I grew up in one of those places the news only covers when it catches fire, one of those blue-collar towns where liberals were scarce enough to constitute exotica. If anyone ever saw a Bill Clinton or Al Gore bumper sticker — and that's all politics was, was bumper stickers — it’d get pointed out, every single time, usually with a nihilistic laugh, as if to say "that person's life must have taken every wrong turn imaginable." Moderates did not exist; politics was a game of how loudly you could agree with your neighbor, and who could get over to the right first and fastest.
I knew this woman, 90 years old, sweet as pie, untroubled by her mortality but deeply concerned with apocalypse. She’d spend her afternoons listening to talk radio and her nights proselytizing its politics to church friends, mimicking the broad strokes of the rhetoric as best she understood them, an anthem half remembered, the cadences right but half of the words missing. These recitals generally involved a lot of secondhand ideas about the liberal agenda and the collapse of American morality, and most centrally, the notion that The Arabs and The Mexicans would, within her lifetime, bring about Armageddon. Not Ha Ha Michael Bay Has More Money Than Any Of Us Will Ever See Armageddon, but the real Biblical thing, horsemen and the seven seals. She was actively anticipating it, and for a torrential flood of immigrants to herald its arrival. Right-wing radio may not have told her explicitly to conduct her life like this, but it was her propulsion system.
And she believed the only way to stem the rising flood of change was to literally dam it up. She wanted a wall. A wall would hold back the end times. A great big wall between her and Mexico would keep those outsiders and that doom away. That's all she wanted. She never left her house on the white side of town, but all she wanted was a wall to stop Them from getting anywhere near her. I knew lots of people like her, across all age brackets. Poor and white, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, spinning hopelessly in the mud of $10 an hour, and almost universally anti-immigrant, the sort of people who were always three unruly sentences away from saying "those goddamn Mexicans" without a care for who could hear. It went like this: You'd be talking to them, they'd be lending you some WD-40 for those hinges, they'd be fine in the moment, but you just knew that if you steered this conversation in the wrong direction -- say, by mentioning a Hispanic neighborhood offhand -- shit would go south real fast.
There are towns like mine in every corner of this country, and all over in between. Towns where conservative ideology evolves without natural predators, where the government is definitely coming any minute now to take all of our guns away and homosexuals are definitely going to create tax penalties for straights. Donald Trump has crushed his opponents in towns like those.
For the most part, those responsible for conducting our national conversation like to pretend there’s something strange about all this. Like there's no precedent for Trump's rise and rhetoric, apart from pro wrestlers or fascist regimes. Like Trump metastasized out of nowhere, a newly discovered disease.
But he didn't. Sure, he’s got his wrestler and fascist tendencies, and they’re both deeply tempting comparisons to make, but they don’t tell the story. They mythologize a man who doesn’t need mythologizing, because he’s right there. Trump’s rhetoric is not absurd. It’s been around; there are precedents. Working-class conservatives have been drawn to entertaining and fear-based shows of strength for a while now. The best recent reference point for this is right-wing talk radio, and the man most emblematic of its effects is Michael Savage.
If you're reading this on MTV, you might not know who I'm talking about. Michael Savage is a 73-year-old Bronx native with a nationally syndicated, incredibly popular talk radio show, "The Savage Nation." Sometimes he writes books, books with titles like Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder and Trickle Down Tyranny. They’re books a kid in the right kind of town might find on the bookshelf of an uncle who knows where all the Air Force bases are -- you know, next to a Time/Life commemorative volume of moon landing photos and a decorative encyclopedia set. The books get pretty good numbers; they routinely land on the New York Times best-seller list.
Savage long ago spotted a market for stroking the egos of disenfranchised white conservatives. He’s been in that racket ever since self-publishing his first book, The Death of the White Male, in 1991. But merely pandering to your audience doesn’t get you his kind of numbers and staying power. You have to be entertaining. And Savage has a strong grasp of how to make a sentence funny and dramatic and human. His language is colorful. He's a personality. That's how he hooks you.
