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‘I wanted to make a political statement’: a Q&A with former radio host Jason Lewis

A year ago, the conservative radio host quit his long­-running show, exiting the studio with an hour left in his afternoon shift. Here he explains why — and what he’s been doing since. 

Jason Lewis: "My big beef with [talk radio today] is, I know exactly what they’re going to say. Tell me something I don’t know."
MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert

In July 2014, the conservative radio talk show host Jason Lewis, still popular and well ­paid by any reasonable standard, abruptly quit his long­-running show, exiting the studio with an hour left in his afternoon drive shift.

Explanations were hard to come by. Officially, Lewis claimed to have had enough of the American taxation system, which, to paraphrase one of his favorite talking points, punishes the successful and hardest working.

The skeptical counter-­theory was that Lewis’s departure was rooted in far more prosaic radio industry issues, like petty connivery or a contract negotiation breakdown.

Soon to be 60, Lewis has kept a low profile over the year since, content, he says, to play a lot of golf, spend time with his family and produce a podcast every week or so.

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Meeting up for happy hour at the cavernous Tavern Grill in Woodbury, Lewis exudes confidence and good humor if not perfect contentment.

His on-­air schtick — constant references to the Federalist Papers, Milton Friedman, tax code statutes that would dazzle a private equity accountant, all whipped together with semi-­obscure policy citations that sent even college-­educated listeners spiraling off into Wikipedia — was always a bit of an outlier in the traditional conservative radio echo chamber. Where so many of his era and ilk were unapologetically anti-­intellectual, grossly ill-­informed on historical nuance and outright boorish on topics like racial and ethnic minorities and women’s rights, Lewis for the most part played within the foul lines of William F. Buckley­-style conservatism. A zone where, the thinking goes, personal initiative and responsibility are primary virtues that can be reasonably expected of anyone, never mind their social origins or standing.

In 2011 he took his show into national syndication (while he himself remained in Minnesota), and was so highly regarded in the pantheon of talk radio’s thought­-shaping elite that he filled in numerous times for Rush Limbaugh.

In the interest of full­-disclosure, I made a handful of appearances on Lewis’s show when he was with KSTP-­AM, and it was Lewis’s return to the Twin Cities from Charlotte in 2006 that booted the show I was doing with Republican activist Sarah Janecek off the air at KTLK­-FM.

But that truly is show biz: a decision by what was then ClearChannel (now iHeartRadio) management eager to get a proven name into afternoon drive time. Far from bearing any ill­-will for Lewis, I’ve always found him the classic example of the guy you’d like to have a beer with, assuming you are in mood to talk shop, the ruinous impact of America’s top tax rates (never mind what top earners actually pay) and engage in more than a little partisan badgering.

MinnPost: ​So last July you’re on the air, in the middle of your show and you up and quit. What was that really all about and why did you do it that way?

Jason Lewis:​  ​Well, on the one hand I had had my 15 minutes and I’ll be 60 next month. Granted, I look 50, but I’ll be 60. But there were a couple of factors. Sort of a confluence of events, I guess. One, believe it or not, I was tired of the taxes in Minnesota. I got to a point where I asked myself, “Can I afford to retire?” Don’t smirk! I’ve got no government pension. I’ve got no private sector pension. Those of us in the real private sector have to save, and then we spend that down.

I wanted to be sure that I was at a point where it wasn’t going to be a problem for my wife and daughters. The theatrics of it all was in a way contrived. My affiliates knew. My associates knew. I just wanted to do it on air and have some fun with it. But at some point, labor is not going to keep working if your top marginal rate is 50-­60 percent when you add in self­-employment taxes, state taxes and the top federal rate. That great economic expert, Phil Mickelson, is right when he says, “This isn’t working for me.” Hell, I’d been in the business since the mid­-1980s. But I also wanted to make a political statement. Also, and you know this from your own experience, the [radio] business is about two steps behind newspapers. They’ve got massive debt they’ve run up … .

MP: ​Like the kind Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital laid on Clear Channel [his former employer]?

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JL: ​Precisely. And by the way, [laughs] here’s a news flash for you, this is the thing I can’t stand about liberals.

