Talk radio’s Trump problem

Photo via Charlie Sykes on Twitter

[UPDATE at the end…]

Back in college, I had an office internship doing paperwork while conservative talk radio played in the background.

One day, I heard the host of a talk show being outraged over a crime that occurred in a crowded public space — and no one lifted a finger to stop it.

Was this yet another sign of America’s moral decay? What was happening to this once-great nation??

He invited listeners to call in and share their opinions, which consisted of more outrage.

Being a naive college student, I figured this host or his audience had simply never heard of the Bystander Effect, which I recently studied in psychology class. It basically means the more people who witness someone in need, the less likely anyone will act. The coupling of “diffusion of responsibility” in a large group along with freeze-inducing panic can literally stop people in their tracks.

So I decided to do the host a favor and call in to share this well-studied phenomenon.

To my surprise, I actually got on the air. I shared what I learned in psych 101 as if I was giving a class presentation. Then I waited. The host paused, sound surprised, and thanked me before quickly hanging up on me and moving onto the next caller.

The next caller was back to being outraged. There was nothing to do but keep doing paperwork and try to process what just happened.

I know now that the host didn’t care about actually understanding the phenomenon. His job each day was to find something in the news that could ignite his audience into a frenzy. Anger is an energy, as Johnny Rotten said. And energy equals ratings.

Which brings us to the irony of today, when conservative talk radio personalities like Charlie Sykes and Glenn Beck are leading the conservative #NeverTrump backlash against Donald Trump. They’re even helping Hillary Clinton campaign now.

“Please let’s have a respectful dialogue,” Glenn Beck wrote in an anti-Trump Facebook post. “I am not trying to tear him down, I am stating my opinion. Can we actually have a civil discourse based on facts? Not on emotion or feelings.”

Keep in mind the guy asking to leave out emotions or feelings has a 6-minute YouTube compilation of him crying.


To be honest, I’m surprised that bombastic radio hosts are some of the harshest critics of the bombastic Trump. It seems like they would be a match made in heaven.

The conservative #NeverTrump movement will tell you that they’re against Trump because Trump isn’t a “real conservative,” which sounds like a no true Scotsman fallacy. It might warrant asking whose definition of “conservative” is now most relevant or valid.

But I have another theory why talk radio is so afraid of Trump.

Conservative talk radio effectively built up a grassroots community by carefully crafting the message of their talk shows, day in and day out, year after year. They calibrated and controlled the topics, but it felt like participatory democracy by inviting listeners to call in, especially self-selected listeners that agreed with them.

They were rising by whipping up the flames of outrage. But they were playing with fire.

For a long time this formula worked for them. Conservative talk radio hosts rose to the popularity of rocks stars while hawking their personal brand, books, products and even t-shirts.

Today, Trump waltzes into the political arena by unleashing insult upon insult on Twitter. Talk show personalities now see Trump effectively using their own rhetorical tactics to take control of their base seemingly overnight.

I’m not the only one of feels this way. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor George Stanley expressed a similar sentiment in a recent chat with readers.

“I think we need to ask ourselves if talk radio has helped set the stage for celebrity demagogues who blast out opinions they know will resonate with their audience rather than address serious policy questions in an honest, practical way,” he said, “And whether they also have helped set the stage for rude win-at-all-costs political discourse where one side supposedly represents everything good and the other personifies evil.”

The #NeverTrump crowd that are so passionately opposed to him were the ones that stoked the embers that made his ascent possible. The white-hot molten core of conservative outrage suddenly boiled over. Now there’s nothing they can do to contain and manage it.

I think that terrifies them.

So what can they do in this situation? The only thing they know how to do: Fight fire with fire.

But that just burns everything down to the ground.

UPDATE: Sykes didn’t take too kindly to my analysis when I first published this back in May, saying I “failed rather spectacularly.” Three months later, he did an about-face and says “we created this monster” and “I have to look in the mirror and ask myself, ‘To what extent did I contribute.”

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity:

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