David Bromwich

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - David Bromwich

Crazy Talk

July 26. Rush Lim­baugh on his three­hour daily show on Fox News Ra­dio is an­swer­ing an e-mail about an iPhone prob­lem. “I get lots of these calls all the time,” Lim­baugh says, and the so­lu­tion comes fast: “It could well be be­cause you hold the phone in your pocket the wrong way. You might have lint in the charge port.” This may sound like a com­mer­cial for iPhones, but the truth is that he loves Ap­ple prod­ucts and ad­ver­tises them un­paid. The right way to carry the iPhone in your pocket, he tells his ques­tioner, is with the screen against your leg; that way, if you bump into some­thing, the screen won’t get the bump. And keep the bot­tom port on top—oth­er­wise, it’s in the part of your pocket that could have lint. “What are you laugh­ing about?”

He’s off, talk­ing now to his staff, who shoot him com­ments on his ear­phones. “Now they’re re­ally laugh­ing in there. You don’t think this is use­ful knowl­edge?” Why talk about the iPhone, they say, when we’ve just dis­cov­ered water on Mars? This prompts an ir­ri­ta­ble ri­poste that quickly turns into a rant: on the ir­rel­e­vance of Mars to a com­fort­able life on earth, on Elon Musk, who wants to go there and good rid­dance, and fi­nally, of course, on the Democrats. Why, he asks, should he care about the water and mi­cro­bial life on Mars? “It would prove the ex­is­tence of life off our planet.” This last re­mark from his staff sets off the chain of ex­plo­sions:

Fine. That proof will not last long be­cause as far as the left is con­cerned, if there is life else­where in the uni­verse, it’s gotta be much smarter than we are. If there’s life else­where, they’ve al­ready solved abor­tion. They’ve solved nu­clear dis­as­ter. They have solved racism, dis­crim­i­na­tion. They’re a per­fect world, and the only rea­son they would be com­ing here would be to try to fix us. But then it’s de­cided we’re too far gone, and we’re not even worth sav­ing, and that’s why aliens haven’t come yet .... I read the tech blogs ev­ery day, and they fan­ta­size about ev­ery as­teroid go­ing by hav­ing an ad­vanced civ­i­liza­tion of life and that the as­teroid’s ac­tu­ally com­ing here, and they’re ex­am­in­ing us, and they keep go­ing .... We’re so racist, we’re so sex­ist, we’re so anti-LGBTQ, that we’re not worth sav­ing. So the as­teroid keeps go­ing and then the next one shows up and they start the fan­tasy all over again. I am not mak­ing this up! Well, no, the as­teroid will never land. It will crash into earth and wipe us all out and our free health care with it.

The in­vaders com­ing down to in­spect and re­ject us as a life form are doubt­less an in­vol­un­tary mem­ory of It Came from Outer Space (1953)—a movie prob­a­bly known to few Democrats un­der sev­enty. But this sort of mem­ory check, like most fact checks on Don­ald Trump, is re­ally be­side the point.

The iPhone ca­denza af­fords a vivid il­lus­tra­tion of why Lim­baugh’s au­di­ence loves him. He mixes it up in un­pre­dictable ways and he is hav­ing, as he likes to say, “more fun than any hu­man be­ing should be al­lowed to have.” A reader and decoder of the press, he an­a­lyzes news sto­ries as well as opin­ion col­umns to ex­plain why the slant of an ar­ti­cle matches the au­thor. He has been in talk ra­dio for thirty-four years and his mem­ory, short-term and long, serves him ex­tremely well. To the ques­tion of why Hil­lary Clin­ton would be so fool­ish as to keep of­fi­cial e-mails on a pri­vate server, he an­swered at once when the news hit: be­cause she doesn’t want them to do to her what they did to David Petraeus when he mis­han­dled clas­si­fied ma­te­rial.

