On Monday evening, as police in riot gear attempted to quell protests across the country, Mark Levin reassured his listeners they are not the problem.
“Our system is not ‘systemically racist.’ We have one of the most tolerant, beneficent societies on the face of the earth,” the conservative radio host said. It was one week after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police, and mere hours after federal officers in the District of Columbia charged a crowd of peaceful protesters to facilitate a presidential photo-op. Levin was focused on a different threat: “This idea that we can become a more perfect union if we just embrace democratic socialism, if we just embrace more centralized government, is absurd. Absolutely absurd.”
Levin surely knows that the protests that have erupted across the country have nothing to do with socialism and everything to do with accumulated outrage over inequitable policing and a system of justice that too often treats black lives as disposable. He and other prominent radio personalities on the right have loudly and unequivocally condemned Floyd’s murder.
What Levin’s brain has not been able to countenance, however, is the idea that the killing was anything but an isolated tragedy. Systemic racism? “I will not accept that there’s systemic racism in America. You know, the American people pretty much get along. They really do,” Levin said. Police abuse of power? “I’m quite tired of the notion that bad cops or bad people generally are illustrative of or representative of the group as a whole.”
OK, but what about what happened to the protesters in Lafayette Square? “I think the time has come, ladies and gentlemen, to put down this insurrection. ’Cause that’s what it is,” Levin said, all but asserting that the unrest has been stage-managed by radical leftists. “It’s not just antifa. There’s other groups involved in this too. And their agenda is not an agenda of unity and peace. So it’s absurd when people say, ‘The president just needs to speak to unity and peace and conciliation.’ There’s an insurrection going on here. Of sorts. And I think the American people are getting pretty damn tired of this.”
Mark Levin does not speak for the American people. But he does speak to a lot of them. The Mark Levin Show is consistently one of the most popular radio talk shows in the nation. Night after night, in tones alternately somnolent and hysterical, Levin expounds on the central thesis of the right-wing mediasphere in the late Trump era: that the only systemic oppression in America today is the targeting of conservatives by the liberal elite. The events of the past week have done nothing to throw this calcified worldview into question, either on Levin’s show or on any of the other conservative radio shows that consistently top ratings in markets across America. To the contrary, the death of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide outrage have only served to reinforce this deathless and unfalsifiable narrative of conservative victimhood.
“We are not going to be defined—I’m not going to mention his name—by this former bad cop. That doesn’t define white America!” Levin said. Defining white America is conservative radio’s job, and Levin and his peers will not be usurped in their dismal work.
On Tuesday, May 26—the day after Floyd was killed—I sat down to listen to a week of the country’s top conservative radio programs. (Though ratings for specific shows are hard to pin down, I picked five of the most prominent terrestrial radio hosts and left out more digital-native ones like Ben Shapiro, who has a radio show that began as a podcast.) Though I watch a lot of Fox News for Slate, the truth is that right-wing talk radio has a far bigger footprint than does Rupert Murdoch’s cable network. There are more right-wing radio hosts, for one thing, on stations all over the country—and listeners spend more time with them. At the end of 2019, Nielsen estimated that Americans spend 12 hours per week listening to the radio: double the amount of time they spend watching television. Talk radio is the top radio genre, and conservative talk is the top talk genre.
My goal was to see how these programs were covering the nearly 3-month-old coronavirus crisis. That’s not the crisis America ended up most consumed by during my weeklong tour of the AM dial. It is, however, the crisis we began with, and the ways in which right-wing radio got from there to here while managing to stay on message nearly all the while were instructive, ridiculous, and sadly typical.
May 26: “I FOLLOWED THE SCIENCE!”
“Greetings from Trucker University. You are an important part of our lifetime curriculum.”
That was a listener calling in to The Rush Limbaugh Show, America’s original inaccurate Facebook meme. For more than 30 years, Limbaugh has condensed liberal policies and positions into a smug stew of bombastic ad hominems that resonate deeply with America’s least critical thinkers. Nothing that’s happened to him lately—being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, being diagnosed with advanced lung cancer—has changed that. Limbaugh is the same toxic blowhard he’s always been, and his pupils love him.
Last Tuesday, Limbaugh’s lecture concerned how liberals had allegedly extended the coronavirus crisis in order to sabotage President Donald Trump. “For healthy people, COVID-19 is essentially the flu. Experts were spectacularly wrong,” Limbaugh asserted, noting that, by enacting statewide quarantines (which were put in place by Democratic and Republican governors alike), liberals “drove America’s economy into the ground and it was an excuse to destroy Donald Trump. The coronavirus was going to finish what Obama’s deep state started.” Key to their foul plan was forcing Americans to wear “worthless” masks, which, according to Limbaugh, are “simply a symbol of fear, anyway, that is now in the Democrat Party arsenal.”