MP:​ What? That they always remember that these companies suffering under leveraged buy­outs were driven into that state by Republican candidates?

JL: No. It’s because you cannot ever look at an issue objectively and take a conservative position. While people like me can look at an issue objectively and take a liberal position. Such as … private equity is not a capital gain. That is a total joke and should be taxed as ordinary income. Capital gain is when you put your money at risk.

MP:​ A total joke? That would be tough on the hedge fund boys with their sweet 15 percent carried interest rate.

JL: ​That’s the point. If I buy a piece of art or a stock, I’m putting my own money at risk. And if I get a capital gain on that it ought to be taxed at a lower rate, or if top marginal ordinary rates were lower they could be taxed at the same rate. But you can’t tax capital at 40­-50 percent. Why do you think corporations are doing the inversions? All a bunch of screaming, right-wing conservatives? No. They’re looking for the highest return on capital. So you can’t tax capital that high. Having said that, if I’m a hedge fund manager, or in this case a private equity manager taking a public company private, I’m not putting my money at risk. I’m taking money from other investors, managing it and then taking a percentage of their gain and taxing it as capital. So frankly, the liberals were right on that one. It should be taxed as ordinary income. And maybe that did lead to too many leveraged buy­outs, like what happened to ClearChannel, now [laughs] iHeartMedia, and a number of other companies.

MP: ​The Star Tribune?

JL: ​They all over-­leveraged. In ClearChannel’s case they borrowed … a [bleep] load of money they and bought radio stations at 20­-25 times earnings. Hell, you wouldn’t pay five times earnings for a station today. Point is, they over­-leveraged just like your pals in government and now, guess what? They can’t service the debt. So you have cuts after cuts after cuts.

I’m not sure these figures are accurate, but when I got there in ‘06 there were 300 people on two floors [at the Clear Channel offices near the WestEnd in St. Louis Park] and buy the time I went out on my own in ’11 there were 100 on one.

MP:​ But how were they squeezing you?

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JL:​  ​They cut my producer. They cut this. They cut that. It was a huge issue. The Minneapolis cluster [of seven stations] was making money. But every single dime of it was going to service what? The debt.

Then there’s the issue of technology. And this is great thing about free market economics, Brian — and I thought you would have learned this by now — monopolies never last. The market will finally destroy the monopoly. The monopolies known as newspapers, as FCC­-licensed radio stations, guess what? Poof!

MP​: What are you talking about? How many stations does iHeart still control? 800? 900? [The actual number is 885.]

JL:​ And look at them! They’re a shell! They can’t put on anything but syndicated hosts who all sound alike. You know exactly what all their talking points are going to be. Because they can’t afford to hire people like you and me anymore.

MP: ​You were syndicated!

JL:​​ True. That was one way to survive in the market. Because they’re not hiring local hosts. But the technology, with the proverbial million guys in their pajamas in the basement, podcasting has broken this up.

MP:​ Has or is?

JL:​ Oh, I think it has. I don’t know what the inside scoop on 10 p.m. anchor salaries is, but what would you think they are compared to what they were 15 years ago?

MP:​ 30 percent

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JL:​ That sounds right. These companies are saying to guys who were making a million a few years ago, “We’ll renew your contract. For $250,000.”

MP: ​I’m crying for them.

JL:​ ​Well the point is, I think its gone and it’s only going to get worse. With radio now you can download the Jason Lewis app on your phone and play it right through your car, without ever touching a terrestrial radio dial. And what happens when it’s right there in your dashboard? I don’t have to tell you, but the terrestrial dial is going to be more valuable to cell phone companies than radio companies. The AM band will get sold off, I do believe. These big clusters are dumping the product they don’t think they can sell on the AM band. So add up the state of the industry. You add up my personal statement, if you will. I had a great career. I wanted to play more golf. So it was time to go in 2014.

MP: ​Well, color me skeptical.

JL:​ What do you mean?

MP:​ Well, given the state of the industry, you’re not one of these poor chumps who is just going to get shuffled out of the deck. You’ve still got a good thing going, by all appearances. If the numbers aren’t great, they’re good enough. So why not hang on? Milk it for every hour it’s worth. I mean, it’s not exactly like pouring tar on a hot roof. It’s a pretty easy gig.