Lim­baugh is mis­chievous and surly— moods that bleed into each other in his mono­logues—but above all he is at home in pol­i­tics. This pos­ture of a po­lit­i­cal guide, one who is au­thor­i­ta­tive and care­free, is his largest at­trac­tion for his lis­ten­ers. Many of them (to judge by the call-ins) have no other reg­u­lar source of pub­lic in­for­ma­tion; with­out him, they wouldn’t know how to as­sess what they hear about what’s hap­pen­ing in the na­tion. Lim­baugh has an air of om­ni­com­pe­tence, much in the man­ner of Trump, though he is faster, surer, and bet­ter with lan­guage. Trump is a busi­ness­man tem­po­rar­ily dis­placed into pol­i­tics—some­thing Lim­baugh said about him early on, with­out in­tend­ing it as crit­i­cism: Trump is a guy who knows about money and he’s on our side.

July

27. Pres­i­dent Trump calls up the Sean Han­nity Show, which airs right af­ter Lim­baugh: Lim­baugh has the noon to 3 slot, Han­nity 3 to 6, and if you are a truck driver on a long haul or a roofer (like Han­nity be­fore talk ra­dio found him), you can spend all af­ter­noon lis­ten­ing to both. “The pres­i­dent has gra­ciously agreed to spend more time with us,” Han­nity says, and Trump does stay, through a sec­ond com­mer­cial break, in which Han­nity per­son­ally de­liv­ers the ad for de­fend­fam­ily.com, a friendly gun out­fit with a spe­cial pitch for the “guide” in­cluded with mem­ber­ship: “Kids & Guns: 5 Sim­ple Steps to a Safer Home.” The cover (check it out on­line) shows a fa­ther and mother face to face, wear­ing jeans with hol­stered guns; the fa­ther holds in his arms a girl of about six, the mother a tod­dler boy. The Han­nity in­ter­view of Trump is con­ducted in a fa­mil­iar but re­spect­ful style, as is usual with this host; un­like the ego­tist Lim­baugh, he comes across as an av­er­age guy, and the ap­proach is ob­vi­ously sat­is­fy­ing to Trump. They are friends and don’t try to con­ceal the fact: Han­nity has vis­ited Mar-a-Lago, used Michael Co­hen as a lawyer, and is said to have asked to be named Trump’s chief of staff. Even so, the con­ver­sa­tion has a touch of deco­rous dis­tance, more high-toned than the usual en­counter be­tween a ra­dio talker and a celebrity friend. Han­nity says that the Democrats “want to stop all in­ves­ti­ga­tions into deep cor­rup­tion”—a baf­fling ref­er­ence un­less you have been lis­ten­ing to Han­nity a lot. In this world, the real “in­ves­ti­ga­tions” are those of Con­gress­man Devin Nunes’s Per­ma­nent Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence. This is the com­mit­tee that has de­manded var­i­ous caches of doc­u­ments from the Jus­tice De­part­ment, at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals over the past sev­eral months, in the hope of link­ing the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion to a sup­posed con­spir­acy by a Clin­tonite FBI cell to dele­git­imize the 2016 elec­tion. But Han­nity never deigns to call the Mueller probe an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. It is re­ferred to, in these precincts, sim­ply as “the witch hunt.” Han­nity and Trump agree that the fu­ture of the na­tion hangs in the bal­ance. So much de­pends on the re­sults of the midterm elec­tions. The lead-in an­nounce­ment for Han­nity, which in the last few years had de­clared in sten­to­rian tones “Wel­come to the Rev­o­lu­tion,” in Au­gust of this year ac­quired a fresh ur­gency:

E mi­nus 71 days

Un­til YOU de­cide the midterm elec­tion

TO KEEP AMER­ICA GREAT

It is more than a mega­phone, more like the in­ter­com of a mil­i­tary-class sub­ma­rine. The last line is a re­minder and also a com­mand.

