Lessons I Learned From Working in Right Wing Radio
I wrote this in January of 2020, and then the world fell apart. It felt less and less relevant as this election cycle droned on, but I figured I’d publish it so it wouldn’t go to waste. And maybe a few people can learn a few things from it.
“I’m just sick to my stomach. I don’t know how it happened,” Gregg muttered to me on the November evening of Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama. He was visibly shaking, the color had left his skin, and he looked around the room for sympathy. Gregg didn’t know or care that my stomach was fluttering from relief at the outcome.
For the past year I’d listened to Gregg do his weekly show on a Midwest talk-radio station tailored to the conservative population. I had to listen because it was my job. Also part of my job was making sure that Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and any number of other ultra-right-wing shows were piped loud and clear to a large swath of Kansas. Gregg was the only one to do his show live from the studio.
The extreme confidence in which Gregg predicted Obama to lose in a landslide had me worried. I voted for Obama in 2008 and again 2012, but I knew he was the biggest bogy-man of the right. The viciousness over which they attacked him over every little thing (I recall an entire segment devoted to how terrible Obama was for leaning over the glass at a Chipotle) made me feel like I was the only one left that supported his vision. But what I learned on November 8th of 2012 was that I was living in the same bubble as the talk show hosts. Some of us now live in a bubble of Trump hatred that could cloud our chances at winning 2020. Below are the lessons I learned from the right’s 2012 failure, and how the left can avoid them for 2020.
Lesson 1: Overconfidence is a weakness.
All reasoning aside, the Republicans hated Obama, and that hate blinded them to everything else. Social bubbles are funny like that: the hate builds and bounces around, and it doesn’t take long before people believe the whole world thinks as they do. In 2012 Gregg and his clique in the radio station always asked whether the loss would be a landslide or an obliteration, as if those was no other outcome. The hatred of Trump may be even more significant in 2020. But we have to face one simple fact: nothing bad has ever happened to him. He’s done whatever he wanted his whole life without consequence, and he’s not going to stop next year. If we think his unpopularity alone will guarantee a loss, then we’re in for a bad surprise.
Lesson 2: Don’t focus on the infighting of the GOP.
One of the big talking points on right-wing radio leading up to 2012 was how unpopular Obama was with his own party. This may have been partly true, but it was because Obama was not being liberal enough. Gregg spent an hour one night on his show talking about how Hillary Clinton was pressured to run against Obama in 2012, and allegedly had to be talked out of it at the last minute. These were only rumors, but proven or unproven, they didn’t actually matter. When you were voting in 2012, did you think even for a second, “Hillary almost ran against Obama. That means I should vote for Romney?” No, of course you didn’t. These lines of thinking only served to make Republicans feel better about their prospects. There was little to no impact on voting. Things are a bit different in 2020: Trump does have serious challengers. There may even be some sniping in a few Republican primaries that will get ugly. But to believe that any of this will matter to the average Trump voter is completely delusional. Trump is going to win the nomination and will not lose any votes in the process. We cannot wrap ourselves in the comfortable blanket of believing any amount of infighting will save us. 2020 must be about getting left leaning voters out to the polls, instead of relying on right-leaning voters avoiding them. Which brings us to:
Lesson 3: Trump sucks, but let’s promote ourselves.
It’s true, Trump has made myriad mistakes and is leaving the world in a worse place than when he found it. But everyone knows that. It’s time to focus on what’s next and how to clean up his mess. The simple truth is that nothing new will come out. Trump lied, committed a crime, or did something inhumanely asshole-ish. It’s a daily roulette. It should be apparent that his base will stay his base no matter what happens. There isn’t a single left leaning or undecided voter who has missed one of the thousands of headlines. We can keep beating the drum, but at this point it won’t change anyone’s mind. The Democrats several good candidates, so we need to pick the best ideas and get behind them. The message has to be consistently about how different and better the next four years will be. Republicans in 2012 made their message: ‘Vote for Romney because he’s not Obama.’ A similar message about Trump won’t sway a truly undecided voter. They’ll default to the status quo. What they need is a compelling reason to change, and the only way to do that is to promote the ideas and the people who will undo the Trump dumpster-fire.
Lesson 4: Trump sucks, but let’s narrow it down.
Trump’s biggest strength comes from his biggest weakness; each scandal waters down the weight of them all. He’s talented at changing the subject and making even the most well-informed voter spin their wheels at the amount of destruction going on. In 2016 Hillary tried to attack too many things at once. It came out jumbled and Trump easily escaped by moving on and deflecting. In 2012 the Republicans watered themselves down by inventing continuous fake scandals: Obama will use the UN to take over the US, Obama will banish the dollar, Obama will plant computer chips in our necks to track us, “You didn’t build that” etcetera. Romney crushed himself in a debate by lamenting over the semantics of calling something an “act of terror” vs “an act of terrorism.” These attacks were for the base, but undecided voters had at least enough brains to know what was fake. Whether you’re a candidate debating Trump, or someone telling all your Facebook friends about why you’re voting for someone, you’ll need to be succinct. Trump told women of color to “go back to their own countries.” Trump used Ukraine to interfere in the election. Trump has dumped democratic allies in favor of totalitarian dictatorships. Two or three big topics is all we need. Maybe even just one; after all “but her emails” was enough to get Trump into office.
My favorite moment of 2012 was seeing the smug look on Gregg’s face quickly disappear. Unfortunately, he got the last laugh in 2016, as did all Trumpers. If we’re not able to learn the right lessons and apply the right tactics, we’re staring down another four (or more) years of futility.