JL:​  It’s hard to say. Could I have gone another three years? Yeah, maybe. But be honest. Too many people hang on.

MP: ​Right. And they do it for good Libertarian reasons.

JL:​ ​Like what, money?

MP:​ Yeah, money.

JL:​ Well, maybe. If they have sugar daddies. If they have some non­profit funding their operation.

MP: ​Roger Erickson. Charlie Boone. Legends of local radio. They hung on because they could still do what they could do. But let me ask it this way. Had the game of your style of radio changed in way so you were no longer comfortable with it?

JL:​ Well, contrary to the box you like to put me in, I was considered anathema in a number of conservative circles for some of my Libertarian stances. I’m a big believer in the separation of church and state. I believe the state should never discriminate against the free exercise of religion, but religion should never, ever become the policy of the state. And so when people start quoting the Old Testament as the reason we have to go to war in the Middle East, I get real nervous.

MP: ​Had that kind of thinking become more representative of your audience than when you first started?

JL:​ ​I know, you’re looking for inside [bleep]…

MP: ​Well of course I am. That’s why we’re sitting here.

JL:​ ​Right. [Laughs]. That’s why I’ll just give you pablum and crap. Why would I want to help MinnPost? A non­profit outfit that wants to raise my taxes while they don’t pay any.

MP:​ Well, MinnPost employs a lot of people who do pay taxes.

JL:​ The people do! The ‘corporation’ doesn’t! So don’t tell me Exxon should pay more when the non­profits don’t.

MinnPost​: Don’t forget to roll HealthPartners into that.

JL:​ Don’t get me going. But, to get back to your question, I had a station in Estherville, Iowa that dropped me. I know, there goes my career. I’ve lost Estherville. But I call the owner and his complaint, he said, was that I wasn’t supportive enough of Israel. My point at the time, and still is, we ought to get out of the Middle East. It hasn’t worked since Napoleon. It isn’t working now. I’d rather have our troops on the [Mexican] border than the Afghan border. But what that guy was doing was essentially taking a religious view and encoding into his political philosophy …

MP:​ Based on what he thinks his local listeners want.

JL:​ And that goes to your point. Have we [in conservative talk radio] become ideologically captured, the same way the Star Tribune has been captured by liberals?

MP: ​Oh, good god. But what you’re seeing is a core litmus test for talk radio.

JL:​ Precisely. And I think there is. And that’s why they all sound alike. From Glenn, to Sean to Rush. And don’t get me wrong. Rush is a pioneer. I have great respect for Rush. But you’re not going to get this great deviation. And what happens is if you build this market share of 5, 6, 7 or 10 percent, that’s great. But unfortunately it takes 51 percent to win elections and move the needle politically. But those guys don’t care about that. They care about the 5 percent or 10 percent, and so you get captured by that group, and if you dare deviate, on the war on drugs, which I’m opposed to, on Middle East policy which involves those religious issues to some degree, then all of a sudden you get slapped back. It’s sort of like if the Star Tribune said, “I think we’ll have a conservative editorial page tomorrow,” what would happen? The liberal control would say, “Oh, don’t you dare.”

MP: ​Excuse me, but you wrote for the Star Tribune for years.

JL:​ Uhhh, I’m not writing for them anymore.

MP:​ And why is that?

JL:​ ​They discontinued it.

MinnPost​: And what did they say, exactly?

JL:​ They said they wanted to move in a new direction.

MP:​ Oh, bull[bleep]. They’re desperate to have some kind of reliable, readable conservative voice. I hear that every time I run into one of their op­-ed people.

JL:​ Well, I don’t know. But they had Katharine [Kersten] and me and two liberals in rotation. Now they don’t. Although I will have a column on Elvis in there pretty soon. It’s called, “Why Elvis Still Matters.” I love Elvis. I knew you’d love that. But, in fairness to the Star Tribune, they have been exceedingly open-­minded. And so has the Pioneer Press for that matter.

MP: ​I don’t think anyone has ever accused Doug Tice [of the Star Tribune’s op-ed page] of being a liberal.