Then he pummels you over the head, humiliates and shames you, with three words: Borders. Language. Culture. America will implode, he tells you, if we don't take extremely aggressive measures to preserve all three. To Savage, maintaining the white American status quo is our primary moral obligation as citizens. He repeats this as loud and as often as he can, a little Howard Beale, a little Lonesome Rhodes, in perpetuity.
Savage has this down to a kind of science. And it works. His fans treat him like a philosopher-king. The Amazon reviews for his books are brimming with regular people hungry for a straight shooter who calls it like he sees it. It’s an easy performance to fall for. His message is bile, his words are poison, but his voice is golden. He's like a preacher. You could mathematically prove he was wrong on any given topic and he would sing his way around you, and make your resistance small and embarrassing through pure crowd control. It's a trick of melody, a combination of emotions evoked and pictures painted. He's singing for you, not making an argument. There’s a decent chance he's bullshitting everybody, that he just saw money for the taking in an underexplored demographic and then used stagecraft to lock it down forever, but the facts don’t matter. He's His Own Man. He's a Lone Gunslinger. That matters.
Here's how a regular conservative talk radio host might operate: Take a recent clip of a known liberal or other political enemy of the show, play it a couple of times, and then sort of go, "Oh, I don't know, folks, that statement, er, doesn't really fly with me" and take a couple calls, on with the show. But here's how Savage does it: He’ll play the same clip. Exact same stock clip. But then he’ll take a beat, an off-mic breath, and yell "LIAR!" over and over again. His riffs escalate in out-of-body fury on borders and language and culture and all these liars, until he exhausts his creative energy and starts talking about what he had for lunch, spent and disoriented, like he ran a marathon and is sweating out the muscle shakes under his finish-line space blanket. Savage makes Fox News, at the molten core of its belligerence, sound borderline Victorian.
If this is all starting to sound just a touch too familiar, it’s because it’s spiritually akin to the modus operandi of Donald Trump, who -- just in case you recently threw your computer away and started, then abandoned, your own agrarian society -- is currently on track to be the GOP’s nominee for president.
Trump is big, theatrical, an actor who’s played a pissed-off guy so long he’s forgotten where the act ends and reality begins. But it’s not just any pissed-off guy, this character. It’s a pissed-off guy at work with you, the alienated and disenfranchised member of the working class. It's all so very familiar. Trump’s oratorical melody, his off-the-cuff presentation, the way he's always giving a face that says "come on, I don't do speeches, losers do speeches" — these are all terms of endearment to the right audience. Where the pundit class keeps screwing up when it comes to Trump is in overstating the man's novelty and otherness. His attitude has been around a while, just not in the places where the cameras like to go looking, and to suggest he's a new breed just alienates those outside the coastal media hubs. It creates a strangeness where many people don't see a strangeness. It reveals ignorance of huge swaths of America -- or worse, deliberate oblivion.
Trump goes on Savage's show all the time, of course. They both love the idea of a wall, of course. And, of course, their interviews aren't really interviews. They’re like two guys on a smoke break with a pocket flask of something cheap and awful, complaining about every single person who's not there and getting high off their own momentum.
Savage says insane things to Trump, too, like: "In a world of malleable, changeable positions, we are like mountains, Donald. And they don't like mountains, they want to grind us down into sand."
Or sometimes he’ll toss him some cartoonishly slow-pitch softball, like "You must have been a heck of a street fighter in Queens, because you know how to get a guy on the ground and really let him have it, Donald."
It's the effortless, undecorated bullshit of two guys who’ve figured out how to game anger, to turn the disenfranchised white conservative individual into the disenfranchised white conservative mob. "My audience is your core," Savage told Trump in January. "You know that. We've been with you before others jumped in when they saw you might win."
There’s another thing you can tell, if you listen to either of them long enough: These guys know it's their day. They know their time has come. That's a nightmarish thing, that's Comet-Hale-Bopp-crashing-into-the-Pacific-Ocean horrifying, but that's the GOP now. Anger won.
