The firing of a cable TV talk show host in July 2003 may have seemed at first glance to be a minor event. Shock jocks crossing the line of good taste, after all, are a cliché, and stories of their rise and fall are as regular as the weekly Arbitron ratings. But the unceremonious dispatch of one Michael Savage (born Michael Weiner) indicated more about the turn of contemporary politics, media and language in the age of George W. Bush, who had pledged to "change the tone," than simply the degree of Savage's self-promoting nastiness. It was one of a series of telling incidents occurring in the summer of 2003, including Fox News' lawsuit against its critic Al Franken and the publication of Ann Coulter's "Treason," clarifying the dominant conservative tone.
"You should only get AIDS and die, you pig," Savage had screamed at a contrary caller, shortly thereafter prompting MSNBC to remove him from his place in front of its cameras. But the cable network, operated by NBC News, a division of General Electric, had been warned from the moment of his hiring that he was a practitioner of the malicious. His outbursts were well-documented: homosexuals were "perverts," Asians "little soy-eaters," and immigrants came from "Turd World nations."
Savage's tone was notorious from his radio show, syndicated to more than 300 stations by the Talk Radio Network Inc. But MSNBC trailed badly in the ratings behind the conservative network, Fox News, and sought to capture some of its audience by featuring its very own right-wing hosts. When Savage's show was announced, MSNBC was impassive in response to protests. Conservative groups, meanwhile, rallied to his support. Conservative Women of America, staunchly advancing the agenda of the religious right, made Savage's program one of its causes, urging its followers to send letters to the network: "Thank MSNBC for seeing that conservative talk show hosts like Savage, with millions of listeners, represent a vast viewer audience -- and one far greater than that of liberal pro-homosexual special interest groups in Washington, D.C."
After five months on the job, Savage's trademark tongue got him dismissed, but it hardly ended his career. He still remained host of his radio show, broadcast on hundreds of stations. He had just gone an insult too far for a mainstream network that had hired him in the first place on his reputation for slurs that it hoped would attract an audience share from Fox.
Savage was not a pioneer in his field, but an imitator, one shrill voice among many on the right that have proliferated to dominate the medium with their vituperation since the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. His language was more consistently vicious, yet often not much different from that of Rush Limbaugh, the most successful conservative media figure. Limbaugh's radio program has 15 million daily listeners, and he was recently awarded a spot as a sports commentator on ESPN, less for any predilection for athletics than for his market niche as a presumptive spokesman for discontented white men. In Limbaugh's lexicon, women's rights advocates were "femi-Nazis" and 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton was the "White House dog"; on African-Americans: "They are 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?"
Nor was Savage's method of debating that different from that of Bill O'Reilly, the second biggest conservative media star, host of the largest-rated show on Fox News, who cuts off and berates guests who disagree with him in a theater of humiliation. Although O'Reilly may not indulge regularly in racial epithets (even if he has popped off about "wetbacks"), his style is neither to engage the logic of an opposing point of view nor to acknowledge an inconvenient fact. When Al Franken, the comedian and author, confronted him on a panel at the May 2003 Book Expo America with the fact that he had falsely claimed several journalism prizes, O'Reilly's response was to shout, "Shut up! Just shut up!"
Three months later, Fox News filed suit against Franken and the publisher of his forthcoming book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," for using the phrase "fair and balanced," which Fox claimed it had the sole right to use. Its suit called Franken "a parasite," "unstable" and a "C-level commentator" who is "not a well-respected voice in American politics," while touting Fox News as "world famous" and Bill O'Reilly as a "national celebrity." In the light of numerous decisions by federal courts and the Supreme Court protecting satire and parody as free speech, the Fox News suit could only be interpreted as a means of vindictive bullying, a legal complement to its talk shows.
Talk like Savage's, or Limbaugh's or O'Reilly's, has become routine, even systematic, and certainly a big business. According to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, the top five radio station owners that control 45 powerful, 50,000-watt or more radio stations broadcast 310 hours of nationally syndicated right-wing talk. But they broadcast only a total of five hours of countervailing talk -- three of which include, almost as a peculiar courtesy, the Democratic foil on conservative Sean Hannity's show, Alan Colmes.
The belligerent posturing of the right is not some underground phenomenon, but available daily in any city or town on the radio dial, or on TV, or in the pages of conservative publications, or in the Congress. Who can forget the chivalry displayed when Hillary Rodham Clinton was elected in 2000 to the Senate from New York? "I tell you one thing," remarked then Senate Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott, "when this Hillary gets to the Senate -- if she does, maybe lightning will strike and she won't."
