What David Foster Wallace Can Teach Us About Trump

Making sense of the election by rereading “Host.”

Like many people the past few months have for me been increasingly surreal. The unease that I experienced during the election peaked with last Friday’s inauguration when I felt like I’d finally slipped into an alternate reality co-produced by Rod Serling, Philip K. Dick and Mark Burnett.

I spent a lot of time Friday wondering “how did we get here?” (or more accurately, “how did he get there?”). And at one point my mind ambled across a memory of “Host,” the essay David Foster Wallace wrote in the early 2000s about a conservative talk show host trying to break into the LA market. Rereading it over the weekend I found some answers to those questions, which weren’t exactly comforting but at least offered a historical perspective on today’s issues.

On the surface “Host” is about John Ziegler, a talk radio host restarting his career in a new late-night slot at LA-based KFI, the number one rated AM station in the LA market at the time. But like most of DFW’s essays “Host” quickly winds its way toward larger topics, in particular the emergence of the conservative talk radio phenomenon and the fusion of business, entertainment and outrage politics that had fuelled the ascent of the right.

“Host” was written in 2004, before social media, but it describes the populist feedback loops that now seem to be coded into and amplified by Facebook, Twitter, Buzzfeed, etc. What’s more interesting, though, is that reading “Host” now suggests that Trump is just the latest float in a long parade that includes Hannity, Beck and Limbaugh. The characters matter less than the parade itself, and I think DFW captures how this parade got started and what was driving it circa 2004.

This thought gives me comfort and pause: Trump may be just a symptom of a deeper, systemic problem. Which is great because symptoms go away, but also terrible because systemic problems are hard to change.

What follows are some excerpts from “Host,” reordered, edited, highlighted and linked to focus on DFW’s media critiques and less on the original subjects of the article. The Atlantic has published a version of “Host” but it is missing many excellent points that are present in DFW’s essay collection Consider the Lobster (which is the version I’ve quoted from below).

The Origins of Talk Radio

To understand “Host” — and also Trump, I think — one has to understand the forces that created political talk radio in 80s, which DFW boils down to a few paragraphs:

The origins of contemporary political talk radio can be traced to three phenomena of the 1980s. The first of these involved AM music stations’ getting absolutely murdered by FM, which could broadcast music in stereo and allowed for much better fidelity on high and low notes…

The second big factor was the repeal, late in Ronald Reagan’s second term, of what was known as the Fairness Doctrine. This was a 1949 FCC rule designed to minimize any possible restrictions on free speech caused by limited access to broadcasting outlets. The idea was that, as one of the conditions for receiving an FCC broadcast license, a station had to “devote reasonable attention to the coverage of controversial issues of public importance,” and consequently had to provide “reasonable, although not necessarily equal” opportunities for opposing sides to express their views…
The Fairness Doctrine’s repeal was part of the sweeping deregulations of the Reagan era, which aimed to liberate all sorts of industries from government interference and allow them to compete freely in the marketplace. The old, Rooseveltian logic of the Doctrine had been that since the airwaves belonged to everyone, a license to profit from those airwaves conferred on the broadcast industry some special obligation to serve the public interest. Commercial radio broadcasting was not, in other words, originally conceived as just another for-profit industry; it was supposed to meet a higher standard of social responsibility. After 1987, though, just another industry is pretty much what radio became, and its only real responsibility now is to attract and retain listeners in order to generate revenue. In other words, the sort of distinction explicitly drawn by FCC Chairman Newton Minow in the 1960s — namely, that between “the public interest” and “merely what interests the public” — no longer exists.
More or less on the heels of the Fairness Doctrine’s repeal came the West Coast and then national syndication of The Rush Limbaugh Show…. Limbaugh is the third great progenitor of today’s political talk radio partly because he’s a host of extraordinary, once-in-a-generation talent and charisma — bright, loquacious, witty, complexly authoritative — whose show’s blend of news, entertainment, and partisan analysis became the model for legions of imitators.
But he was also the first great promulgator of the Mainstream Media’s Liberal Bias idea. This turned out to be a brilliantly effective rhetorical move, since the MMLB concept functioned simultaneously as a standard around which Rush’s audience could rally, as an articulation of the need for right-wing (i.e., unbiased) media, and as a mechanism by which any criticism or refutation of conservative ideas could be dismissed (either as biased or as the product of indoctrination by biased media). Boiled way down, the MMLB thesis is able both to exploit and to perpetuate many conservatives’ dissatisfaction with extant media sources — and it’s this dissatisfaction that cements political talk radio’s large and loyal audience.

