But the most illuminating comparative figure has barely been mentioned, and that’s a shame, not least because it’s the one figure that Trump actually knows personally, and might consciously be trying to emulate: Howard Stern.
Don’t expect Trump to admit this; after all, Stern won’t cop to his own influences either. A corollary to Never Apologize seems to be Never Acknowledge. Stern gives himself credit for having invented just about everything in his field, but that doesn’t keep him from doing “pitchman” commercials for his many sponsors (“1 800 Dial a Mattress, I love it.”) Known as a ruthless, relentless promoter of himself, Stern is actually a canny promoter of others…not unlike the self-image of the man who wrote “The Art of the Deal.”
Howard Stern has been – according to him – talking on behalf of America’s common people for decades now. And talking. The genius of the Howard Stern celebrity interview is that unlike on even Charlie Rose’s show, there’s no set time limit, and so Howard will just keep talking…and talking. “And I’m gonna tell you something else,” as a bridge and a mission statement, doesn’t seem to get old. Stern has premised his career on the notion that a certain kind of New York-based, chauvinist, no-BS kind of wisdom can be endlessly repeated and people will eat it up. The commercials for Private Parts included a scene with Pig Vomit (Paul Giamatti) that was replayed literally thousands of times on the Stern show, no doubt including some of the times Trump was listening:
Researcher: The average radio listener listens for eighteen minutes a day. The average Howard Stern fan listens for – are you ready for this? – an hour and twenty minutes.
Pig Vomit: How could this be?
Researcher: Answer most commonly given: “I want to see what he’ll say next.”
Pig Vomit: All right, fine. But what about the people who hate Stern?
Researcher: Good point. The average Stern hater listens for two and a half hours a day.
Pig Vomit: But… if they hate him, why do they listen?
Researcher: Most common answer: “I want to see what he’ll say next.”
Do I need to explain how this relates to the public and media fascination with Mr. Trump?
The only source I’ve found to have recently explored the Stern-Trump connection is Will Bunch at the Huffington Post, who says quite rightly that white men standing in line to buy “Private Parts” books 20 years ago are now supporting Donald Trump. However, Bunch too quickly conflates Stern with right-wing shock jocks of the 1990s like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Stern has never run a stridently conservative, partisan talk show that consistently admonishes one particular party. Stern has supported, with full throat, Rudy Guiliani and Hillary Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charles Schumer — not unlike Trump. When Howard upbraids politicians in his muckraking style, he tends to call them “idiots” – which his friend Donald has updated to “losers.” Bunch misses a key to Trump’s popularity, borrowed from Stern: an almost paradoxical reasonable-ness, earned by borrowing ideas from people across the spectrum, papered over by unquenchable ego and narcissism. Even their names are similar.*
Over in Salon, Elias Isquith associates Trump with demagogues who pretend that they can take America back to some imagined glorious past that probably never was. However, this shouldn’t apply to Donald Trump, because the past he wants to return to is roughly 2001 to 2006. When Isquith writes, “I can imagine that experiencing the transition from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama is profoundly disorienting,” you might think that we drove a straight road from The Cosby Show to Anita Hill to our current era, when tone police get more respect than actual police, black athletes come out of the closet, and pop singers who only three years ago rejected the term “feminist” now embrace it (you know, the main ones: Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift). Uh, sorry not sorry Elias (to quote you), but you and other liberals seem to have forgotten a lot about the High Bush Era, and one of its most striking features is that, perhaps as a reaction to 9/11, “politically correct” was in considerable retreat from its early-90s surge. In 2001-06, pre-Twitter, when the NAACP complained about a lack of color on TV, studios laughed and moved on. Federally legalized same-sex marriage was unthinkable. “Girls Gone Wild” was at its height; college-aged women on spring break would strip down for cameras in a manner that isn’t happening in 2015.
Howard Stern’s peak ratings years were 2001-06. These were assisted by the events of 9/11; on 9/10/01, half of America considered New York City to be almost a foreign country, but after 9/11, you saw World Trade Center bumper stickers all over the South. And it didn’t hurt that Howard didn’t flee his office that day (unlike some), and came to work later that week bedecked in military regalia. In those bygone days, Stern was known for, among other things, intern beauty pageants, intro music for each visiting model that catcalled “What a piece of ass!!,” and 100 other examples of routine objectification. Stern also routinely used “fag” as a derogatory epithet in a way that neither he nor any other disc jockey can be heard doing today. So what did he think of gay women? Well, the ones who looked like catalog models met his approval. Meanwhile, Stern’s biggest feud with anyone was with Rosie O’Donnell. During the recent debate, when Megyn Kelly said, “You’ve called women fat pigs, dogs, slobs, disgusting animals…” Trump took a page directly from the Stern playbook when he responded, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” After the debate, Trump tried to discredit Kelly by bringing up her racy interview with Stern.
