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Hendrik Hertzberg explains how talk radio and pro wrestling produced Donald Trump

Hendrik Hertzberg
Ed Lederman/PEN American Center
Hendrik Hertzberg

Political analyst Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker magazine says that understanding the rise and enduring appeal of Donald Trump relies on understanding the infantilization of conservative America under the influence of talk radio. And the astonishment of establishment Republicans at what Trumpism is doing to their party is a function of their failure to understand the similarity of right-wing talk radio to professional wrestling.

That’s the kind of first paragraph that’s supposed to hook you into reading the rest of the article so you can find out what it means.

Hertzberg is also a supporter of ranked-choice voting and other ideas for voting reform, and that’s why he will be in Minneapolis Thursday for a FairVote Minnesota fundraiser, which gave me an excuse to interview him and get his thinking on the Trump phenomenon.

Hertzberg has been over recent years the principal political commentator for The New Yorker, but in his 70s, he has weaned himself from writing very often for the magazine and has barely mentioned the rise of Trump. So, to those who would like to know what this insightful and seasoned political observer has observed, this piece may be the world premiere of those views. All I did was ask him for his thoughts on the rise of Trumpism and its hostile takeover of the Republican Party. The next few paragraphs are a lightly edited transcript how he replied:

We’re in the audience for this show. I think it’s happening on two levels, macro and micro.

On the macro level, it’s a function of the very slow constitutional crisis that’s been going on for a long time within our system of government. Our system is a wonderful antique that has a very hard time delivering in the current age. And by delivering I mean that our system in recent years has had a hard time offering voters a chance to choose a government and then have that government carry out its program, and then allow the voters to judge that program accordingly.

The micro part of it I don’t think has all that much to do with Trump’s so-called issue positions — deporting undocumented immigrants and not letting Muslims in and so forth. I think it has more to do with the infantilizing of the public.

There’s a significant portion of the public that is in such despair and confusion that they want to turn it over to a daddy. What Trump has said over and over again is: “I’ll take care of it. It’ll be great. We’re gonna win so much you’ll get sick of winning. I’ll get rid of Obamacare and replace it with something even better.” The details would only confuse people. And there are no details anyway. And It doesn’t matter.

That’s part of it. Another part is that this is similar to something that’s been happening in many other countries with emergence of right-wing nationalist parties. To the extent that there is an ideology behind the Trump version, it’s basically white nationalism.

The people don’t think of themselves as white nationalists particularly. They just want someone to take care of them. But there is something about turning it all over to a strong leader that attracts a certain portion of every country.

Over and again, Trump has dominated and humiliated the other candidates, which comes across to some as strength and energy. He does it by directly attacking them and by saying things that the other candidate could never say. Their whole upbringing and experience and training has taught them not to say those things because if they said those same things it would destroy their political viability.

But when Trump says them, it strengthens his [viability]. Up to a point. Up to the point that he might be able to get himself nominated with the support of a plurality of the Republican Party. But I would be surprised — not to say shocked and horrified — if he was elected president of the United States.

To switch over for a moment to ranked-choice voting [see above why he is coming to Minneapolis], if the Republican nomination were decided by ranked-choice voting, it’s very unlikely that Trump would win.

This is me interrupting to explain, in case you’ve lost track of RCV, it’s the system now in use in municipal elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul that allows voters to express a second or third choice and ultimately requires a winner to have a majority of all ballots cast. Hertzberg’s point is that Trump is hardly anyone’s second choice, so eventually the non-Trump majority of Republican voters would gather behind one of the other candidates. But if Trump wins enough primaries with 30-40 percent of the vote,in the absence of the RCV mechanism, he could plausibly become the Republican nominee. Now back to Hertzberg talking:

But it’s confusing because there are two majorities in the Republican Party right now. There’s a non-Trump majority. And then there’s a kind of an extremist majority that consists of Trump supporters plus [Ted] Cruz supporters. The two are not identical.