The vocabulary of bullying is intrinsic to the politics of bullying. In the summer of '03, House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay instigated the Department of Homeland Security to track down Texas Democratic legislators who had fled to Oklahoma to prevent his effort to gerrymander the state's congressional districts. Back in Washington, DeLay held a fundraiser at a steak restaurant for his political action committee. When he lit up a cigar, the manager meekly told him that it was against the law. "I am the federal government!" bellowed DeLay. In July, Rep. Bill Thomas, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, ordered the Capitol Police to evict Democratic members who were caucusing to consider a detailed bill he wanted to ram through without forewarning. "The minority can delay. It cannot deny," said Thomas, forcefully stating the principle of the tyranny of the Republican majority.
The rhetoric of abuse is not a sudden outburst, but has been well-designed for years. Republicans use these words and pursue these strategies consciously. In 1990, then Republican House Whip Newt Gingrich (later Speaker of the House) hired a pollster to devise a lexicon of demonization. In a memo that Gingrich circulated, "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," Republicans were instructed that "words and phrases are powerful" and that the list that had been test-marketed should be "memorized."
They were urged to apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party:
"decay ... failure (fail) ... collapse(ing) ... deeper ... crisis ... urgent(cy) ... destructive ... destroy ... sick ... pathetic ... lie ... liberal ... they/them ... unionized bureaucracy ... "compassion" is not enough ... betray ... consequences ... limit(s) ... shallow ... traitors ... sensationalists ...
"endanger ... coercion ... hypocrisy ... radical ... threaten ... devour ... waste ... corruption ... incompetent ... permissive attitudes ... destructive ... impose ... self- serving ... greed ... ideological ... insecure ... anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs ... pessimistic ... excuses ... intolerant ...
"stagnation ... welfare ... corrupt ... selfish ... insensitive ... status quo ... mandate(s) ... taxes ... spend(ing) ... shame ... disgrace ... punish (poor ... ) ... bizarre ... cynicism ... cheat ... steal ... abuse of power ... machine ... bosses ... obsolete ... criminal rights ... red tape ... patronage."
More than a decade after Gingrich's guidance, these words still echo 'round the clock. They are used to craft talking points for millions of followers, who have accustomed themselves to taking such cues. Out of this vocabulary, an entire mental universe has been conjured of sick, pathetic liberals, traitors against the flag and family, who would betray the country by imposing their permissive attitudes, bringing shame and disgrace, causing collapse and crisis.
The origins of this garish imagination of fear lie deeper than the recent escapades of Newt Gingrich, running back to the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, the Know Nothings of the 19th century, and Father Charles Coughlin and Sen. Joseph McCarthy of the 20th. In 1964, when the first contemporary right-wing candidate, Barry Goldwater, was nominated by the Republican Party, the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote an essay on "The paranoid style in American politics." He emphasized style because it had become the essence of this brand of politics: "Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content." But this did not mean that the right-wingers of Hofstadter's time did not engage in elaborate displays of "pedantry" and accumulations of "evidence." They piled up "evidence" to create a thoroughly coherent if fictitious black-and-white picture in which enemies within conspired and only those who had a special night-vision to identify these satanic hosts could resist them in the name of patriotism.
The same year that Hofstadter published his piece on "the paranoid style," an obscure conservative named John Stormer published the "carefully documented story of America's retreat from victory" in the face of the liberal-internationalist-Communist conspiracy. It was titled "None Dare Call It Treason." The book, timed to coincide with the 1964 presidential campaign, was turned into a bestseller by the John Birch Society, a far-right-wing group, which boasted that it had distributed 6 million copies within eight months of its publication. (To this day, the Birch Society sells Stormer's book on its Web site.)
Nearly 40 years later, in the summer of 2003, the bestselling book on the right was entitled "Treason," by Ann Coulter. "Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason," she wrote. " ... Everyone says liberals love America, too. No they don't. Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy." Positioned discreetly next to her book on the New York Times bestseller list was a tiny dagger signifying bulk sales from unknown sources. Coulter's argument was a conservative perennial, down to the spirited defense of Joseph McCarthy. Both Stormer's and Coulter's works cited mounds of "evidence." Both warned ominously against liberal betrayal. The principal difference between "None Dare Call It Treason" and "Treason" was not in sophistication, nuance, erudition, persuasiveness, or literary quality, but in the expanded capacity of conservatives to disseminate the word far and wide through their own alternative media and in the elevation by the mainstream media of the extremist as entertainer.
At summer's end, Coulter is basking in her publicity, even as a few embarrassed conservatives have had the temerity to join historians who read her book in noting that it is utterly absent of scholarship or historical understanding about McCarthyism. O'Reilly, for his part, is reported to have been behind the lawsuit against Franken; apparently, the aggrieved honor of Fox News' biggest property demanded it. Savage, banished from TV, continues to fill the radio waves with his invective. And President Bush, not having given a press conference in months, held one on Aug. 3, where he took the occasion to volunteer an appeal to the issue that's currently stirring up his right-wing base: "I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or the other." Having cleared that brush, he departed for his month-long summer vacation at his dude ranch.