Di­nesh

D’Souza, lately par­doned by the pres­i­dent for mak­ing il­le­gal con­tri­bu­tions to a New York Se­nate cam­paign, is a fa­vorite guest of Han­nity’s, though on TV more than ra­dio. D’Souza’s doc­u­men­tary Death of a Na­tion, which played in se­lect the­aters in Au­gust, is the suc­ces­sor to his 2016 film Hil­lary’s Amer­ica. It be­longs to the genre of docu­d­rama that was pi­o­neered by early Fox TV. D’Souza him­self nar­rates, and he is pho­tographed now and then, with a brood­ing down­ward look, walk­ing in the streets of New York, Ber­lin, and other en­dan­gered metropoli­tan cen­ters of the West.

But the film opens with a baf­fling se­quence: B-24 Lib­er­a­tors drop­ping bombs on Ber­lin to the sound of mil­i­tary mu­sic. Cut to Adolf and Eva in their bunker: he hands her the cyanide pill, her suf­fo­ca­tion is graph­i­cally por­trayed, he shoots him­self; and out­side, a few sec­ond later, Ger­man of­fi­cers pour gas on the bod­ies and incin­er­ate them. Cut to a close-up of a child who looks like a young D’Souza. “When I was a boy, I was fas­ci­nated with the world. I won­dered why na­tions live and na­tions die.”

The United States to­day—this is the gov­ern­ing con­ceit of the film—is in a con­di­tion no bet­ter than Ger­many un­der the Weimer Repub­lic. Our chief pro­tec­tions against fur­ther de­cay are fam­ily, faith, and coun­try. But who are the Nazis in this al­le­gory? They will turn out to be the Demo­cratic Party, and the lead-up is weird enough to be worth re­count­ing. D’Souza’s strong­est stuff is a mon­tage that starts with the im­age of a black-clad An­tifa in com­bat­ready pos­ture, fol­lowed by clips of left-lib­eral celebri­ties and politi­cians (John Oliver, Ge­orge Clooney, Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama) all pre­dict­ing, with a barely con­cealed smug­ness, that Trump has no chance at all to win the 2016 elec­tion.

In­ter­cut with these em­bar­rass­ing mem­o­ries are shots of Trump as­sur­ing his cam­paign crowds—the real Amer­i­can peo­ple—“I am your voice” and “We will make Amer­ica great again.” Meryl Streep, in a blouse with a taste­ful red-white-and-blue pat­tern, lets out a whoop of ec­stasy at the com­ing tri­umph of Hil­lary, and D’Souza re­marks that his film Hil­lary’s Amer­ica “played a role” in de­feat­ing her. The en­tire se­quence is clinched by a string of news­cast­ers, politi­cians, and en­ter­tain­ers pub­licly mourn­ing Hil­lary’s loss. (One of them di­rectly ad­dresses Trump vot­ers: “Shame on you!”) All these peo­ple, D’Souza sug­gests, are say­ing that Amer­ica is ruled by Trump, and that Trump is noth­ing but white supremacy. “If they’re wrong, if Amer­ica is good,” then we the peo­ple should rise up to de­fend it.

The his­tor­i­cal sketch that fol­lows might have been subti­tled “The Pro­to­cols of the Elders of the New Deal.” “Who are the real fas­cists, who are the real racists?” asks the nar­ra­tordi­rec­tor. A lit­tle learn­ing is here de­ployed to max­i­mum ef­fect. D’Souza

says (on the ba­sis of one early com­ment by FDR) that Franklin Roo­sevelt “was in­fat­u­ated by Mus­solini.” About the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Roo­sevelt and Hitler, D’Souza com­ments: “The two men rec­og­nized each other as fel­low pro­gres­sives.”

The truth is that in the North At­lantic democ­ra­cies, ad­mi­ra­tion for Mus­solini was com­mon­place be­fore his at­tack on Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935. But D’Souza is out to con­vince his au­di­ence that Democrats have an affin­ity for fas­cism. The rea­son is that fas­cism be­gan as a kind of so­cial­ism, the se­cret pol­i­tics of the Democrats. Mus­solini did in fact be­gin as a so­cial­ist: his ver­sion of cor­po­ratism gave a prom­ise of sta­bil­ity with state con­trol of the pro­fes­sions, in­dus­try, and mar­kets. The link to FDR, let alone to Democrats gen­er­ally, is fac­ti­tious.

