Donald Trump’s relationship with conservative talk radio is a complicated one. Shrill screamers like Mark Levin and toxic relics like Rush Limbaugh offer themselves as arbiters of True Conservatism, and Trump – with his history of left-leaning positions on guns and healthcare, and his relationship with the Clintons – would seem an easy target for their opprobrium. But, on the other side of the ledger, Trump’s insanely hardline anti-immigrant positions, his borderline fascist responses to anti-Muslim paranoia, and his anti-establishment “populism” are right in line with what talk-radio barkers say and believe.
Finding balance between those two positions is a difficult task that requires nuanced explanation and careful consideration of the politics at play. But that’s boring as hell and Trump is good for ratings, so talk radio, generally speaking, has thrown its lot in with Trump, boosting those portions of his platform they agree with and loudly refusing to criticize him. “The conventional wisdom is that Trump is scum, that Trump is a reprobate, that Trump is dangerous, that Trump is obscene, Trump's insane, Trump's a lunatic, Trump's dangerous, Trump's got to go,” Rush Limbaugh said last week after Trump proposed his ban on Muslim immigration. “Why join in with that phrase? Why join that crowd? We never fall in with conventional wisdom here.”
There’s been a shift, however, in the past week, as Ted Cruz’s poll numbers have jumped up nationally and in Iowa. Trump doesn’t react well when other candidates challenge his poll dominance, and so he called the upstart Cruz “a bit of a maniac” who lacks the proper temperament to be president. Trump has attacked other Republicans before and in much harsher terms, and Cruz has also laid into his rivals for the nomination, but they’d both refrained from criticizing each other. But when Trump called Cruz a “maniac,” he had finally gone too far for talk radio.
Here’s Rush Limbaugh explaining the line Trump had crossed (with emphasis added):
My questioning here about the way Trump has gone off Cruz here, calling him a maniac, refusing to work with people in the Senate, the reason I'm focusing on that, folks, 'cause that's so unlike Trump. I mean, that's a huge mistake. On paper it's a huge mistake. Trump gets away with his mistakes. Such is the bond of loyalty that his support base has for him that he gets away with them. And I don't think he's made that many. Don't misunderstand. But for any of you who are holding out hope that Trump is a genuine conservative. A genuine conservative, even in the Republican field, would not go after Cruz this way. So that just raised a red flag for me, made me somewhat curious.
This says a lot about the state of conservative and Republican politics. Limbaugh’s threshold for genuine conservatism is an appreciation of Ted Cruz’s role in the Senate as an obstructionist goon who considers the very notion of compromise to be anathema. Cruz has faithfully played that role, precipitating a government shutdown and positioning himself as a persistent obstacle to be overcome every time the question of continued government funding rolls around. Cruz is putting on a show and trying to make himself out to be the very essence of conservative purity and the only Republican in Washington who will “fight” for the party’s ideological principles.
It’s all a big con on Cruz’s part. He’s not really that much more conservative than your average Republican senator, but where he departs from most of his colleagues is on questions of legislative tactics. Republicans in the leadership will (frequently, but not always) acknowledge the reality that being an effective governing party requires a certain measure of compromise. Cruz’s philosophy is that the Republicans can, if they block the basic functions of government and hold firm, force the Democrats and the White House to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood. That strategy has produced precisely zero accomplishments, but that’s largely beside the point. Cruz is making the political argument that if you accept compromise at any level, then you’re not a real conservative and part of the loathed “establishment.”
As you see in the Limbaugh excerpt above, this tactical disagreement dressed up as ideological litmus test has become a central focus of conservative politics. For talk radio, it didn’t matter that Trump used to be pretty liberal on certain issues, it didn’t matter that he frequently has no idea what he was talking about, and it didn’t matter that his preferred policies are grossly immoral and flagrantly unconstitutional. He had the people behind him and was sticking it to the wimps in the GOP leadership. But the second that he criticized Cruz, and the second that he acknowledged the truth that a president has to compromise to get things done, he sacrificed whatever claim he might have had to being a “genuine conservative.”