Howard has had a long history of reducing women to sexual objects, but his show was always more than that. One of his most hilarious recurrent segments was threatening to fire his staff, like Baba-Booey (Gary), Stuttering John, and Scott the Engineer. The mistake-making staff member would squirm as though caught in a bear trap…sometimes for as long as an hour. Had any radio show ever done such employer-employee inquisitions once, never mind as often as Stern? These segments positioned Howard as the Big Daddy figure, almost a dictator who had to be appeased at all costs, as well as providing a “behind the music” kind of thrill – as though we were privy to the inner workings. One can see how the former appealed to Trump and the latter appealed to NBC, looking for a hit reality show to compete with CBS (Survivor) and Fox (American Idol). If current pundits have forgotten the un-PC time of 2001-06, then they’ve no doubt also forgotten just how huge Trump and The Apprentice was in 2004 and 2005. Instead of worrying about trigger warnings, America was worried when Omarosa (or whoever) would trigger Donald’s “You’re fired!” trigger.
I’ve written elsewhere about the rise of CREFPOMOS, and I’ve made it clear that the era of increased sensitivity might well have happened if John McCain had been President for the last seven years. However, there’s no doubt that thanks partly to left-wingers like Bill Maher who label most criticism of Obama as race-based, there’s a perception amongst right-wingers that something connects Obama to the almost militant cultural dominance of “politically correct.” Here are 365 examples; there are many, many more, like Harriet Tubman’s face on a $10 bill or the Confederate flag retreat or Target’s ending of separate boy/girl toy sections. (Even the Ashley Madison flap feels like a sort of rebuke to the high Stern era, when Americans learned of the site through its ads on Stern’s show.) Any one of these cultural corrections is probably laudable in and of itself, but there’s a kind of cumulative impression of hippie-liberal overreach. When Kelly, or anyone, accuses Trump of retrograde comments about women or Mexicans, Trump pivots to this impression and announces that “people are tired of political correctness.” What Trump offers is a time in every voter’s memory, the early 21st century, but unlike his rivals asking for this, he loudly declares his “early” 2004 opposition to the Iraq War. (Was that really early? It was about the same time as Stern.) Trump is offering what Stern would have, a more populist Bush Era without the incompetence, and pundits seem surprised that this is resonating.
Stern doesn’t get his 2005 ratings anymore. Growing old and re-marrying with a supermodel seems to have mellowed him out – no more yelling “fag,” no more intern beauty pageants. He even made up with Rosie O’Donnell. Trump, obviously, hasn’t. The Donald, also aged and re-married to a model, doesn’t get his 2005 ratings either, and perhaps the 2008 real estate plunge hurt his business far too much for him to support the Democrats he used to favor. For whatever cuckoo reason, Trump went way off the Stern plantation when he became America’s lead “birther,” and he’s been riding a certain segment of the electorate ever since. But he hasn’t forgotten what he learned from The King of All Media, and my final example is probably the most telling.
After enough public bullying and a raucously divided convention, Stern ran for governor of New York in 1994 on the Libertarian ticket. At this point, it would not exactly be a shock to see Trump running under that party’s banner. Stern claimed that he would enact two laws and then leave office. These were the reinstatement of the death penalty and forcing road construction crews to work at night (so as not to disrupt traffic). Though Stern never came close to winning the governorship, he did succeed in half of his stated agenda; new governor George Pataki proudly passed the Howard Stern Bill, putting road workers to work at night. Don’t be surprised if you find out that that experience taught Trump one more lesson.
(*Etymologically speaking, “Donald Trump” and “Howard Stern,” which are both names and brands, have the same syllable emphasis and same amount of letters in their first and last names. They even have the same placement of consonants and vowels – the “o” and “a” in their first names is the same. Trump and Stern often go by their first names [The Donald, Howard 100], even as they redeem those names from their nerdy connotations with their thundering last names, which, unlike names like Jones or Davis or Perez, are words with obvious meanings that relate to their personas…Stern is most stern with his enemies, and Trump considers himself the inevitable winner.)