This whole dilemma the Republican party finds itself in is certainly self-inflicted. It starts with the flirtation with nihilism that the Republicans engaged in pretty much since the beginning of the Obama administration, and perhaps going back to the Clinton administration.

Back in the Clinton years, when Hillary Clinton came up with the HillaryCare plan, old-fashioned Republicans like Bob Dole would have worked out some kind of a compromise with the Democrats and the Clintons to reduce the uninsured. But then Bill Kristol wrote a famous strategy memo that said: “No compromise.  Deny them any accomplishments because if they accomplish anything, Clinton will reap the political benefits…”

Me again. In case it isn’t clear, Hertzberg is linking back to the macro point above. Our government structure can’t do much without bipartisan compromise. If one party decides to abjure compromise because it is determined to deny the other party anything that might be taken as an accomplishment, the system doesn’t produce results on which the electorate can rely in deciding whether to re-elect or not. The Kristol memo to which Hertzberg alludes flows into things like the Tea Party movement and the various threats to shut down the government or refuse to raise the debt ceiling, and even the refusal to consider a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Which brings us back to the current moment. Now back to Hertzberg, after I asked him to explain what he meant above about “infantilization”:

There is a new conventional wisdom afoot that this [infantilization] is a phenomenon made possible at least in part by reality television and social media. The disappearance of neutral national voices represented by the old mainstream newspapers and the three half-hour evening news program. That was replaced with 24/7 cable news. And talk radio.

Enormous numbers of people spend two or three hours a day in their cars listening to right-wing talk radio, listening to Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage or Mark Levin or the local versions of that. That eventually has an effect.

There is no equivalent of that on the other side of the political spectrum. The left equivalent would be NPR, which is a very different experience from talk radio. There have been some attempts to produce some sort of liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh, but none of them have been particularly successful. Air America didn’t work because liberals just don’t find it very entertaining to listen to someone demonizing conservatives hour after hour. They prefer classical music or features about the world. They find that more entertaining. But people on the right do find talk radio entertaining. It is entertainment, but if you listen to enough of it, it becomes convincing and it changes the way people think…

They’re attracted to the abuse, rather than the prescriptions. They’re listening to something that’s like verbal professional wrestling except that the host [of the radio program] always wins. The host slams down the “lib-tards” and the “Obamanoids” and the “politically correct robots.” That’s what’s fun and entertaining and creates a taste for a candidacy like Trump’s, which Trump understood.

This is what so surprised the Republican establishment — where a lot of people thought talk radio was creating a reserve army of ideological conservatives who favor things like cutting taxes for the wealthy and cutting what they call “entitlements,” in other words social-insurance programs like Social Security. But it turns out that is not what it created.

The Republican establishment keeps yelling that Trump is not a real conservative. He doesn’t stress the free-market, low-taxes, cut-social-spending verities of conservatism.

But they don’t seem to understand that the appeal of Trump for many people is not so much what he’s saying. It’s the manner. It’s the domineering, aggressive, strong vibe. He makes the other candidates look like — as he might put it — pussies.

Harking back to his statement above, which seemed to predict that Trump could win the nomination but not the general election, I asked what he thought the chances were that Trump could become president. He replied:

The chances are not zero. Not an odds-on chance. Not an even chance. But there’s certainly a chance. At least as much chance as the chance that you could spend a weekend gambling in one of Mr. Trump’s casinos and come out a winner. The odds are against you, but it certainly happens.

He’ll position himself much closer to the center. If the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton, I doubt that the alpha male approach would work as well as it does against members of the male gender. Something like that would probably backfire, although he seemed to use misogyny to some effect against Carly Fiorina when he asked whether people could stand to look at her face for four years.

Hertzberg acknowledged that predicting the course of the Trump candidacy has “shaken up the smugness of professional watchers.”

Back to RCV for a moment. Hertzberg is a strong proponent. He is on the board of the national FairVote organization. He says it “makes sure that the winner of a public office is at least grudgingly acceptable to a majority” of the voters, or to reverse the spin, in an election in which no single candidate is the first choice of a majority of the voters, it “protects against the election of someone who’s actively and passionately disliked by a majority.”

