On a drive around the great state of Georgia, I got to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: taking the temperature of conservative talk radio. Tuning into the AM dial is like checking into an alternate reality version of America: the commercials endlessly promote end-of-the-world survivalism; the hosts fixate on political issues and grievances that most of the rest of the country has given little, if any, thought to; and the world as these stations portray it is stuffed to the gills with robbers, rapists, child molesters, terrorists, con artists, malevolent conspiracies, and venal politicians of the most incomprehensible kind. Talk radio is like an overweight white man stuffed into the Wicked Witch of the West’s slinky black dress, screaming “What a world, what a world!” without ever quite melting away.
I started out light, scanning around the AM spectrum for whatever was available as I drove from Atlanta to Athens. I got to hear a bit of Mike Gallagher’s show, captained by a guest host who marveled that Barack Obama didn’t care whether North Korea had nuclear weapons that could strike California. A caller supposed that Obama and other liberals were indifferent because North Korea’s nuclear tests reportedly would not affect “the environment,” so—no harm, no foul. Obama preposterously pursues disarmament and wants to reduce our own nuclear arsenal, while happily overseeing nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran—presumably because of his anti-American bonafides, or perhaps because he is an environmentalist, though Kim Jong-un nuking northern California would appear to be bad for the environment. This, somehow, Obama is too hysterically anti-American and traitorous to recognize.
Next was the Josh Tolley Show. Tolley has quite a remarkable m.o. for his program. He likes to entertain the most bizarre and extravagant predictions for the world, prefacing his comments with aw-shucks provisos that he doesn’t know for sure but that the possibilities are (time and again) “alarming.” Tolley brought on several lunatic guests and callers to discuss the resignation of Pope Benedict, who advanced various millenarian theories about how the Pope’s departure signals the end of the world. One guest turned to a twelfth-century prophecy by a Saint Malachy, which predicted that there would be 112 Popes—i.e. one more than Pope Benedict. With the accession of Benedict’s successor, the final Pope would sit in the chair of St. Peter when the Tribulation, Rapture, and new kingdom of God finally arrived on Earth. The guest referred to the Latin names given to each of the anticipated Popes to corroborate his theory, finding whatever support could be found to validate various predictions, and he also turned to the vague, gnomic predictions of Nostradamus, who (sort of) foretold that a “black” Pope would emerge—presumably, the cardinal Peter Turkson, a Ghanaian who is considered a candidate to take over for Benedict. (The black pope, like the black president, is a sign of the end times.)
Throughout, there was a certain hostility or suspicion toward Catholicism that no student of American history will find surprising, as the avowedly Protestant voices on the show admitted their lack of knowledge of the Catholic religion but thought these prophecies or predictions were a good reason why their Catholic brothers and sisters should consider abandoning the faith (along with the venerable Protestant canards that Catholics should stop worshipping Mary, icons, skulls, and so forth). Why exactly it was that belief in a prophecy by a medieval Catholic mystic should be reasonable grounds for abandoning one’s Catholic faith was not at all clear from the discussion, but theological subtletly is not Tolley’s strong suit.
The host also welcomed some truly bizarre discussions of science and technology from callers, stating that there were numerous human-animal hybrids or “chimeras” that were being kept in a lab somewhere, allegedly as part of a DARPA project by the Defense Department, while science had also somehow created people with three-strand DNA. Tolley mused on whether these mutants could legitimately be considered “human,” in a philosophical discussion that was, in its own wonderful way, worthy of Donna Haraway.
On the way back, I got to enjoy the riffing of my favorite conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh. Whatever his foibles may be, Rush is an orator with a true gift of gab, capable of dreaming up extravagant analogies that set familiar issues in profound relief and framing disputes in the most hyperbolic ways. I may abhor his politics, but he is undoubtedly a political figure of consequence and a radio performer of unique talent— ridiculing, parodying, and pawing at his opponents in a variety of comic registers. That said, Rush’s material was in no way changed from what I heard shortly after the election—a stale parade of listeners imploring him to explain how they could advance the conservative cause in the face of an apparently unintererested and unbelieving public, somehow irretrievably lost to liberal lies that the government will give away infinite freebies in spite of the truth of rightwing nostrums. Rush blasted the GOP mandarins for wringing their hands about “outreach” and “rebranding,” as if Republicans’ only problem were “marketing,” whereas he insisted that Republicans just need to “articulate conservatism” in a much clearer way. It was by no means clear how Rush’s call for persuading the public with facts and information and argument was much different from broader GOP calls to more effectively “message” on behalf of conservative policies.