This all sounds incredibly stupid until you filter it through the dominant right-wing radio grievance narrative. It sounds stupid after that, too, but it’s at least easier to parse. Limbaugh’s aim is to convince his listeners they are under attack by people who do not share their values—values that Rush himself has played a large role in defining. These attackers include the media, “the professoriate,” liberals in general, public health officials, blue-state governors, and many people of foreign extraction. When pronouncing Dr. Anthony Fauci’s surname, Limbaugh repeatedly assumed a mocky Italian accent. Mamma mia!
Later that night I tuned in to Levin, who makes up in bile what he lacks in charm. Though Levin’s show is cut from the same cloth as Limbaugh’s—aging white dude soliloquizing for three hours about his interesting opinions—it is dyed in a different pattern. For all his flaws, Limbaugh is fundamentally an entertainer, a rock radio jock who somehow never gets around to playing any records. Levin is made from much stranger stuff. He reminds me of the person you would least want to sit next to at a dinner party, aggressive and needy and apt to ascribe a moral valence to your menu choices.
Levin’s show is oddly hypnotic. He begins very slowly, as if he is literally just waking up, only to accelerate quickly and loudly with little prelude. “The Democrat Party is at war internally with the United States,” Levin began, and you could almost hear him yawn at the sentiment he has expressed so many times before. The most recent front, he said, is the COVID-19 noncrisis. Like Limbaugh, Levin argues that the Democrats exaggerated the danger of the coronavirus in order to tank the economy and sabotage Trump. Unlike Limbaugh, Levin seemed personally affronted by the Democrats’ wacky adherence to public health advice. “We knew the death rate that was being put out originally was bogus. Why?” he asked. “Because I followed the science. I FOLLOWED THE SCIENCE!”
Levin soon turned to three of his usual nemeses: the media, the Chinese, and the liberal thought police. “The New York Times dares to have a front page, 1,000 names of people who died from the coronavirus. What was missing from that list? China,” Levin said, and then he started to scream: “Communist China killed 100,000 Americans, and we’re not allowed to call it the China virus! How can a country survive with this kind of nonsense?” He quickly cooled down. “I’ll be right back.”
The ease with which Levin moves from apoplexy to calm tells me that the rage is a rhetorical flourish that substitutes for the logic his arguments lack. Because his clear goal is to flatter and deepen his listeners’ tribal identification with the right, it becomes his imperative to depict the left as villainous schemers ripped from the pages of a bad Robert Ludlum novel. Ah, yes, the left, those deep-state conspiracists eager to suppress freedom and topple the president by forcing Americans indoors for months under cover of a hoax virus. If you actually believed that, then sure, it would make sense to hate and fear Democrats.
May 27: “We’re All Children of God”
Though Levin hosts a weekend show on Fox News, he and Limbaugh are really radio guys. The same is not true for Sean Hannity, who in addition to his prime-time Fox program also hosts a daily three-hour radio show. From the outset of my listening, it was clear Hannity is a much less imaginative conspiracist than his peers. Where Levin and Limbaugh saw dark machinations in the diktats of Fauci and the masking of America, Hannity—who, unlike the other two men, is based in New York City and thus has had firsthand experience with a city wracked by COVID-19—has apparently come around to a relatively sane stance on the coronavirus. “Masks worked! We gotta learn from it,” Hannity said, and then he doubled down: “If wearing masks brings us to football stadiums, I’ll wear it.” Where Limbaugh had characterized the photographs of crowded Memorial Day swimming pools at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks as a symbol of freedom, Hannity was not a fan. He may be one of the more extreme voices on Fox News, but on right-wing radio, he’s somehow become a voice of relative reason.
But Hannity always finds his way back to his favorite topics, like yelling about Twitter—which is “suppressing conservative thought and ideals”—and “the media and the mob in the media, and guess what: They have an agenda.” (He also brought on Bill O’Reilly to complain about state income taxes and incessantly plug his own website, two of O’Reilly’s favorite topics.) It was the same day that outrage truly started to build in Minneapolis over Floyd’s death, but Hannity wasn’t yet ready to cover the story. Instead, he convened a segment on Joe Biden’s dumb assertion that if you vote for Trump, you “ain’t black,” and invited two black guests to come on and rebut the implication that the Trump administration is racially regressive.
The point of this segment wasn’t to convert black voters to team MAGA. It was meant to convince white people that the very concept of systemic oppression of minorities is bogus, an invention of liberals and the media. Hannity didn’t discuss Floyd last Wednesday in part because doing so at that time wouldn’t have served this mission. “Every two to four years the race card gets played,” Hannity said. “I’m sick of it as a conservative. I want nothing to do with bigoted, hateful, racist people. We’re all children of God.”