If you’re interested in hearing Hertzberg on Thursday, when he will talk about 2016 campaign and also about electoral reform, this link will get you the details of the event.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 03/07/2016 - 09:35 am.

    Ha! Ha!

    Please keep throwing this stuff against the wall, Eric.

  2. Submitted by Doug Gray on 03/07/2016 - 10:34 am.

    don’t you read the Wall St. Journal?

    or Deej Tice in the Strib? Trump is Obama’s fault, the logical outcome of liberal social policies, or both.

  3. Submitted by John Edwards on 03/07/2016 - 11:00 am.

    A new MinnPost standard for obtuseness

    Mr. Hertzberg is daft. The people who want to be taken care of are those supporting Bernie Sanders A major clue is all the free-to-them stuff he is promising. The self-sufficient Trump supporters are simply tired of carrying the 15 million undocumented potential Democrat voters in the USA.

    The most revealing thing to me about the article, however, was this: “The left equivalent (to right-wing talk) would be NPR . . .”

    I would love to see the reaction of all those “journalists” at MPR and NPR to that comment. This is yet another example of Mr. Hertzberg being baffled by the obvious: conservative talk radio (and Fox) flourish because they are the only place adherents can hear a non-liberal perspective. Air America (and the bellicose left-winger Al Franken) failed because it is redundant. Liberals can tune to NPR (as Mr. Hertzberg acknowledges), MPR, CNN, KTNF (Franken’s station) NBC/MSNBC, ABC, (ex-Clinton operative and donor George Stephanopulos); CBS (Dan “let’s try a fake Bush memo” Rather) and countless other sources for a liberal perspective on broadcast news.

    • Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 03/07/2016 - 07:02 pm.

      Free stuff

      If our government allocated our tax money properly we wouldn’t have to pay for half of the benefits we get. My family in Norway, which has 980.6 billion dollar surplus just allocated 680,000 Kroner, the US equivalent of a million dollars to every man, women and child in Norway for medical expenses and they already get free cradle to grave health insurance. Every worker gets between 4 and 6 weeks vacation each year. The annual salary for a Doctor is 650,000 dollars a year, almost triple what the average doctor makes in the US. They have a flat tax rate of 28%, but no real estate taxes, and they also have free education through college and free public transportation. They also have the highest mean income in the world. There unemployment rate is low with only 101010 on unemployment for the whole country. Trump will never get elected and if he does it will be a disaster. The GOP needs to get organized, stop bickering, shut up the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world and get there act together. They also need to get off the Religious bandwagon and start running the country. This a prize fight the right v the left, this is our elected officials doing what the people want.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/07/2016 - 11:01 am.

    The leftward pirouettes of Trump is beginning. Step, step, turn, step step, turn back. His dance will become too much for his base and they will drift away. There are signs of that this weekend

    The next Republican in line is Cruz. I’m having a hard time thinking of Cruz making a leftward drift. It should be amusing to watch the time between the convention and election.

    Your friendly Canadian–Uncle Teddy Cruz.

    Cuddly.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/07/2016 - 11:05 am.

    The talk-radio RINO atmosphere with no accommodation is a dead-end for a democracy. If you won’t acknowledge the right of a winning, differing opinion to govern, it becomes a autocracy.

    Goodbye Mr. Constitution. Killed by your most ardent admirers.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/07/2016 - 11:21 am.

    At least pro wrasslers

    know how to follow a script.

  7. Submitted by Pat Berg on 03/07/2016 - 12:08 pm.

    Savior

    In the conversation with Mr. Hertzberg above, at one point he says “I think it has more to do with the infantilizing of the public. There’s a significant portion of the public that is in such despair and confusion that they want to turn it over to a daddy. What Trump has said over and over again is: ‘I’ll take care of it. It’ll be great’.”