JL:​  ​No. Not at all. But even when they had a more ideological bent to their editorial leadership they had an open­-minded attitude at least to my stuff. But the fact is, you’re not going to argue that their institutional voice is not liberal, are you? Goodness, only you could possibly argue that, or MinnPost.

MP​: “Conventional” and “status quo” seem more apt descriptions. But listen. The litmus test. You’re suggesting that conservative talk radio had evolved, or devolved, into something different than when you or it was in its heyday. Are you saying that that shift made it untenable for you to do it the way you wanted to do it …

JL:​  ​Well, there was still a market for what I was saying. But there is … a … is “pressure to conform” the right way to put it? There is a conformity amongst the audience for what they want to hear. And contrary to your feeble assertions, there’s the same thing in the Star Tribune. If the Star Tribune veered right, they would catch hell from a certain crowd who are all now working for other liberal institutions. Well, the same is the case for talk radio on the right. If you dare veer from that you catch hell … .

MP: ​How did that manifest itself, “catch hell?

JL:​ ​Well, I just gave you an example. In Estherville … .

MP:​ That’s one guy. In a little town.

JL:​ ​I got e­mails and a lot of stuff.

MP:​ But the ratings? The numbers?

JL:​ ​They were good. They were okay.

MP:​ So “good enough,” like I say. Are you “catching hell” from local advertisers, from anyone who really matters? Has the game devolved to the point where you’re no longer comfortable with it?

JL:​ ​Well, in terms of advertisers, there has been a movement away from the talk radio in the hey­day of the late ’90s and the millennium when it was regarded as an “easy sell.” Whether that’s because of what you’re talking about, I don’t know. But the enthusiasm isn’t nearly what it was. There’s been a drop­-off there.

MP:​ And why is that?

JL:​ ​Well, the hardest thing to do is repeat. Take any format, any genre and after a while people are looking for something new. But my big beef with [talk radio today] is, I know exactly what they’re going to say. Tell me something I don’t know. Nobody tells you anything you don’t know anymore. And maybe I’m not the legend I think I was in my own mind.

MP:​ You always misunderestimate yourself.

JL:​ ​Okay. You’re right. I was. But I try to tell people something new. A quick story. A couple weeks ago I’m invited to this Tea Party rally in Virginia where I get up and give my usual erudite views on the 14th amendment, and why it’s not what we think it is. Terrific stuff. Then the guy who has been asked to give the keynote comes on and goes 45 minutes talking about … himself. “I did this.” “I did that.” “I said this.” Point being, it’s all personality now. So I say again, “Tell me something that is different.” Like for example why Iran’s real enemy isn’t the United States or Israel but Saudi Arabia. My idea of good programming was a version of the old “Firing Line” replays. But I guess that wasn’t marketable, or something.

MP:​ Look, feeding that 5 percent crowd is what keeps you guys in business. Line ’em up and give ’em what they want. It’s basic show biz. So are you trying to sell me on the idea that yours was talk radio that focused on winning elections?

JL:​ ​Well, I’ve done my share of selling out. But I hope it only goes up to a certain point.

MP: ​David Frum, Bush 43’s one­-time speechwriter, famously described what you were doing as part of the “conservative entertainment complex,” a show biz conceit that was in large part dictating the direction and fate of the Republican party, specifically pushing ever further to the right and out of range of mainstream competitiveness … .

JL:​ ​Well, there are two kinds of contrarian Republicans. There is the ex-­Republican who decides it isn’t really worth it not being part of the in­-crowd anymore. He’s not getting invited to the right cocktail parties. “I want to be popular.” The John Roberts sort. “So I’m going to do what it takes to make sure the New York Times and Paul Krugman like me.” And then there’s sort of the Libertarian Republican who says, “The problem with the two parties is they’re playing between the 40­-yard lines.  The Democrats like big welfare and they like foreign aid and they want to support the Syrian rebels.”

MP: ​Both parties are lapping up money from Wall Street.

JL:​ ​And they’re bailing out Wall Street! And General Motors! It’s corporate welfare! You’ve got Barack Obama saying we’ve got to give $528 million to Planned Parenthood, after bailing out Detroit and they’re opposed to corporate welfare? Excuse me!

MP: ​$528 million is what percentage of the American economy?

