THE NEW YORKER – KELEFA SANNEH
On January 20th, at around 12:04 p.m., the nation’s conservative talk-show hosts once again became the voice of the resistance. Many of them had spent eight years grappling with the vexing Presidency of George W. Bush, so when Barack Obama was sworn in they suddenly found themselves freed from the inhibiting effects of ambivalence. A liberal new President had joined the familiar array of villains in the House and the Senate, and although none of the big-name talk-show hosts celebrated this development, all of them seemed energized by it. Sean Hannity, who had generally been supportive of Bush, coined a spiffy new slogan to reflect the changed political climate: “The Conservative Underground, the Home of Conservatism in Exile.” Rush Limbaugh, who sometimes criticized Bush during his second term, quickly realized that the defeat of the Republican Party would only enhance his stature as a rousing speechmaker, unconstrained by electoral politics. (After Limbaugh said, of President Obama, “I hope he fails,” the Obama Administration and its allies found it useful to declare Limbaugh the unofficial leader of the Republican Party; in May, Limbaugh announced his resignation with mock solemnity, saying, “I was appointed without my acquiescence.”) And on January 19th, the day before the Inauguration, the radio and television host Glenn Beck launched a nightly show on Fox News, deftly channelling the defiance and bewilderment of dissident America.
Even in this world of born-again refuseniks, Michael Savage is an anomaly: a heretic among heretics, nearly as contemptuous of his fellow radio stars (he refers to Limbaugh as “the golfer,” and calls Beck “the hemorrhoid with eyes”) as he is of President Obama. He calls himself a “gen-yoo-wine independent conservative,” which is a kind of sales pitch—and, apparently, an effective one. His daily broadcast, “The Savage Nation,” is one of the most popular talk shows in the country. The magazine Talkers ranks Savage third on its “Heavy Hundred” list, behind only Limbaugh and Hannity, and estimates that he reaches more than eight million listeners weekly.
What he gives those listeners is one of the most addictive programs on radio, and one of the least predictable. San Francisco is his adopted home town (he calls it “San Fransicko,” a nickname that may or may not be affectionate, depending on the context and his mood), but he delivers his analysis and his anecdotes in a vinegary New York accent, occasionally seasoned with Yiddish, and this voice alone conveys something of the nostalgia he feels for his boyhood in the Bronx and Queens, in the forties and fifties. He is quick to anger, and often provides evidence of his firm belief that political understatement is overrated, as when he mentioned, in passing, that President Obama was “dragging us by the neck into the neo-Marxist nation of the new Venezuela.” He yields to no one in his disdain for liberals (he once wrote a book called “Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder”), not to mention illegal immigrants, fraudulent food-stamp recipients, Judge Sotomayor (“a stone-hearted racist and a narcissist”), gay-rights activists, the Congressional Black Caucus, and, for that matter, our national pastime. (“I still can’t believe that in this day and age an adult would go to a baseball game,” he says, adding, suggestively, that baseball is very popular in Communist Cuba.)
Just about any news story leads him back to his central thesis: that lefties are ruining the world, or trying to. After a Somali pirate was captured and brought to New York for trial, he told listeners to expect a backlash: “Some terrorist front from Milwaukee’s Somali community, in my opinion, is already saying, ‘He’s a child! He shouldn’t be judged, already, as a man.’ I haven’t seen Al Sharpton, yet, calling him an environmental warrior. I haven’t seen Jesse Jackson saying, ‘We’ve linked arms; we shall overcome.’ But don’t be shocked.” Television viewers may still remember Savage’s brief, unhappy tenure on MSNBC, which ended after he responded to a prank caller by saying, “Oh, you’re one of the sodomites. You should only get aids and die, you pig.” And earlier this year he found himself at the center of a strange international incident, after the British government announced—seemingly out of the blue—that he was on a list of twenty-two “hate promoters” who had recently been banned from entering the country. On his show that day, he played “God Save the Queen,” by the Sex Pistols, and said, “The punks had it right—there is no future in England.”