    This put me in mind of one part of Michel Martin’s Sunday NPR interview of evangelical pastor and author Max Lucado on the topic of Donald Trump and Pastor Lucado’s puzzlement over Trump’s support among evangelicals (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=469371887). In the interview, Pastor Lucado says “one person told me that Christians believe in a king. We believe in a King Jesus who oversees the affairs of mankind. Maybe we’re reaching for an earthly king. I never would have drawn that conclusion, but I certainly respect this person’s thoughts. Maybe there’s some truth in that, that we’re wanting somebody to sweep and immediately fix all of our problems and to do so in such a decisively immediate fashion that it’s almost like a savior instead of a president.”

    It’s an interesting thought. And it sure would be the ultimate in “free stuff”.

    Of course, it’s also immensely depressing. I continue to be shocked that I have been sharing my country with these people all this time and never knew they were there. I guess I was just deluding myself that we in this country are more enlightened than we are. (I guess I should have been clued in by such things as the overwhelming popularity of shows like “The Bachelor” . . . . . . . . )

    And by the way – with respect to Trump’s pivot towards center – we’re hearing hints of that already. For example, how many of you noticed the somewhat subdued tone of Trump’s post Super-Tuesday press conference? He’s beginning to show signs of toning it down for the general, and what I hate is that a lot of people are probably going to fall for it.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/07/2016 - 01:24 pm.

      Yup…

      Marketing 501: Product design, Packaging, Pricing, Placement and Promotion

      Those who prefer Sanders need not try to see through all that. Bernie is pretty basic in principle and presentation, rather like what one finds at a good coop or farmers’ market.

      The remaining “true” Republicans seem to have clearly-labeled ingredients, maybe not Rubio so much. Maybe that’s why he seems to now be in the closeout aisle.

      HRC is the consummate Proctor & Gamble marketing department candidate in all respects except perhaps pricing. All other product elements there are careful results of professional design, target marketing, re-packaging over time for current perceived tastes, with placement and promotion through multiple market channels to a variety of consumers.

      She seems the result of careful packaging tests, much like the storied P&G campaigns that once sold one product packaged in identical plastic containers but with different package colors. The objective was to study which hue was selected over others, and if possible, by whom.

      Given that, the remaining consumer deliberation should be concern of how the HRC product, packaging and promotion might change over eight years, once all U.S. laundry rooms are fully stocked with the 2016 product.

    • Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/07/2016 - 09:21 pm.

      Yes I heard that interview …

      I could not agree more with your thoughts regarding the interview on NPR. The desire on the part of many for authority is an aspect of twist that Nixon and then Regan gave us with the wars on pick your offenders and the rise of the redefinition of the 2nd Amendment. I cannot help but think we are in deep trouble but not from the locations the Trumps and Cruzes and Ryans are pointing to but the very things that these same people are motivated by – breeding fear and advocating nihilism. The forces that created this nation resided with puritanical bizzareness or the plantation economy. They are still at play in this country. Until we come to terms with these forces and expunge from our collective they will creep into our national dialogue and behavior surreptitiously as they are now. We have to begin by speaking directly to our origins and cleansing the very negative affects they give us over and over through our history. We continue to wash our selves with the “good” feelings of the lie American Exceptionalism. We have only been lucky. Our luck is running out.

  8. Submitted by Tim Smith on 03/07/2016 - 12:49 pm.

    considering the choices

    we are apparently left with, Mr. Bloomberg must feel pretty good right about now….

  9. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 03/07/2016 - 01:28 pm.

    Pretty spot on

    I’ve long been an admirer of Mr. Hertzberg and his comments here are spot on. Mr. Hertzberg did not say that Trump was promising free stuff. Reread what Hertzberg said:

    “There’s a significant portion of the public that is in such despair and confusion that they want to turn it over to a daddy. What Trump has said over and over again is: “I’ll take care of it. It’ll be great. We’re gonna win so much you’ll get sick of winning. I’ll get rid of Obamacare and replace it with something even better.” The details would only confuse people. And there are no details anyway. And It doesn’t matter.”