And what we're seeing now with the Republican establishment is a frantic, concerted attempt to deny all that. The entrenched power brokers are afraid. That's all Marco Rubio is (or, more accurately, was): a denial and a haircut. That's all the "swing for the fences and show Trump for a lowlife" Mitt Romney play was, too. It’s all fear. This was not their plan. The election wasn't supposed to look like this, all slogans and Pavlovian conditioning, all in service of gathering pitchforks and torches. This race wasn’t supposed to be this cynical and loud and anger-driven.
But America is not the institutional GOP. And America is not the media. America is so much more than a few slabs of concrete set against opposite oceans. Case in point: After Savage told a caller on his short-lived MSNBC series to get AIDS and die, he became a media pariah, an irrelevant vessel of hate speech. But only to people who weren’t his target audience in the first place. The gulf between his disreputability and his actual popularity was enormous. And while the establishment media turned their backs, he kept drawing steady listeners, and his books continued to fly off shelves (a year after Britain banned him from the country, his Trickle Up Poverty hit No. 3 on the New York Times political best-seller list). He’s been stoking the angry fires of the American downtrodden this entire time.
Savage was a problem for the GOP establishment. Trump is a problem for the GOP establishment. If you hang around the mainstream political arena too long, you’ll begin to think both men are grotesques that cannot be celebrated nor possibly draw enough crowds and followers to elicit comment. But neither man is a problem for those angry people in those certain towns — you remember them, the ones three careless sentences away from saying "those goddamn Mexicans," and there are a lot of those people out there. You make yourself blind.
Because this America wants scapegoats. The America of big box stores and minimum wage and not enough hours needs them. It's what philosopher/longshoreman Eric Hoffer described in his book The True Believer:
Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.
Trump and Savage have presented us with two devils: a rigged electoral system where old-money power brokers selected generations of presidents in lavishly appointed boardrooms without our input, and a spectral conception of immigrants worthy of D.W. Griffith. Not novel ideas, not invented by them, but they did a great job of selling them, with fists in the air and eyes wide open. Now we have a mass movement on our hands, and the tide has brought the water to our porch and washed away our lawn furniture. That’s why scandals don’t stop them. That’s why the weak foundation beneath all their sloganeering doesn’t matter. You don’t have to cite your sources when you have a devil. Hoffer covered that too:
The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.
Defiance. A very large portion of the American electorate in 2016 wants seismic, defiant action from somebody who isn't beholden to Washington, D.C. -- which many of them will never set foot in -- or to people in careers they'll never need to relate to. Trump may be a billionaire, but he knows how to get people into his tent: by appealing to their rage. And once they're in that tent? He can do anything. He can talk about his penis on live television, in a national debate. He can reverse a position, and reverse back. He can lie and twist and foment and generally do all the partying he wants. His momentum feeds off of itself.
There is a huge and nationally untapped market among all these pissed-off people for a pissed-off voice, and they don't need that voice to do anything except kill. That craving has found its instrument, and its instrument has found an amplifier. And the GOP establishment just wandered around blind. They butted up against each other in their bubbles. They held tight to their outmoded notion that conservative precepts are pulled whole from Frank Capra archetypes and the ideal president should double as a baseball coach in a live-action Disney movie. Both are boomer notions, caught up in 1950s nostalgia and iconography. And, based on actuarial tables alone, that stuff will all be gone soon.
Trump, however, will not. And the GOP has to either unify behind him or accept that it's over for their party as they know it. If they continue to resist, they will send only one message to their voters: Our ideals matter more than your ideals. And it will burn the party down. Trump blew the doors off conservative anger and got the crowds to follow. He’s here now, and the old tricks don't work anymore.
The polite Republican, of atom bombs and jet-black hair precisely parted, is extinct. And the longer the Trump tide rolls while the Republicans deny the world around them, clinging to a bygone era, the more I return to a poem by W.H. Auden, and to one line in particular: "Romans had a language in their day and ordered roads with it," he wrote in 1929, "but it had to die."