In a gentler, tenderer age—an age long gone—Donald Trump brought talk radio hosts together.
These were the simple, balmy days of last summer, when radio talkers agreed that even Trump performed an invaluable public service by driving national media and the Republican establishment totally out of their minds. But those days are gone.
Talk radio hosts have long held the beating heart of the conservative movement in their hands. But now, for the first time ever, they don’t know what to do with it.
Ted Cruz is partly to blame—or thank, depending on your view. Trump and Cruz maintained a so-called bromance over the summer, publicly stating that they wouldn’t criticize each other. Cruz, in particular, suggested that the national media was trying to goad him into knocking the mogul because it would help their ratings. But their days of getting along are long gone—and talk radio isn’t happy about it.
And that, in turn, presents an existential question for Trump’s campaign. We already know he can do just fine without mainstream national political media, and that he can do pretty well with minimal support from the conservative blogosphere. But can he win if he loses talk radio? We may be on the cusp of finding out.
Back in August, BuzzFeed detailed how deep was this love. Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh—they adored the billionaire’s brash style, radio-friendly soundbite-speak, and delight in making statements that most Americans found deeply unsettling. It was an affection that was very deep and very public. And it was easy, because top radio talkers could lavish praise on Trump without dinging Cruz. When other media figures tried to get Cruz to criticize the real estate mogul, he flatly refused.
“I’m not gonna engage in the media’s game of throwing rocks and attacking other Republicans,” he told Chuck Todd when the host pressed him on Trump’s rhetoric.
As long as Cruz remained neutral on Trump, talk radio hosts praised the billionaire with abandon. The Texas senator, of course, was their first love—going all the way back to 2013, when Mark Levin and other radio talkers were among the few media cheerleaders for his partial government shutdown. After finishing the 21-hour non-filibuster that caused the government to shutter, Cruz’s first move was to call Rush.
But the fun is done. Thanks to Trump’s charge that Cruz may be ineligible for the presidency because he was born in Canada, radio talkers have had to pick sides. And in the process, they could take some hits.
“The analogy I would use is watching somebody who has been raising a crocodile in their bathtub,” said Charlie Sykes, one of the most influential conservative talk radio hosts in Wisconsin. “And suddenly, the crocodile gets big enough to bite them—and they’re surprised by it!”
We got a preview of this budding rift in December, when Trump first started seriously needling Cruz. Trump called him a “maniac,” and Limbaugh said that characterization of the Texan was “a huge mistake.”
“He’s essentially put on his John McCain hat here and is saying: ‘I’m Donald McCain, and I’m the guy that can cross the aisle and work with the other side. Ted Cruz can’t,’” Limbaugh said. “I was kind of surprised by that.”
Politico noted that Mark Levin made a similar gentle defense of Cruz, saying Trump “really screwed up.”
“Defending the GOP ruling class and lurching left are dumb tactics,” Levin said.
So he was critical. But not too critical. And Trump told Fox News that he paid them heed.
“Well, I like those two people,” he said. “They’ve been very supportive and it did. It made me think about it a little bit because Mark and Rush have been so nice to me and, and I did think about it a little bit.”
But he must not have thought about it too much, because now Trump is suggesting Cruz is too much of a Canuck to lead the U.S. of A. And top radio talkers have wildly changed their tunes on the mogul.
“I didn’t spend 40 years of my life—45 to be exact—to reach a point where we actually might take back the White House with somebody who is conservative, whomever that is, to be discussing birther issues! And fake issues!” Levin said in a lengthy rant on Jan. 18.
“The attack on Cruz in many ways is an attack on us,” the host continued. “That’s the problem. He’s nasty, nasty, nasty, Donald says. Why? Because Mitch McConnell says he’s nasty? Because Bob Dole thinks he’s nasty? Because the ruling elite Republicans think he’s nasty?
“I don’t care who you like, it doesn’t even make any sense,” he continued. “So all of a sudden, what we thought was courage, what we thought was Mr. Smith goes to Washington, you and I are supposed to believe this guy is bought off by the banks, this guy is nasty, screw him?”
Limbaugh also stayed loyal to Cruz. On his Jan. 18 show, he said Trump’s charge that nobody likes Cruz is a Democratic talking point.
“Whenever a Republican or conservative attacks a fellow Republican or conservative using the same language or the same approach that Democrats and liberals would, that’s a huge red flag,” the host said. “Always has been. And whether or not it’s gonna hurt Trump, it isn’t going to help.”
That Limbaugh and Levin are calling foul on Trump’s attacks is notable.
“When you start launching liberal smear tactics in a Republican primary, that’s outside the rules of engagement,” said Steve Deace, an influential Iowa radio host who has endorsed Cruz. “I’ve seen them come in as elder statesmen if you will, referees blowing the whistle saying, Hey, that’s a foul, that’s a penalty, you’re not allowed to do that.”
But it represents a certain element of back-tracking. These hosts consistently and doggedly defended Trump. Now that they’re suggesting he’s a faux conservative with a foolish strategy, they could be jeopardizing their audience credibility. And now that Cruz is seriously going after Trump, these talkers’ audiences will hear more about his history of taking liberal positions.
“I think it’s gonna leave lasting scars, there’s no question about it,” said Sykes.
“I think there’s a major crisis of confidence for a lot of conservatives who have listened to some of these hosts for years and have trusted them, and now are listening to them go on this Trump tangent,” he continued. “I hear this all the time. People are going, what happened? Who do I believe, who do I trust now? In this medium, trust once broken is very hard to reestablish.”
Can Trump survive without the univocal support of talk radio? And after flip-flopping, can talkers’ reputations survive the reputational hit?
Talkers Magazine estimates that Limbaugh has 13.25 million weekly listeners, and that Levin pulls in more than 7 million. A lot of listeners could turn tail without jeopardizing their empires. But if they go down, they wouldn’t be the first time Trump beat the odds.