Will Bunch: Howard Stern was progenitor of Donald Trump's MO, with offensive statements, low, often sexualized, humor
Trump appeared on Stern show repeatedly, appealed to Stern's "un-PC" audience
Bunch: At one time, Trump comments might have disqualified him for presidency; instead they appear to have helped him
Editor’s Note: Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of “Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy” and the recent e-book, “The Bern Identity: A Search for Bernie Sanders and the New American Dream.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
The critics thought he’d ended his career when it had just barely started – thanks to one outrageous and offensive comment.
It was 1982, a year when the phrase “political correctness” was familiar to only a handful of people, and Donald Trump was barely known beyond Manhattan real-estate insiders. And the hottest up-and-coming morning disc jockey in the Washington market was a young man with a long face, even longer hair and an acid tongue.
Stern was known as over the top, but even his fans gasped that January morning when the DJ pretended to call a representative of Air Florida, just one day after its jet had crashed into D.C.’s 14th Street Bridge, killing 78 people. Could he buy a one-way ticket to the bridge? he asked in a mocking tone. Would the 14th Street crossing become a permanent stop?
That was possibly the last straw for Stern’s bosses at Washington’s WWDC, and he was ousted a few months later. But a career killer? Hardly.
Stern re-emerged later that year in the Big Apple at the 50,000-watt WNBC. There, he continued to soar in the ratings and took his radio show national, even as he gave station directors migraines with his sexualized content and bad taste. He made jokes, for example, about the death of pop star Selena and the Columbine massacre.
Stern wasn’t trying to start a revolution, and his interest in politics – to the extent that he had any – was one-part libertarian and three parts libertine. But in creating a culture around shutting down what his mainly young, white, male listeners saw as the sacred cows of “political correctness” – whether it was sexual taboos or the pomposity of American elites – Stern and the generation of radio “shock jocks” he inspired built the foundation of a revolt.
Its target would be traditional politicians, and it would be led by one of Stern’s frequent guests: Donald Trump.
This summer, after tapping into the very same zeitgeist that launched Stern to prominence three decades ago, Trump stunned the world by claiming the Republican presidential nomination at the party’s convention in Cleveland.
At July’s GOP confab, attentive viewers heard echoes of a Stern-Trump “bromance” forged in New York in the 1980s and ’90s – from the flow of B-list celebrities like Scott Baio to the over-the-top taunting of Hillary Clinton, punctuated by frequent chants of “lock her up.” Trump’s unapologetic slam of a Muslim couple whose soldier son was killed in Iraq is the most recent demonstration of his willingness to push into the territory of taboo and tastelessness.
Some of the seeds were planted a couple of decades ago when Trump appeared on Stern’s program repeatedly to, among other things, offer his crude locker-room observations such as whether he’d “bang” women such as Princess Diana (who had just died in a horrific car crash) or Mariah Carey, his views on “boob jobs,” flat-chested women and oral sex – spiked with boasts about his sexual prowess. In an earlier time, just one of Trump’s comments might have disqualified him for the presidency; that low bathroom humor only seems to have led The Donald to this moment.
Indeed, in his raucous rallies and the continuous, frenzied loop of TV interviews and call-ins on the road to the nomination, Trump has modified the bawdy image transmitted by his fellow 1980s New York icon to fit the political screen: unbelievably outrageous and sometimes offensive comments, delivered heedless of any fallout; regular shtick and repeated one-liners (“Build the wall!” “Get ‘im out of here!”) that fans wait for — clamor for – at every show; radio-ready nicknames for everyone from “Crooked Hillary” to “Lyin’ Ted,” and a series of never-ended feuds.
In 1994, Stern told Rolling Stone that the white, young-adult, mostly suburban males listening to his show and mobbing his book signings by the thousands were “sort of the skeptical, cynical, I-don’t believe-a-f***in’-thing-I-hear people.”
In 2016, that Stern fan is two decades older and probably has a Trump bumper sticker on his SUV. Some younger voters are lined up, too. One 22-year-old Trump backer recently told The Atlantic that his motivation is rebelling against what he called “ultra” political correctness “where it’s almost impossible to have polite or constructive political discussion. Disagreement gets you labeled fascist, racist, bigoted, etc.”
But something important has changed since Stern first rolled out his brand: The lines between pure politics and pure entertainment became so blurred that it is impossible now to tell where one ends and the other begins.
In the 1990s and 2000s, AM talk radio, which co-opted Stern’s “shock” tactics to promote a conservative ideology, assumed de facto leadership of the Republican Party. That trend accelerated after President Obama’s 2008 election, with the surge of the tea party and its broadcast prophets – such as Glenn Beck, a former Stern-styled DJ. A political candidate like Trump, who wooed voters by keeping them riled up and entertained, much like a “Morning Zoo” jock chasing ratings, was merely the next logical step.
The amazing part is that way back in 1985 – the year Stern conquered the New York airwaves and a brash young Trump was best known for breaking apart the upstart USFL football league – one prophet predicted today’s political crisis. That prophet’s name was Neil Postman, a New York University professor and media critic. His landmark book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” predicted that schlock entertainment values would eventually strangle American democracy like a cluster of poison ivy.
Postman’s thesis was that the ominous warnings of an Orwellian future, complete with totalitarian censorship, had badly missed the mark. “Censorship, after all, is the tribute tyrants pay to an assumption that the public knows the difference between serious discourse and entertainment – and cares,” the media theorist wrote. “How delighted would all the kings, czars and fuhrers of the past and commissars of the present be to know that censorship is not a necessity when all political discourse takes the form of a jest.”
It’s unlikely that Trump has ever read “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” but his ascent would not have surprised Postman (who died in 2002).
Indeed, in 1994 Stern himself took an early baby step down the trail now blazed by Trump by running for governor of New York as a Libertarian on a simplistic and populist platform (pro-death penalty, anti-traffic) – a high-profile bid that was aborted due to Stern’s refusal to meet the state’s financial-disclosure requirement.
Trump has merely expanded on that model – offering himself as a savvy and fabulously wealthy business leader, spinning out the kind of loose, provocative and offensively entertaining talk that would fit right in on Stern’s radio program, even after it moved to satellite radio where cursing and cruder content is allowed.
With the nomination in hand, only November’s general election voters can prevent what would have been Neil Postman’s worst nightmare: an American government worthy not of applause but a laugh track, driven less by substance than the desire for higher Nielsen ratings.
The biggest irony, though, is that the moral godfather of this counter-revolution may not be a part of it. Howard Stern has marveled at Trump’s political instincts, telling his listeners last year that voters clearly “like the idea of a successful businessman running the country who might actually be able to get s*** done.”
But as a strong supporter of abortion rights, Stern has also signaled that he may vote for Hillary Clinton in the fall.