May 28: “They Deserve No Quarter Whatsoever”
By Thursday, right-wing talk radio could no longer avoid the topic of Floyd’s death—although some hosts certainly tried. Former NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch spent the majority of her Thursday afternoon program talking about how Trump planned to issue an executive order that would ostensibly prevent social media platforms from fact-checking his posts there—Loesch thought the executive order was a bad idea—and also debating whether Biden had farted during a recent media appearance (“Fartgate,” Loesch jokingly called it). But she touched on the Floyd case during the middle of her show. “As far as the peaceful protest goes, I’d be out in the street peacefully protesting this too, because it’s ridiculous,” Loesch said of Floyd’s murder. “This is indefensible. I don’t care who you are.” Rush Limbaugh, too, seemed legitimately shaken by the video of Floyd’s killing and was unequivocal in his condemnation of the officers responsible. “George Floyd did not deserve to lose his life,” said Limbaugh. “And we pronounce that sentence on very few people who are born and have a life in this country. We execute very few people. And that’s what this was.”
Rush Limbaugh was calling Floyd’s death an execution? The world had gone topsy-turvy. Later that night, Mark Levin seemed similarly affected, calling the killing “absolutely unconscionable” and empathizing with what the dying Floyd must have felt. It all felt sort of historic. The lions of right-wing radio had been moved off their spot, which never happens. These people have lucrative and prominent media jobs precisely because of their talent for never backing away from their priors. Admitting police culpability in the death of an unarmed black man was the first step in acknowledging the flaws of a system that facilitates similar tragedies on a regular basis. Could these right-wing warriors take the next step?
No. Pretty soon, Levin was blasting the protests in Minneapolis. “Burning down buildings. Stealing televisions and clothing out of a Target. These are hoodlums. Not protesters. They deserve no quarter whatsoever. None whatsoever. Somebody else can get killed,” Levin said, soon praising the president for his purportedly fast response. “The rule of law is the glue that keeps society together. As long as it’s a just rule of law. A constitutional rule of law. Which is why so far I am so proud of the response by law enforcement, by prosecutors, by our president, by our attorney general, so many others.” Rioters and looters are the disease; Trump—and a swift crackdown—are the cure.
May 29: “The Hippies Invaded the Universities”
On Friday afternoon, I tuned in to Michael Savage’s enormously entertaining and thoroughly vile talk show, The Savage Nation. Savage is an articulate, hypereducated troglodyte who seethes his way through his two-hour block with a reactionary flair rooted in overweening nationalist sentiment and a world-historical disdain for hippies. The program is the sort of nuts you get when a leftist apostate swings violently to the other side of the ideological spectrum. Still, I enjoyed Savage’s show the way other people enjoy cigarettes: toxic, yet in its way sublime. (Worth noting: Over the past several months, Savage has mercilessly condemned some of his right-wing radio peers’ coronavirus denialism.)
The week was ending, and here Savage was uniting all of the week’s disparate threads into a tapestry of resentment. He talked about Twitter, which is “controlled by a psychopath who edits and modifies everything on my Twitter feed.” He suggested that the Floyd protests were influenced by residual anger over the COVID-19 lockdowns. He raged against “a demonic media that needs to be curtailed the way Lincoln curtailed the media during the Civil War.” He read an ad for a mask retailer, urging listeners to use the code SAVAGE20 and save money at checkout, and then later proceeded to announce that “masks don’t work.” He called Elon Musk “Elton Musk,” which made me laugh very hard.
Though Savage was legitimately angered by Floyd’s death, characterizing his killer as “a homicidal maniac” and a “bastard cop” and calling for him to face the death penalty, these sentiments were eclipsed by his rage toward the looters and rioters. “Looting in the name of justice equals the liberal narrative,” Savage said. Leftism, after all, is the one true force of systemic oppression. You do not bend to your oppressors, you fight them, and last Friday Savage was girding for battle. “Are you telling me we don’t have a civil war going on in this country? Are you telling me the left isn’t a foreign nation to most Americans? Well, I would disagree with you,” he said. “We’ve been in [a civil war] since 1967, when the hippies invaded the media, the hippies invaded the universities.”
As Savage signed off for the day, he urged listeners to focus their ire on the targets that really deserved it: the hated left, and the malign influence the left exerts on the body politic. “Let’s pray to God that the rule of law prevails, and that the thugs are arrested immediately, and that the police are given back the power that was stolen from them by the radical left in the ’60s. This is The Savage Nation, God bless America, and may we all be safe from the thugs who are trying to take us down.”
June 1: “The Greatest Nation in the History of the World”
I took a break over the weekend, but the news didn’t. Protests and riots mounted across the country. On Sunday night, part of St. John’s Episcopal Church, near the White House, was set afire. The president blamed antifa for the destruction and vowed to restore order to the nation, by force if necessary. Looting and violence had punctuated a debate between people who on one side felt that police oppression was the problem and on the other felt that police oppression was the answer. It felt like something had to give.
