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Donald Trump and his ally of the airwaves

Donald Trump and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh at a Make America Great Again rally in Cape Girardeau, Missouri in 2018 - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

One of the few times that Columbo was almost killed by a person he was investigating was in a 1994 episode called Butterflies In Shades Of Grey. It starred William Shatner as a radio talk show host who killed a friend of his stepdaughter.

What is remarkable about the episode is that it is the first time on US television that we can see the world of the ‘shock jock’. 

Shatner’s character Fielding Chase invites a young, aspiring actress for cocktails only to tell her that he has information on past indiscretions that could destroy her career. He asks for nothing in return, but the goal of that moment must be for us to watch her beg him not to reveal her past. For us to see his display of power.

Since the entire point of Columbo is for us to enjoy ‘the little guy’ besting his betters, we are shown the rampant display of ego and vulgarity that this radio talk show host has. In the end, he tries to blow Columbo away with a shotgun, but the detective who wears a mac in sunny LA outsmarts him.

The broadcast revolution that created the 45th president of the United States has its roots in a policy which was called the “fairness doctrine”. Introduced in 1949, it required broadcast license holders to basically present both sides of a controversial issue. Radio and television stations were given a wide latitude, but the doctrine required that contrasting viewpoints be presented.

That is the kind of radio I grew up on.

In 1984, during the Reagan presidency, the Supreme Court ruled that this idea of balance could not be upheld. And, through various court cases, it was decided that the doctrine violated the First Amendment right of freedom of speech.

The fairness doctrine had given primacy to the big three networks: ABC, NBC, CBS and their radio stations. Conservatives viewed these stations as too liberal and wanted to get another point of view out there.

It is said that the striking down of the fairness doctrine helped create the toxic political polarisation that exists in the US today. It certainly led to the rise of Rush Limbaugh, and this is where the phenomenon of Donald Trump began.

The nationally-syndicated Rush Limbaugh Show began in 1988, not long after the Supreme Court ruling. He also had a TV show from about 1992 to 1996, the time that the Columbo episode was aired. But it was on radio that he really made an impact. His show is still broadcast today, airing on almost 600 radio stations across the US. It has been game-changing.

Limbaugh, 69 and from Missouri, is one of the premiere voices of the conservative movement and he influences everything in the States: matters of race; sexuality, you name it. He doesn’t make any pretence at objectivity. Indeed, he is critical of other broadcasters for claiming to be objective. A proponent of American exceptionalism, he rejects the scientific consensus on climate change and has expressed controversial views on race, sexuality, feminism and sexual consent.

Trump gave him the treasured Presidential Medal of Freedom during his last State of the Union address, in front of the majority Democratic Party lower house. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Limbaugh who got the nation to call the party “the Democrat Party” instead of its real name.

On his shows, Limbaugh taps into the feelings of what is called “flyover America”, the majority of the US and its people that you pass as you fly from liberal coast to liberal coast.

He is not the only media phenomenon to have been unleashed by the dismantling of the fairness doctrine. The most revolutionary thing in TV broadcasting was the late Roger Ailes’ creation of Fox News, which is essentially conservative talk radio, with pictures. The network’s ‘talk hosts’, unleashed at night, are just shock jocks on your TV screen.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump, instead of talking to real reporters, would phone in to Fox’s morning show Fox & Friends giving the viewers that good old radio feeling.

He used the bombastic style of right wing talk radio while on the campaign trail, and voters began to feel like he was ‘one of us’ because he sounded like the programmes they listened to.

He seemed to be a break from what they had been told for decades was the university-educated, politically liberal East Coast domination of the country.

Yes, Trump played a billionaire on TV’s The Apprentice and he lived in a tower on Fifth Avenue, but he was the embodiment of what flyover America had been listening to for decades while they milked the cows, or minded the store, worked in the factory or the mine, pumped gas or sat around after church on Sunday.

He was one of them and so they rejected Hillary Clinton, who was everything they despised: a woman who forgave her husband his adultery; a woman who became a senator, then secretary of state; a woman who talked too much; talked too loud; stood up for women’s rights. A woman. 

Limbaugh, and the revolution that he represents, had groomed a great deal of the American public for Donald John Trump.

A week or so ago, in the face of his failure to outraise Joe Biden and other signs of weakness, Trump and Limbaugh had a ‘radio rally’. It was two hours of Trump pouring out his heart and his being to millions of people, shoring up the MAGA – his base of never more than 45% of voters – letting them hear him bleed; hear him fight for them.

Here is a little exchange from the interview between the two men, to get a flavour of this rally – not one attended by a crowd of folks from one particular state, but one broadcast into the homes of millions of like-minded voters across the nation.

Limbaugh: “I want you to imagine you have just landed in a gleaming majestic Air Force One, to the largest radio rally in history. Instead of thousands cheering as you walk up to the stage, there are millions and millions of patriots out there right now anxiously awaiting to hear from you. No doubt, they’re waving Trump flags, wearing their bright red MAGA hats proudly. This, sir, is a mega MAGA rally. And we are all thrilled to be with you today, we are so glad you’re doing better…

“I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you today. I know exactly what this is. We’ve got a lot of questions for you from members of the audience. So before we dive into those, I need to ask you something that I’ve not really had a chance to ask you prior. Before you did this, before 2015 when you came down the escalator and announced you’re a candidate, you had a storybook life. You had an absolutely fabulous life. You had a life that anybody would aspire to. You were very successful. You were happy. You were a media darling. They loved you back then. Why did you decide to run for president and put up with the day in and day out maligning that you get? Because you did not have to do this.”

Trump responded: “I’ll tell you, it’s such a great question. And I’d do it again, even though it’s far worse. I never thought I’d be involved with a Russia hoax or a Ukraine hoax, or be impeached because I made a phone call congratulating somebody that I never met or spoke to on becoming the president of Ukraine. And all of a sudden you get impeached. And it was a perfect phone call.”

The president of grievance America. You don’t have to be Columbo to work this presidency out.

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