But Mus­solini is only a way sta­tion. Hitler, too, we are told, was “a man of the left.” Na­tional So­cial­ism in­cludes the word “so­cial­ism,” and the Nazi pro­gram in­cluded a pro­vi­sion for state-con­trolled health care. (“This reads,” says D’Souza, “like some­thing jointly writ­ten by El­iz­a­beth War­ren and Bernie San­ders.”) The only dif­fer­ence be­tween Hitler and the So­viet Com­mu­nists is that “he was a na­tional so­cial­ist. And they were in­ter­na­tional so­cial­ists.” Much is made of the co­in­ci­dence of Hitler and Lenin both hav­ing lived in Mu­nich be­fore they took power in their sep­a­rate coun­tries.

D’Souza then points out that eu­gen­ics, which found such fa­vor with the Nazis and in­spired some of their most dread­ful ex­per­i­ments, be­gan as a pro­gres­sive cause. This in­ter­est­ing fact might ac­tu­ally have found a place in an im­par­tial film about left and right to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism. But D’Souza is af­ter big­ger game, and fast: “Amer­i­can pro­gres­sives cheered Hitler’s rise to power.” The patent false­hood has the cat­e­chis­tic form con­ge­nial to talk ra­dio. It will be­come the as­sured opin­ion of many who hear it once.

And here is the place where Death of a Na­tion passes from con­trolled hal­lu­ci­na­tion to para­noid myth, con­ceived and ex­e­cuted in cold blood: Hitler got his mur­der­ous gen­eral scheme “from the Jack­so­nian Democrats.” Leben­sraum, mil­i­tarism, the per­se­cu­tion of darker races: Hitler took all this from the nine­teenth-cen­tury pre­cur­sors of FDR, who (re­mem­ber) is said to have been in­fat­u­ated with Mus­solini. Ac­cord­ingly, the nom­i­nal Democrats of to­day have had to abridge their ac­count of Nazism to con­ceal its so­cial­ist core, and their fake his­tory has moved fas­cism and Nazism from the left to the right side of world pol­i­tics.

At home, mean­while, hav­ing for­feited their dom­i­na­tion of the South, the con­scious aim of Democrats has been “to turn all Amer­ica into a plan­ta­tion.” Di­verse facts are brought in to sup­port this view. Woodrow Wil­son screened The Birth of a Na­tion in the White House and “the Klan be­came the pow­er­ful ter­ror­ist arm of the Demo­cratic Party.” Com­bine those two propo­si­tions. Call it a co­in­ci­dence if you like. Mean­while, says D’Souza, as the South be­came less racist, it be­came more Repub­li­can—a trend that cul­mi­nated in the pres­i­den­cies of Nixon and Rea­gan. Any viewer who doesn’t al­ready know that the South went Repub­li­can in a hos­tile re­ac­tion against Lyn­don John­son’s civil rights poli­cies could never guess it from the film. The truth about the states of the for­mer con­fed­er­acy and en­forced racial equal­ity—that the Democrats lost there af­ter 1964 be­cause they be­came a party com­mit­ted to the ex­pan­sion of rights for black peo­ple—would sim­ply strike such a viewer as the world turned up­side down. How far D’Souza has per­suaded him­self of this nar­ra­tive would be hard to say. The up­beat con­clud­ing se­quence passes from the Statue of Lib­erty to Mount Rush­more with a brief di­gres­sion on the White Rose con­spir­acy against the Nazis. We are in­vited to em­u­late those re­sisters and help Trump to “com­plete the task to which Lin­coln ded­i­cated his life .... It’s our Amer­ica. Let’s save it for the sec­ond time.” The clos­ing cred­its are played just af­ter a full-length video of an African-Amer­i­can gospel choir singing “The Bat­tle Hymn of the Repub­lic.”