Ever since November 2012, Rush Limbaugh and his followers have been trying to get their head around the fact that many of their fellow Americans got bamboozled by Obama’s liberal, statist, socialist con job. Rush assures his listeners that the GOP merely failed to articulate conservatism, as he tells them over and over again that 4 million fewer Republicans showed up to vote in 2012 than in 2008—enough to sway the outcome, perhaps. All that was needed was a full-throated endorsement of conservatism to rouse the base. Republicans erred by not launching a frontal attack on the president, while Obama and his minions viciously slandered Mitt Romney as a felon, plutocrat, and murderer. The GOP, he says, just refused to play the tough politics that Democrats have so well mastered. Rush also had something to say about climate change and gay animals, but that was a bit of a tangent.
Then there was the one to rule them all: I tuned into a discussion of how Al Gore carries around a refigerator of blood of all types everywhere he goes, because he needs to feed on them to sustain various holographic and multidimensional entities that somehow control the course of world events. I had heard something similar to this on another station, where a commercial asked whether we were created from clay by God, or “seeded” by aliens as a source of labor. The show I was hearing went on to discuss the many crimes of Jimmy Savile, the BBC star who molested numerous children over his long career—and who, according to the guest on the show, took them to Satanic rituals and had shadowy ties at the highest levels of British politics. It didn’t take long to realize that a guy with a British accent explaining incredibly strange conspiracy theories was likely to be David Icke, the writer who has made a career of spreading theories about reptilian aliens controlling the world and having some part in the killing of Princess Diana. After this, it also wasn’t hard to figure out that Icke was a guest on the Alex Jones Show, as the host rambled about how “these rappers are claiming to be part of the Illuminati” and the globalists are scheming to brainwash us with subliminal symbols in the Super Bowl and sap our energy by focusing our attention on mass media spectacles. Jones claims to be part of the central Texas resistance, “the spirit of 1776” pitted against “the mindset of 1984”—and the sworn enemy of insidious globalists who are bent on mass “extermination” of the human race.
It is no doubt unfair to group Jones and his almost inconceivably strange theories about vampires, reptilian aliens, holograms, and the government staging of Newtown and other shooting massacres with conservatives in general. Hannity and Limbaugh are focusing on altogether more quotidian bogeyman like Benghazi and the deficit. At the same time, though, it is clear that Jones is pitching to a similar audience on talk radio. His anxieties about patriotism, the Constitution, and the dangers of Satanism are not too different from other conservative talk show hosts who fret about omnipresent assaults on their ideas of freedom and tradition—and all agree that Commissar Obama is the dread enemy of everything they believe in, even if Jones wallows in insane conspiracy theory and favors a sort of gonzo libertarianism.
Indeed, the incessant advertising on talk radio all starts to sound the same. Alex Jones’s program is supported by many of the same companies that advertise on Josh Tolley, Rush Limbaugh, and Mike Gallagher. They hawk seeds for “survival gardens” (assuming an impending collapse of society), scare people into investing in gold (as if paper money will inevitably become worthless), and entreat people to protect themselves against rampant identity theft by buying various services. They all prey on fears that society has gone horribly, almost irreversibly awry. They tap into a sense of a world under siege—overrun by the pervasive and inescapable depredations of the “evil,” as Alex Jones always puts it—a world that is unrelentingly insidious and hopeless. It is a world custom-made for endlessly ranting about evil in a monologue, interrupted only by the “dittohead” caller and the commercial break. A day listening to talk radio ensconces one in a demimonde of cheats, crooks, perverts, tyrants, liars, and unruly children. I can only imagine what a year feels like.
ToM has previously written about the fever swamp of conspiracy theory and the underlying desire of theorists to see a world “behind” evident reality, focusing on the Sovereign Citizen movement and the 2011 killings in Tucson.