Who could have imagined it? Well, we all should have.
During the first weekend of November 2006–ten years before it happened—a right-wing Boston talk radio host named John DePetro was fired by WRKO-AM, then the city’s Rush Limbaugh affiliate, for referring to Grace Ross, a third-party progressive contender in the race to replace disgraced Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a “fat lesbian.” DePetro was already on thin ice with WRKO-AM after calling Matthew Amorello, a Republican who had crossed swords with Romney, a vile anti-gay slur. Just a few days after DePetro’s firing, DePetro’s favored candidate, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, was crushed by former Clinton Justice Department official Deval Patrick.
Perhaps Patrick would have served in another Clinton administration a decade later—but it was not to be, thanks to a Republican who tapped into the same rancor and resentment DePetro’s industry tapped into.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the recent Politico profile of former House Speaker John Boehner was ex-Ohio Congressman’s acknowledgment of the critical role right-wing talk radio played in dragging our country to the dark side:
”People started to figure out … they could choose where to get their news. And so what do people do? They choose places they agree with, reinforcing the divide.”
[Boehner] continues: “I always liked Rush [Limbaugh]. When I went to Palm Beach I would always meet with Rush and we’d go play golf. But you know, who was that right-wing guy, [Mark] Levin? He went really crazy right and got a big audience, and he dragged [Sean] Hannity to the dark side. He dragged Rush to the dark side. And these guys—I used to talk to them all the time. And suddenly they’re beating the living shit out of me.” Boehner, seated in his favorite recliner, lights another cigarette. “I had a conversation with Hannity, probably about the beginning of 2015. I called him and said, ‘Listen, you’re nuts.’ We had this really blunt conversation. Things were better for a few months, and then it got back to being the same-old, same-old. Because I wasn’t going to be a right-wing idiot.”
This is why it’s inaccurate to suggest that Newt Gingrich’s run as House Speaker was the de facto start of our national march to madness. Like Trump, Gingrich merely drove to power on a road that Limbaugh and his local-market and nationally-syndicated imitators paved in the wake of President Reagan’s elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in August 1987. (Remember when Limbaugh was made an honorary member of the newly elected 104th Congress in late-1994?)
A year before, Limbaugh infamously described every day of the Clinton administration as “America Held Hostage, Day xx.” How ironic that thanks to Limbaugh and his talk-radio clones, America is now in fact held hostage by a right-wing menace that respects no Constitutional boundaries, a regime that profits from prejudice and prevarication, an entity that demands our flag be worshipped as a quasi-religious symbol. Trump isn’t behaving any different from the way Limbaugh would have, had he become President.
Generations from now, the sentient members of American society–a minority by that point?–will look back at the rise of right-wing talk radio and mark it as the moment when America began to brainwash itself into oblivion, the turning point in US history where a nation decided to rebel against truth and reason. The sentient members of American society will read Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and conclude that his vision of bringing America together and crossing partisan divides was nothing more than a dream that would be deferred permanently. The sentient members of American society will conclude that a man as callous and corrupt as Donald Trump would have never seized power were it not for large segments of the country becoming addicted to the narcotic of nonsense known as right-wing talk radio–the drug that severed so much of the country’s connection to reality. The sentiment members of American society will look back at this era–a democracy decimated, a climate contaminated, a heroine humiliated–and wonder: how, and why, did they let this happen?