    A better example might have been with Trump’s appeal to people who think “illegal immigration” is at the root of the country’s problems. Trump promises to build them their wall. Trump’s appeal seems to be to people who, listening to right wing talk radio, tells them what they want to hear. Either they promise simplistic solutions to problems or tell people that if there are no simplistic solutions then there are no problems.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/07/2016 - 02:20 pm.

      Right!

      Trump is not promising a giveaway of goods and services.
      He is promising that once we get rid of those pesky immigrants he will make everyone rich enough so that they can afford anything. Nothing as specific as the economic redistribution that Sanders is proposing (actually nothing specific at all), just some sort of magic that makes everyone’s dreams come true.

  10. Submitted by Ken Bearman on 03/07/2016 - 03:00 pm.

    Another analysis of what produced Trump

    Why Trump? by George Lakoff

    http://georgelakoff.com/2016/03/02/why-trump/

  11. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/07/2016 - 02:27 pm.

    Very good points!

    As a long time FairVote supporter (RCV is also used successfully in a number of countries; notably Australia) and NewYorker reader, I am sympathetic to Hertzberg’s points.
    I saw an analysis of one of Trump’s speeches using an algorithm designed to measure the grade level of reading material. His speech tested out at the second grade! One of his calmer commentaries made it up the 5th grade.

    I know that too much has been made of analogies to Weimar in the early thirties, but a news clip of Trump telling a crowd of supporters to raise their right hands and swear allegiance to him left echoes of ‘Sieg Heil’ in my ears. Those who do not learn from history ….

  12. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/07/2016 - 03:54 pm.

    Just a thought

    Having read Mr. Hertzberg from time to time over the years, I think he’s spot-on with this piece. One of the interesting wrinkles is that what he’s implying ought to resonate with many of the “true conservatives” out there, if there are any “true conservatives” left. Looking to a “daddy,” or whatever name you want to assign to an authoritarian someone who promises to “make everything better” for a disaffected populace is absolutely the antithesis of the sort of independence of mind and spirit that those who like to call themselves “conservative” usually genuflect in front of as the American – indeed, the human – ideal. Looking to government to address persistent social and economic problems, as both Bernie and Hillary are inclined to do, is vastly different from looking to a particular, charismatic leader to single-handedly “fix” what needs to be “fixed.” One involves a democratic process. The other requires a king or dictator.

    I saw those photos of the Trump rally, too, and while the parallels with Hitler’s rise in the Weimar Republic are hardly exact, they don’t need to be to reveal a sizable segment of our population to be in sympathy with racist, fascist ideals that are in a different universe from democracy, not to mention the democratic republic envisioned by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. Beyond the 2nd Amendment, I would guess that neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Cruz is very familiar with either document.

  13. Submitted by miki polumbaum on 03/23/2016 - 08:45 am.

    The infantalizing of Conservatives here in the United States:

    The infantilizing of Conservatives here in the United States has been going on for several decades, especially since President Nixon was elected to and took power. Inotherwards it started long before the problem of undocumented immigrants here into the United States really became an issue. Sure, there were the McCarthy years, back in the early to mid-1950’s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy played to many people’s fear of Communism. but when Nixon was elected POTUS, he adopted a “Southern Strategy”, which helped pit Blue Collar (urban) White Ethnics against blacks and other non-whites, as well as against middle or upper-class whites. Nixon also stirred up resentment of white liberals who were presumably “doing everything for the blacks and other non-whites.”

    This kind of infantilization of Conservative America was both influenced by and enhanced by right-wing Radio Talk shows, as well as Right-wing political leaders, who rode on the coattails of white working-class fears, frustrations and resentments along the lines of race and class, giving many (though certainly not all!) the feeling that it was perfectly okay to attack innocent students of the opposite race who were being bused into white schools under Federal Court orders, or to attack peaceful protestors against our foreign wars, etc.

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