Au­gust

27. The death of John McCain is all over the news and Lim­baugh asks why he has been for thirty years “a me­dia dar­ling .... I mean the Drive-By me­dia loved John McCain.” It’s all about McCain’s de­ploy­ment of the pre­ferred tool of se­duc­tion by the left, com­pro­mise: the thing that lib­er­als can’t stop prais­ing (but only when they’ve been los­ing). They talked about com­pro­mise in the 1990s af­ter Bill Clin­ton was beaten up by the Con­tract with Amer­ica, and even then the talk went hand in hand with ad­mi­ra­tion for McCain. Why? Be­cause he worked with Democrats and co­zied up to Democrats. But they turned against him fast enough when he picked the true mav­er­ick Sarah Palin as his run­ning mate in 2008. No one who lis­tened to Lim­baugh then could doubt the pas­sion guid­ing these re­marks: his con­tempt for McCain at the time was bound­less. With­out Palin on the ticket, there would have been no point in vot­ing.

On Au­gust 28, he reads out with rel­ish a Bre­it­bart head­line: “CNN’s Jim Sci­utto Busted for Two Fake News Scoops in One Week.” Lanny Davis, the lawyer for Michael Co­hen, had falsely said that Co­hen could prove Trump’s ad­vance knowl­edge of the Trump Tower meet­ing with the Rus­sians. Davis later re­tracted the state­ment, but CNN held on to the story even af­ter The Wash­ing­ton Post took it down. The sec­ond dis­cred­ited Sci­utto re­port had said that Trump didn’t con­sult Dan Coats, the di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence, be­fore he re­voked John Bren­nan’s se­cu­rity clear­ance.

These lies are typ­i­cal, says Lim­baugh, and any­way the Democrats are ig­nor­ing the econ­omy; no­tice that if they men­tion it at all, they credit the im­prove­ment to Obama; but all it will take is one more quar­ter of 4.1 per­cent growth and Trump will have proved that the growth is sus­tain­able. It is com­pa­ra­ble to the Rea­gan econ­omy; and how the left and their cap­tive me­dia hated the pros­per­ity we en­joyed un­der Rea­gan. But they are what they al­ways were—“a bunch of petty, small-minded gnats and—Chi­huahuas!—yap­ping at the an­kles and the knees of Don­ald J. Trump­ster.” Look at how their ob­ses­sions come and go. “What hap­pened

to Omarosa?” All the rage for a week, then noth­ing.

Pres­i­dent Trump on Au­gust 21 had given a speech in West Vir­ginia to pro­mote the Se­nate can­di­dacy of Pa­trick Mor­risey—a speech largely about Trump him­self, much in the vein of Lim­baugh’s Chi­huahua mono­logue. “You know,” said Trump, “their lit­tle phrase that they like: re­sist. That’s all they’re good at: they have no pol­icy, they’re not good politi­cians, but they’re good at stick­ing to­gether and re­sist­ing . . . . New York’s Demo­crat gov­er­nor An­drew Cuomo even de­clared that ‘Amer­ica was never great.’ Oh, I see! OK. Tell that to our great soldiers. World War I, World War II, Korean War, so many oth­ers.” We won’t soon hear the end of Cuomo’s line, which was ac­tu­ally “never that great,” and he meant it wasn’t so great for women and blacks be­fore the ex­pan­sion of civil rights. But the con­text will not save an un­forced er­ror as po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing to the party as Hil­lary Clin­ton’s “bas­ket of de­plorables.”

Turn from Fox News Ra­dio to MSNBC or CNN or even NPR, and you are in a uni­verse that can hardly even be called par­al­lel. Here it is as­sumed that the hid­den ma­jor­ity is anti-Trump, that an en­tire ca­reer steeped in the brine of crim­i­nal­ity will drag him down at last, and that the ev­i­dence of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tion will lead to im­peach­ment even if he is pro­tected from in­dict­ment while he is pres­i­dent. The rage and re­sent­ment of the op­po­si­tion seem only com­pat­i­ble with the ex­pec­ta­tion that he will soon be gone; and yet a long past of cor­rup­tion, no mat­ter how shock­ingly ex­posed, is no bar to the pres­i­dency un­less Congress says so. The waves of con­tempt for Trump in the re­spectable me­dia—what Lim­baugh calls the Drive-By me­dia— have only sharp­ened the de­ter­mi­na­tion of his sup­port­ers. Lim­baugh and Han­nity have kept them cheer­ing, with no loss to their own pop­u­lar­ity and prof­its.