I did not expect Rush Limbaugh’s radio show to be the thing that gave. When I tuned into his program this Monday, Limbaugh still sounded shaken by Floyd’s death. Over the weekend, he had invited the three black hosts of The Breakfast Club—the morning radio show on which Biden had made his “you ain’t black” gaffe—to talk on the air with him about Floyd, race relations, police inequality, and other topics on which Limbaugh is accustomed to opining without interruption. “I wanted to tell them what I thought—and, by extension, I believe I represent a majority of white Americans on this—there is nobody, nobody who is OK with what happened to George Floyd.” Limbaugh said. “I hoped that there would be some sliver of commonality, and maybe there was. You’ll have to be the judge when you listen.”
The resulting segment is one of the most remarkable things I have ever heard. For 25 tense minutes, Limbaugh faced off against Breakfast Club hosts Charlamagne tha God, DJ Envy, and Angela Yee in a colloquy that laid bare the fundamental clash of worldviews undergirding the protests now taking place across America. After some opening pleasantries and general agreement that the killing of Floyd was unconscionable, the Breakfast Club hosts got into it. “You’ve seen numerous police killings of unarmed black men in this country. Why is this one the one that’s making you sit up?” asked Charlamagne tha God.
“Because I’m fed up with it, Charlamagne,” said Limbaugh. “This is not America.”
“Oh, this is definitely America,” said Charlamagne.
“But it’s not what we can be. We’re the greatest nation in the history of the world,” said Limbaugh.
“But for who, though, Rush? You’re a white man,” said Charlamagne. “[It] doesn’t work for everybody the way it works for you.”
“Well, it can,” said Limbaugh, and the whole conversation just sort of went like that. When DJ Envy brought up Limbaugh’s blistering critiques of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests several years ago, Limbaugh asked whether the riots would have stopped if the Minnesota Vikings had announced they were signing Kaepernick to a contract. (“No!” was the answer, after a long, incredulous pause.) When Charlamagne asked Limbaugh how he was planning to use his white privilege to combat racism, Limbaugh announced that he did not believe in the notion of white privilege.
Limbaugh kept citing the Breakfast Club hosts and their own success in morning radio as proof that the system was not inherently racist. “What can we do to end it? So what can we do to stop the racism?” Limbaugh asked at one point. “As long as there’s a system of white supremacy there will always be these situations,” DJ Envy replied. At one point, Charlamagne asked Limbaugh if he really couldn’t see that white people are just treated better in America than black people are. “You have no idea how I have been mistreated my whole life,” Limbaugh said. “It’s called life and it happens. And we’re all mistreated. I’ve been fired nine times in my career.”
At the end, Limbaugh invited his three guests to come back and do this again soon, “and maybe make a focus of white supremacy.” Angela Yee seemed open to the idea. “I’m very into having these conversations,” she said, “because I do think it is important for white people to acknowledge the hurt that they’ve inflicted on the African American community, and to be able to come forward and admit that we can’t even move forward until that happens.”
“Well, that’s what I was attempting to do here, with all of you today,” Limbaugh said, and in his way, he really seemed to want to have that conversation. But he also was trying to not have it, because that would challenge his grievances. Then Limbaugh all but admitted this in a surprisingly candid speech (emphasis mine):
On the white supremacy thing, I’m not in any kind of denial. I just know that it’s a politically charged element of the Democrat Party’s politics and liberalism, and I do not cave or compromise or give one iota of an inch to liberalism, no matter what. So white supremacy or white privilege is a construct of today’s Democrat Party, and I’m not going to agree with any aspect of it as they put it forth.
And that’s it, in a nutshell, all of it. Limbaugh and Levin and the rest aren’t in denial. If you are savvy enough to become a nationally prominent right-wing radio host, you are savvy enough to understand how the world works, and for whom it works best. But, in that case, you are also savvy enough to know that you cannot ever, ever admit what you know, because to do so would fundamentally challenge the tendentious ideological premises on which you have built your career.
These hosts have built empires on the risible notion that everything the left says is to be mocked, mistrusted, and resisted. This is why they began one week largely aligned against coronavirus-mitigation measures; this is why they started the next by characterizing the murder of George Floyd as a one-off crime committed by a bad apple who has already been brought to justice, by calling for the president to rain hellfire down on the heads of peaceful protesters, and by dismissing the very notion that America’s systems of justice and governance work better for whites than for everyone else. To allow for even the slightest possibility of systemic oppression of minorities at the hands of the police is unimaginable, because to do so would be to yield territory to the left. They will cry for George Floyd and the next George Floyd and the next after that, and the system that murders George Floyds will never change, and they will take that stagnation as proof that their ultimate mission has been successful—that all remains right with the world.
For more of Slate’s politics coverage, listen to The Political Gabfest.