Right-wing talk radio is a mercenary force in politics, but it is a revealing one.
Sean Hannity gives time to a populist interloper in the Republican Party, rather than a rock-solid conservative alternative. Hannity promotes this man with special coverage even though the candidate is already a very famous celebrity and getting a ton of free media coverage anyway. He promotes him on the basis that he can win, even if the candidate is seriously heterodox and in some cases to the left of his Democratic opponents.
Of course what I am describing was the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election, where Sean Hannity openly took the side of Arnold Schwarzenegger over stalwart Republicans like Tom McClintock. But the same is true today.
Conservative talk radio has been far friendlier territory for Donald Trump than conservative magazines or writers have been. There are occasional dissenters, like Glenn Beck, or little bouts of panic, but overall, talk radio shares the assessment of Trump offered by its leader, Rush Limbaugh: There's more upside than downside.
Of course there is — for talk radio. Donald Trump talks about politics the way talk-radio hosts do, like a dramatic clash of personalities. This is a very different view of politics from the one espoused by conservative opinion writers, where politics are questions of policy, popular opinion as it exists, and the structure of institutions that shape the decisions of politicians.
For talk radio, the only political questions that matter are of will and wit. Limbaugh, Hannity, and others constantly bemoan how little Republicans have been willing to do with a congressional majority. John Boehner and Paul Ryan are seen as cowards and sellouts rather than as men constrained by the limited powers of their office. Do Republicans have the backbone to take on Obama, are they willing to lose seats to pass important legislation, as many Democrats were with the Affordable Care Act? For Trump, as for talk radio, the Republican Party has failed because it is led by losers, cowards, and incompetents.
For the sin of supporting Trump, some conservative thinkers devoutly wish for a way of purging talk radio from the "official" conservative club. That's going to be difficult or impossible. Conservative elites need populist radio in order to move product. If a conservative writer wants to sell a few thousand copies of his latest book — enough to be a bankable mid-list author — a series of talk-radio hits is one of the most powerful and reliable methods of doing so.
Talk-radio hosts sometimes like to hit grumbling conservative writers back by boasting of the size of their audience, which they describe in terms of influence. The truth is that bragging about nine or 19 million listeners is really a way of bragging about success and money. A writer with an audience of 500 dedicated readers can have decisively more influence than a radio-gabber with five million, so long as they are the right 500 readers.
But these large talk-radio audiences do give their hosts a real advantage when it comes to detecting a change in the mass of Republican voters. Their call screeners, producers, and the staff that handles email comments can sense almost immediately when a topic is really hot, or when a candidate is beloved. And clearly, they saw Trump's power early. The very fact that so many talk-radio hosts began to rally to Trump should have sent a strong indicator to anti-Trump activists and writers that Trump had real and enduring popular support.
And in the Trump phenomenon you can see how the radio gabbers jealously guard their credibility with their audience, which depends on amplifying and channeling the audience's pre-existing feelings. See the way Sean Hannity recently lashed out at Marco Rubio and defended himself to Ann Coulter when a story hit The New York Times that Rubio and Chuck Schumer had wined and dined Hannity in support of the now-hated Gang of Eight immigration reform bill.
Rush Limbaugh once confessed to The New York Times, "I don't walk around thinking about my power. But in my heart and soul, I know I have become the intellectual engine of the conservative movement." The Trump phenomenon shows that he had it backwards. Limbaugh's intellectual engine should have alerted him that he was something more like the heart of a conservative movement, and in the absence of a successful conservative presidency, that heart has grown restless for a hero.
Trump fits the bill for today: because he fights, because he drives ratings, because he is just so different from the average Republican officeholder in temperament and background. And when Trump fails, he'll serve the next need of talk-radio's ear: Its need for a larger-than-life villain.