The Tea Party and Trump ir­reg­u­lars are now in the process of con­struct­ing their own nar­ra­tive of con­spir­acy. Abet­tors like D’Souza may be a help, but the story does well enough with­out the planted his­tory. The “deep state” is the an­tag­o­nist here, and the FBI its hive—a once-beloved in­sti­tu­tion over­run by coup plot­ters some­time af­ter the de­par­ture of James Kall­strom as as­sis­tant di­rec­tor in 1997. “It goes right to the top,” said Kall­strom in March on Fox News. “They [Hil­lary Clin­ton’s sup­port­ers in­side gov­ern­ment] just un­leashed the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity.” Han­nity picks up this cue at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, while Lim­baugh for his part re­mem­bers fondly his friend­ship with Kall­strom and is shocked by all that has hap­pened since:

The no­tion that Trump col­luded, stole the elec­tion, this had to be­gin way, way back fur­ther than the elec­tion. It had to be­gin in the heat of the cam­paign .... Why did peo­ple in the deep state even think this would be nec­es­sary? Who was in­volved in it and just ex­actly where and how did it orig­i­nate?. . . At no time was the FBI ever con­sid­ered to be the way it’s looked at now. You look at this ca­bal that has risen to the top—Comey, McCabe, throw Rosen­stein in there even though he’s deputy AG, Christo­pher Wray, these peo­ple have been around for years, but this ca­bal, all of them—Str­zok, Page, Bruce Ohr, McCabe, and oth­ers—how did this hap­pen? The FBI un­der­went some mas­sive trans­for­ma­tion, lead­er­ship did . . . . And they’re united with the in­tel guys and they’re united with Clap­per and Bren­nan. And they’re in­stru­men­tal with the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity in try­ing to elim­i­nate Don­ald Trump and ren­der his pres­i­dency null and void!

This last spec­u­la­tion was ut­tered on Au­gust 30. Con­spir­acy breeds con­spir­acy, or the thought of it breeds the coun­terthought.

The pun­dits and jour­nal­ists at CNN, MSNBC, The Wash­ing­ton Post, The New York Times—with plenty of over­lap in the per­son­nel—seem hardly to no­tice the ex­is­tence of the right-wing con­spir­acy the­ory. Watch­ing, with the sound turned off, the faces of the com­men­ta­tors in a re­cent episode of CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tap­per—Bill Kris­tol, Robby Mook, Jackie Kucinich, and Amanda Car­pen­ter, with Jim Sci­utto sub­sti­tut­ing for Tap­per as host—one saw a hoe­down, a rondo, a ser­e­nade of smirks and nods in mu­tual sup­port of a shared un­der­stand­ing and dis­par­age­ment of Trump.

Sup­pose they are right. Sup­pose Trump is done for. Un­like the Fox News talk­ers, the pub­lish­ers, edi­tors, and writ­ers at the Times and the Post have some sem­blance of a com­mit­ment to get­ting the facts straight, and they try to cor­rect their er­rors, but their many months of hor­ri­fied fas­ci­na­tion with Don­ald Trump have partly ob­scured that com­mit­ment; for a tired or amused lis­tener, it can seem a quarel be­tween two sto­ries. When Trump de­parts, what will the main­stream me­dia do with his sup­port­ers? Those peo­ple aren’t go­ing away.

Sean Han­nity in­ter­view­ing Pres­i­dent Trump be­fore a rally in Las Ve­gas, Septem­ber 2018

Rush Lim­baugh

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