The Savage Entertainer

The Savage Entertainer

To win the country back from the likes of Donald Trump, the left needs to better appreciate the toxic charm of right-wing talk radio personalities like Michael Savage.

(Dave Kleinenschmidt / Flickr)

Nearly any weekday afternoon, you can listen to Donald Trump’s doppelgänger on the radio. His name is Michael Savage. A seventy-four-year-old erstwhile biologist from New York City, Savage hosts one of the most popular right-wing talk-shows in America; only guys named Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, and Levin have more listeners. Actually, in Savage’s case, “talk-show” is something of a misnomer. Rarely during his two-hour broadcast have I heard him take more than a handful of calls. Savage revels in monologue, and, like our new president, he has a gift for lurid, if odious, gab.

During one show in late October 2016, Savage alleged that:

  • If Hillary Clinton wins, “We will live in an outright criminal regime.”
  • “It will take decades for the U.S. to recover from the Democrat-socialist Marxist” he calls “Maobama.”
  • Obama, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” is letting “waves of infected Africans and Haitians” into the country as refugees.
  • At his White House parties, Obama invites gangsta rappers who brag about committing violence and raping women.
  • Nearly everyone else in the media but Savage is a “low life” and a “vicious propagandist who wants to make you think that you are the problem.”

Midway through the spray of insults and wild charges, Savage paused to tell a rather charming story about a Muslim “friend” he often speaks to while walking his pet poodle. The man’s “beautiful” son likes to pet the dog, while his father jokes with Savage about whether he truly loathes Islam as much as it seems. I admit that I laughed with the talk-show host as much as at him.

Many people on the left too quickly dismiss shows like Savage’s as niche attractions that appeal only to minds already hardened to oppose all the principles and causes we cherish. But to disregard Savage’s style is to miss an important reason why Trump captured his party’s GOP nomination and went on to win the presidency. Both speak to millions as if they were lecturing a friend or two in a bar, particularly after downing a couple of drinks. Their talk is blunt and aggressive, their satire is laced with anger, their self-regard is limitless yet humorous—and their timing is excellent. What a recent biographer of Trump, Wayne Barrett, said about his subject applies equally well to Savage: his “shamelessness is a skill.” Our new president does lack Savage’s ability to make fun of himself. But you can’t have everything.

Candid tough talk is everywhere in the culture of talk radio, reality TV, and hard-edged comedy. It should not puzzle leftists who thrilled at hearing Bernie Sanders lash out at a “corrupt system” that lets billionaires avoid paying any taxes that many Americans who listen to Savage also swelled Trump’s rallies and got their friends and neighbors to vote for him. Innovative bombast turns a lot of people off, but can inspire many more. I doubt I am the only lefty who was captivated and amused by the same election-year rhetoric that made me shudder. In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s speeches, full of cant and poorly delivered, only made me anxious—when they did not bore me enough to change the channel.

I confess to having a decades-long addiction to perverse right-wing media. As a college student in the late 1960s, I rarely missed an issue of American Opinion, the monthly magazine of the John Birch Society. Its glossy, four-color pages announced that every civil rights demonstration was part of a communist plot and that every liberal politician was a Soviet stooge. The magazine’s most memorable feature was a map, updated every month or so, depicting a crimson wave gradually spreading from the USSR and China across most of Europe and the developing world. At one point, the magazine even showed 80 percent of the United States saturated in red ink.

But the grim tidings of American Opinion had scant appeal outside the Birch Society’s earnest cohort of suburban militants. Michael Savage, on the other hand, is a brilliant performer, a bigoted mind with the soul of a beat poet. In a 2009 New Yorker profile, Kelefa Sanneh described Savage as giving his listeners “one of the most addictive programs on radio, and one of the least predictable.”

The talk-show host and the billionaire-president both hail from New York City, although hardly from the same social class. Savage is a nom de microphone. He was born Michael Alan Weiner to Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx who ran a small antique shop. Weiner earned a degree in biology from Queens College and later got a PhD in ethnomedicine. For a time, he worked on the Millbrook, New York, estate of Timothy Leary, the LSD crusader. Eventually, he wandered out to the San Francisco Bay Area. In the early 1970s, Weiner/Savage spent time hanging out with Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A friend from those days recalls the young scientist passing around a photo of himself swimming nude with Ginsberg on some Hawaiian isle.

Savage soon jerked himself away from that crowd and their politics. Yet he still lives in the Bay Area and recently described Jack Kerouac as “my first literary hero.” The brash, unpredictable style of On the Road and “Howl” streams through his blather. The day after Trump’s election victory, in the space of two minutes, he bragged that “I bet on him and I won,” suggested that the Torah predicted it all, and then switched back to accusing President Obama or one of his minions of “executing” Justice Antonin Scalia.

Savage’s current political faith is a more coherent and consistent version of that which Trump peddled throughout his campaign. Across his personal website is plastered the nationalist motto, “Borders Language Culture.” Like Trump, he shares little of the passion for libertarian economics and a business-coddling state that has motivated the conservative movement since its birth in the backlash against the New Deal. What fuels Savage’s ire are terrorists masquerading as peaceful immigrants, webs of corruption spun by globalist liberals, and all the journalists who allegedly cover for them. Last October, he proposed that, once Trump becomes president, he should establish “a commission on liars in the media” that would reveal their evil plot to elect Hillary Clinton.

In 2016, the Republican nominee appeared often on the Savage show, knowing he would get nothing but friendly, even fawning, questions. “Where do they get all these tarts?” Savage asked Trump in mid-October, neither expecting an answer nor receiving one. “You are the only thing we have left between us and pure anarchy,” assured the host a few minutes later, in an accent almost identical to that of his hero from Queens. On Election Day, Trump made a point of calling in to the show to chat about the campaign and thank the host for being “so loyal” to him. “You’ve changed the national dialogue; you’ve changed the course of human history,” responded Savage.

“If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether,” wrote the sociologist Neil Postman three decades ago in a shrewd jeremiad entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. “People of a television culture need ‘plain language’ both aurally and visually,” he added, “The Gettysburg Address would probably have been largely incomprehensible to a 1985 audience.”

We are right to condemn the kind of plainspeaking practiced by Donald Trump and his biggest talk-show fan. But to challenge what they say in the name of a government that Lincoln vowed should be “of the people, by the people, for the people,” we had better appreciate the seductive toxicity of how they say it.

Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent.