests, are saying that America is ruled by Trump, and that Trump is nothing but white supremacy. “If they’re wrong, if America is good,” then we the people should rise up to defend it.
The historical sketch that follows might have been subtitled “The Protocols of the Elders of the New Deal.” “Who are the real fascists, who are the real racists?” asks the narrator-director. A little learning is here deployed to maximum effect. D’Souza says (on the basis of one early comment by FDR) that Franklin Roosevelt “was infatuated by Mussolini.” About the relationship between Roosevelt and Hitler, D’Souza comments: “The two men recognized each other as fellow progressives.”
The truth is that in the North Atlantic democracies, admiration for Mussolini was commonplace before his attack on Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935. But D’Souza is out to convince his audience that Democrats have an affinity for fascism. The reason is that fascism began as a kind of socialism, the secret politics of the Democrats. Mussolini did in fact begin as a socialist: his version of corporatism gave a promise of stability with state control of the professions, industry, and markets. The link to FDR, let alone to Democrats generally, is factitious.
But Mussolini is only a way station. Hitler, too, we are told, was “a man of the left.” National Socialism includes the word “socialism,” and the Nazi program included a provision for state-controlled health care. (“This reads,” says D’Souza, “like something jointly written by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.”) The only difference between Hitler and the Soviet Communists is that “he was a national socialist. And they were international socialists.” Much is made of the coincidence of Hitler and Lenin both having lived in Munich before they took power in their separate countries.
D’Souza then points out that eugenics, which found such favor with the Nazis and inspired some of their most dreadful experiments, began as a progressive cause. This interesting fact might actually have found a place in an impartial film about left and right totalitarianism. But D’Souza is after bigger game, and fast: “American progressives cheered Hitler’s rise to power.” The patent falsehood has the catechistic form congenial to talk radio. It will become the assured opinion of many who hear it once.
And here is the place where Death of a Nation passes from controlled hallucination to paranoid myth, conceived and executed in cold blood: Hitler got his murderous general scheme “from the Jacksonian Democrats.” Lebensraum, militarism, the persecution of darker races: Hitler took all this from the nineteenth-century precursors of FDR, who (remember) is said to have been infatuated with Mussolini. Accordingly, the nominal Democrats of today have had to abridge their account of Nazism to conceal its socialist core, and their fake history has moved fascism and Nazism from the left to the right side of world politics.
At home, meanwhile, having forfeited their domination of the South, the conscious aim of Democrats has been “to turn all America into a plantation.” Diverse facts are brought in to support this view. Woodrow Wilson screened The Birth of a Nation in the White House and “the Klan became the powerful terrorist arm of the Democratic Party.” Combine those two propositions. Call it a coincidence if you like. Meanwhile, says D’Souza, as the South became less racist, it became more Republican—a trend that culminated in the presidencies of Nixon and Reagan.
Any viewer who doesn’t already know that the South went Republican in a hostile reaction against Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights policies could never guess it from the film. The truth about the states of the former confederacy and enforced racial equality—that the Democrats lost there after 1964 because they became a party committed to the expansion of rights for black people—would simply strike such a viewer as the world turned upside down. How far D’Souza has persuaded himself of this narrative would be hard to say. The upbeat concluding sequence passes from the Statue of Liberty to Mount Rushmore with a brief digression on the White Rose conspiracy against the Nazis. We are invited to emulate those resisters and help Trump to “complete the task to which Lincoln dedicated his life…. It’s our America. Let’s save it for the second time.” The closing credits are played just after a full-length video of an African-American gospel choir singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
August 27. The death of John McCain is all over the news and Limbaugh asks why he has been for thirty years “a media darling…. I mean the Drive-By media loved John McCain.” It’s all about McCain’s deployment of the preferred tool of seduction by the left, compromise: the thing that liberals can’t stop praising (but only when they’ve been losing). They talked about compromise in the 1990s after Bill Clinton was beaten up by the Contract with America, and even then the talk went hand in hand with admiration for McCain. Why? Because he worked with Democrats and cozied up to Democrats. But they turned against him fast enough when he picked the true maverick Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. No one who listened to Limbaugh then could doubt the passion guiding these remarks: his contempt for McCain at the time was boundless. Without Palin on the ticket, there would have been no point in voting.
On August 28, he reads out with relish a Breitbart headline: “CNN’s Jim Sciutto Busted for Two Fake News Scoops in One Week.” Lanny Davis, the lawyer for Michael Cohen, had falsely said that Cohen could prove Trump’s advance knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians. Davis later retracted the statement, but CNN held on to the story even after The Washington Post took it down. The second discredited Sciutto report had said that Trump didn’t consult Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, before he revoked John Brennan’s security clearance.