JL:​ ​Well [laughs] … pretty soon it adds up, Brian.

MP: ​Let’s move on to something else. You worked for a family operation, Hubbard Broadcasting, and you worked for a gigantic private equity player, Clear Channel. What was the difference in your experience?

JL:​ ​Oh, you’re digging for the dirt here, aren’t you? But that’s an interesting question. Obviously, when you work for a family operation you have a clear sense of who the boss is and what direction you need to go. For instance, and I say this with all the endearment I have for Stan Hubbard, don’t say anything bad about the University of Minnesota. With a large corporation everything is at a distance. I had to deal with local managers. But let’s be honest, they’re just carrying the water. They’re just executing orders other people make. What’s frustrating is that they just don’t come out and say that.

MP:​ One of the grapevine stories around the Hubbard shop was the, shall I say distant relationship between you and [Joe] Soucheray. The story going that that there just wasn’t enough air in the room for two … .

JL:​ ​“Big egos.” Yeah, I heard that. And what I’ll say is that when you’re working for a family company there comes a moment when they have to value their subordinates, and with a family company, in time, it becomes clear who they value and who they don’t.

MP:​ So you’re saying you weren’t valued?

JL:​ ​I didn’t say I wasn’t valued. I just said I wasn’t valued very well. But I don’t want to get into that. That’s water under the bridge. But as you know in radio a lot of it has to do with promotion. Who is on the billboards. Who they’re pushing. So you’re right. It’s all ego. But I have no regrets. I have no animosity toward anyone. I had a good run. Which is not to say if someone came to me and said, “Here’s a 9-­to-­11 morning show” that would allow me to tee it up by 1, I might reconsider. But I don’t feel the need to do it.

MP: ​Have you put out feelers? Or is it that they have to ask?

JL:​ ​Well, maybe that’s it.

MP:​ A lot of people see the coming trend as stations simply buying podcasts. Do it in your basement, boot it over and they run it. Minimal-to-no overhead.

JL:​  ​But why even bother with the commercial station when you can download an app, press a button and play the same thing in your car?

MP:​ The geezers. The crowd that listens to talk radio. I don’t think they’ve quite figured out podcasting and apps and Bluetooth. And by the time they do you really will be in your dotage.

JL:​ ​Well that’s true. Not the last part. The other part. But I will say I think there’s a mile­wide market here in the Twin Cities for conservative talk. I don’t know who’s running KSTP these days but that sports thing, I don’t get it. Is ESPN subsidizing them [ESPN 1500]?

MP: ​I don’t know how that works, I would hope the Hubbards are getting a nice regular check for ESPN slapping its name on their station.

JL:​ ​And for a 1 share! Point being, get a Lewis, get [T.D.] Mischke, get Soucheray, get Bob Davis back and tell ’em, “Look we’re not going to pay you much, but here’s a spot on the air.” It would have to be a better bet than syndication.

MP:​ But even The Patriot [AM 1280] is now all syndication. They used to have local bloggers with shows ripping the feckless liberals and all the usual stuff. Now, it’s all mailed in.

JL:​ ​It’s the only thing they can afford. They don’t have the budget for anything else. The economics of the industry requires a massive paradigm shift. And, as I say, it’s due to mismanagement, technology and debt, the over­buying of radio stations.

MP:​ Why do you think the Air America experiment — to deliver a fire­breathing, demonizing, advocacy product for liberals, like what you did for conservatives — was such a miserable failure? I mean, obviously, they had a terrible network structure.

JL:​ ​Well, this is going to be a shock to you Brian, so I want you to sit tight. With the New York Times, CBS and papers like the Star Tribune, they already had plenty of market share. The liberal intelligentsia has perfected the art of delivering a liberal message while coming off as objective and mainstream.

MP:​ You don’t see that as apple-to-­oranges?

JL:​ ​No.

MP:​ The Times and the TV networks are the same thing as three solid hours a day ripping the opposition a new one, pile­driving the enemy, creating demons on every other point of the compass? Same thing? Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage are the same thing as The New York Times?

JL:​ ​I think the liberalism you got from The Today Show and Bill Moyers was much more insidious than what you got from Limbaugh. Because everybody knew where Limbaugh was coming from. But Bill Moyers! Oh, he’s objective! He’s on PBS! Oh yeah, he was chief of staff to Lyndon Johnson.

MP: ​A genuine raging liberal, that LBJ.

JL:​ ​Oh my god, Lambert. I’d forgotten how insidious you are. Lyndon Johnson presided over the single greatest expansion of the welfare state. “Raging liberal.” Uh, yeah!

MP:​ It may depend on how thick the lens is you’re looking through. But my question is this: Why didn’t your average pencil­necked, weasley, jelly-­spined liberal rally around Air America like the Tea Party base has for your side of talk radio?

JL:​ ​I told you. I truly believe they, liberals, ­­had other avenues. They didn’t need it. They could go to PBS, the New York Times, Dan Rather. Where was a conservative to go in Reagan era for a popular media that was truly, reliably conservative? The Wall Street Journal, maybe. That is what I truly believe. Why don’t you think it worked?

MP:​ I think there’s a psychological difference between the two audiences. I believe conservatives have much more affinity for an authoritarian, authoritative-­sounding personality, validating their opinions. Put four liberals in a room and they all think they are the authority. Liberals just don’t go for the “Big Bwana tells me what to think” shtick. It’s not part of their mental make­up.

JL:​ ​So the liberals are deeper thinkers.

MP:​ More skeptical.

JL:​ ​Well, I have a little different take, I think conservatives are angrier. And the reason they’re angry is because, “You’re taking something that is mine.” Property, mainly, in my view. Where liberals are all saying, “Oh no, we’re all community. We should share our property, even by force.”

MP:​ By force?

JL:​ ​Well, what do you think government is? And what are you looking for on this inside radio stuff? I get the feeling you’re looking for something in particular.

MP:​ Not really. It’s whatever you want to say. But I do think there’s an interesting conversation to be had in the evolution in talk radio since the late ’90s and its value to conservatives like you who seem to say they’d prefer to win elections, rather than entertain the same 5 percent.

JL:​ ​Well, I’ve said I don’t think it’s as powerful as it was 10-­15 years ago.

MP:​ I agree. But it still carries tremendous influence. People have snickered at me for my fascination with its influence. But I still argue it’s real and substantial. For example, do you think talk radio has been an asset to the cause of the kind of conservatism you’ve been talking about here?

JL:​ ​It’s a really good question. But I don’t think it’s having much effect at all, because it’s only affecting that same 5 or 6 percent. Talk radio went after Bill Clinton with a vengeance. Talk radio went after Barack Obama with a vengeance. How did that work out? Two terms. But look, why don’t you tell me what you want me to say. Because I think there’s something you want to hear me say. Something like, “Those bastard corporate managers! Those bastard station owners! They drove me out of the business!” Is that what I’m supposed to say?

MP: ​I don’t care what you say. Just tell me whatever the story is. I’m taking your attitude, “I don’t care about you. Do your own thing.”

JL:​ ​Well, that’s good. That’s a healthy attitude.

MP​: But here’s the question, again. Has this litmus-­test quality for radio hosts like yourself and Republican candidates in general, a test heavily if not largely driven by the “conservative entertainment complex” been beneficial to the electoral aspirations of conservatives like yourself?

JL:​ ​Maybe not. But I don’t think I was a part of that. But if you want me to say that me going off the reservation on some things, like marijuana or foreign policy made it harder [for me], I’ll say that. There is a conformity in talk radio. If you want to be successful you’ve got to parrot the [Republican National Committee]. I mean, Sean Hannity is an automaton. You know what I mean? And they like it! Oh my god, Sean. It’s like listening to the mirror image of Ed Schultz. And there is is red vs. blue tribalism that exists without any independent thought. That was the thing about Bill Buckley. He surprised you all the time.

MP:​ I liked Buckley. He was an interesting guy.

JL:​ ​Yeah, I liked him, too.

MP: ​But I liked Gore Vidal more.

JL:​ ​Naturally. But there’s a lack of Buckley in talk radio. It’s becoming stale, big time.

MP:​ How do you explain Donald Trump?

JL:​ ​He’s saying things nobody else is willing to say.