These lies are typical, says Limbaugh, and anyway the Democrats are ignoring the economy; notice that if they mention it at all, they credit the improvement to Obama; but all it will take is one more quarter of 4.1 percent growth and Trump will have proved that the growth is sustainable. It is comparable to the Reagan economy; and how the left and their captive media hated the prosperity we enjoyed under Reagan. But they are what they always were—“a bunch of petty, small-minded gnats and—Chihuahuas!—yapping at the ankles and the knees of Donald J. Trumpster.” Look at how their obsessions come and go. “What happened to Omarosa?” All the rage for a week, then nothing.
President Trump on August 21 had given a speech in West Virginia to promote the Senate candidacy of Patrick Morrisey—a speech largely about Trump himself, much in the vein of Limbaugh’s Chihuahua monologue. “You know,” said Trump, “their little phrase that they like: resist. That’s all they’re good at: they have no policy, they’re not good politicians, but they’re good at sticking together and resisting…. New York’s Democrat governor Andrew Cuomo even declared that ‘America was never great.’ Oh, I see! OK. Tell that to our great soldiers. World War I, World War II, Korean War, so many others.” We won’t soon hear the end of Cuomo’s line, which was actually “never that great,” and he meant it wasn’t so great for women and blacks before the expansion of civil rights. But the context will not save an unforced error as potentially damaging to the party as Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.”
Turn from Fox News Radio to MSNBC or CNN or even NPR, and you are in a universe that can hardly even be called parallel. Here it is assumed that the hidden majority is anti-Trump, that an entire career steeped in the brine of criminality will drag him down at last, and that the evidence of Russian interference in the election will lead to impeachment even if he is protected from indictment while he is president. The rage and resentment of the opposition seem only compatible with the expectation that he will soon be gone; and yet a long past of corruption, no matter how shockingly exposed, is no bar to the presidency unless Congress says so. The waves of contempt for Trump in the respectable media—what Limbaugh calls the Drive-By media—have only sharpened the determination of his supporters. Limbaugh and Hannity have kept them cheering, with no loss to their own popularity and profits.
The Tea Party and Trump irregulars are now in the process of constructing their own narrative of conspiracy. Abettors like D’Souza may be a help, but the story does well enough without the planted history. The “deep state” is the antagonist here, and the FBI its hive—a once-beloved institution overrun by coup plotters sometime after the departure of James Kallstrom as assistant director in 1997. “It goes right to the top,” said Kallstrom in March on Fox News. “They [Hillary Clinton’s supporters inside government] just unleashed the intelligence community.”
Hannity picks up this cue at every opportunity, while Limbaugh for his part remembers fondly his friendship with Kallstrom and is shocked by all that has happened since:
The notion that Trump colluded, stole the election, this had to begin way, way back further than the election. It had to begin in the heat of the campaign…. Why did people in the deep state even think this would be necessary? Who was involved in it and just exactly where and how did it originate?…At no time was the FBI ever considered to be the way it’s looked at now. You look at this cabal that has risen to the top—Comey, McCabe, throw Rosenstein in there even though he’s deputy AG, Christopher Wray, these people have been around for years, but this cabal, all of them—Strzok, Page, Bruce Ohr, McCabe, and others—how did this happen? The FBI underwent some massive transformation, leadership did…. And they’re united with the intel guys and they’re united with Clapper and Brennan. And they’re instrumental with the intelligence community in trying to eliminate Donald Trump and render his presidency null and void!
This last speculation was uttered on August 30. Conspiracy breeds conspiracy, or the thought of it breeds the counterthought.
The pundits and journalists at CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The New York Times—with plenty of overlap in the personnel—seem hardly to notice the existence of the right-wing conspiracy theory. Watching, with the sound turned off, the faces of the commentators in a recent episode of CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper—Bill Kristol, Robby Mook, Jackie Kucinich, and Amanda Carpenter, with Jim Sciutto substituting for Tapper as host—one saw a hoedown, a rondo, a serenade of smirks and nods in mutual support of a shared understanding and disparagement of Trump.
Suppose they are right. Suppose Trump is done for. Unlike the Fox News talkers, the publishers, editors, and writers at the Times and the Post have some semblance of a commitment to getting the facts straight, and they try to correct their errors, but their many months of horrified fascination with Donald Trump have partly obscured that commitment; for a tired or amused listener, it can seem a quarrel between two stories. When Trump departs, what will the mainstream media do with his supporters? Those people aren’t going away.