MP:​ “Nobody else is willing to say?” I hear drunks in Wisconsin all the time … 

JL:​  ​No other “candidate” is willing to say.

MP:​ But is there anything in there of actual value? Or is it just that he’s saying things no other reasonable candidate would dare to say?

JL:​ ​No. He’s saying things that everybody knows to be true, but people like say you can’t say.

MP: ​Like what?

JL:​ Oh, I don’t know, like that we’ve got a serious problem with the borders … .

MP:​ What candidate is saying we don’t have an immigration problem?

JL:​  ​Well, you’ve got Barack Obama, for one, who with his executive overreach unilaterally created a whole new class of immigrants. Five million of them.

MP:​ The DREAM Act.

JL:​ And then the DREAM Act on steroids.

MP:​ And where are your conservative friends going to get the money to deport all these people?

JL:​  You can’t deport them. That’s stupid. All you can do is stop anymore from coming in. But that’s not the point. The point is we need more high­skilled workers. We’ve got high­skilled programmers coming in to Cal­-Berkeley who then get deported because they can’t find an employer sponsor. That’s insane. What good does it do to import low­skilled immigrant labor?

MP:​ Well, they pick the strawberries in California and deliver the papers for the Star Tribune. Not a lot of “real Americans” lining up for those jobs.

JL:​ ​Look, you know and I know they’re overwhelmingly on public assistance. Milton Friedman …

MP:​ Oh, boy … .

JL:​  ​Milton Friedman was in favor of open borders, but he said you can’t combine open borders with a welfare state. So if you can find an immigrant who can come here to America and work without going on a public subsidy, great. More power to ’em.

MP:​ Ok, back to Trump. Is he saying, in your estimation, anything that is intelligent, and by that I mean well-­considered and thoughtful, or is he purely and simply rousing the rabble?

JL:​ ​ Well look, if you’re asking me if Donald Trump is a richer and smarter Jesse Ventura, the answer is, “yes.” But on immigration I do think he’s hit a nerve that Republicans will not touch. And this is the absurdity of the neo­conservative movement. We have to go out and protect the borders of Afghanistan and Iraq! But not the United States! And hell, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait until we go into Iran!

MP: ​Let me try this another way. What is Trump’s appeal to the 24 percent who support him now? My guess would be a lot of his people are or have been talk radio fans. What are they responding to?

JL:​ They sense he doesn’t need it. And half of them don’t think he’ll get it. So he can shoot from the hip. He’s already successful. He doesn’t need it. All these other guys have this Al Gore Syndrome. Their life depends on this. They have to have it. It’s a huge advantage. Reagan had that. To a degree Kennedy had that. You can’t appear to want it so bad you’ll sell out Grandma.

MP:​ Well, that’s interesting. It took an hour and a half. But you finally said something interesting. But at what point does he implode?

JL:​ Well, we’ll see … . But it really is the Ventura phenomenon on a larger stage. There’s this enormous antipathy toward establishment, career politicians.

MP: ​And Jeb Bush? The presumptive nominee?

JL:​ Oh, yeah! At this point, in 2015 the American people are screaming out for another Bush-­Clinton race. Are you kidding me?

MP: ​We look like a banana republic.

JL:​ Exactly. If that happens I may either stay home or vote for the Libertarian.

MP:​ Shocking. By the way who is the Libertarian this time?

JL:​ ​I have no idea. But I know he’ll get a solid .4 percent.

MP: ​My bet is Trump goes independent.

JL:​ ​You think so?

MP: ​Yeah, compared to these other guys with their enormous campaign infrastructure, he can fly around at comparatively little expense on his own dime and soak up no end of free media. Like Ventura, the press can’t control themselves. He shows up, he’s on the evening news.

JL:​  And it gives him huge leverage with the party. Of course Democrats think Trump is writing their ticket. But personally, I like it. I’m enjoying it. You’ve got these parties playing between the 40­yard lines. Somebody’s got to shake ‘em up.

MP:​ Some of your guys have been playing in the end zone for quite a while.

JL:​ Some these guys … it’s like an addiction. They will sell their mothers to stay in power. It’s really ridiculous. Hell, it’s like media people who can’t get up and walk away.