On the fragmented media landscape circa 2004, which makes ideologically driven meta-media a viable thing:

It is worth considering the strange media landscape in which political talk radio is a salient. Never before have there been so many different national news sources — different now in terms of both medium and ideology. Major newspapers from anywhere are available online; there are the broadcast networks plus public TV, cable’s CNN, Fox News, CNBC, et al., print and Web magazines, Internet bulletin boards, The Daily Show, e-mail newsletters, blogs. All this is well known; it’s part of the Media Environment we live in. But there are prices and ironies here. One is that the increasing control of U.S. mass media by a mere handful of corporations has — rather counterintuitively — created a situation of extreme fragmentation, a kaleidoscope of information options. Another is that the ever increasing number of ideological news outlets creates precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which “the truth” is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda. In some respects all this variety is probably good, productive of difference and dialogue and so on. But it can also be confusing and stressful for the average citizen. Short of signing on to a particular mass ideology and patronizing only those partisan news sources that ratify what you want to believe, it is increasingly hard to determine which sources to pay attention to and how exactly to distinguish real information from spin.
This fragmentation and confusion have helped give rise to what’s variously called the “meta-media” or “explaining industry.” Under most classifications, this category includes media critics for news dailies, certain high-end magazines, panel shows like CNN’s Reliable Sources, media-watch blogs like instapundit.com and talkingpointsmemo.com, and a large percentage of political talk radio… For this is how much of contemporary political talk radio understands its function: to explore the day’s news in a depth and detail that other media do not, and to interpret, analyze, and explain that news.
Which all sounds great, except of course “explaining” the news really means editorializing, infusing the actual events of the day with the host’s own opinions. And here is where the real controversy starts, because these opinions are, as just one person’s opinions, exempt from strict journalistic standards of truthfulness, probity, etc., and yet they are often delivered by the talk-radio host not as opinions but as revealed truths, truths intentionally ignored or suppressed by a “mainstream press” that’s “biased” in favor of liberal interests. This is, at any rate, the rhetorical template for Rush Limbaugh’s program, on which most syndicated and large-market political talk radio is modeled…

The Business of Talk Radio

Alongside the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine came structural changes in the radio industry that drove consolidation. This consolidation required cash— which means finding more profitable programming.

Whatever the social effects of talk radio or the partisan agendas of certain hosts, it is a fallacy that political talk radio is motivated by ideology. It is not. Political talk radio is a business, and it is motivated by revenue. The conservatism that dominates today’s AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits.

Radio has become a more lucrative business than most people know. Throughout most of the past decade, the industry’s revenues have increased by more than 10 percent a year. The average cash-flow margin for major radio companies is 40 percent, compared with more like 15 percent for large TV networks; and the mean price paid for a radio station has gone from eight to more than thirteen times cash flow. Some of this extreme profitability, and thus the structure of the industry, is due to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which allows radio companies to acquire up to eight stations in a given market and to control as much as 35 percent of a market’s total ad revenues. The emergence of huge, dominant radio conglomerates like Clear Channel and Infinity is a direct consequence of the ’96 Act.

It’s interesting to think about how the Telecommunications Act or other similar legislation might be rewritten in 2017. For example, what is “a given market” today when Facebook, Snapchat, etc., have a stranglehold on attention? And of what significance is a radio station when media is mostly consumed as bits?

Also interesting is how much the media industry has changed in the dozen years since this piece was published. One can easily rattle off the names of multi-billion dollar media properties that exist today — YouTube, Snapchat, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — but were barely a gleam in their founders’ eyes in 2004.

Still, for those that are public companies, the pressure to generate revenue and profit is something they have in common with the radio industry. A Q&A between the program director (PD) and DFW gets further into the effects these business pressures have on programming:

PD: The business now is more impatient. When KFI started (meaning in its current talk format), it took eight of nine years before it got any traction. The business pressures as they are right now, there’s a great impatience and need for success, and we don’t have long periods of time to see if shows hit or miss. Radio’s not as bad as TV yet — we don’t have overnight ratings yet — but there’s a lot of the same pressure.
DFW: Why is there so much extra pressure now?
PD: The radio companies are bigger, the monetary pressures are greater, the companies are publicly traded. There are big, large corporations.
DFW: So the odd thing here is that radio consolidation seems to up the pressure instead of reduce it — the competition is between fewer companies, but it’s way fiercer competition.
PD: Well, the media live in the same business world, that probably a lot of your magazine’s readers live in, which is, you know, quarter by quarter, how are we doing, are we making our numbers. Maybe we’ve just become a more impatient society.

Elsewhere in the piece it’s suggested that debt taken on to fuel consolidation at least partially drives the programming (e.g. searching for stimulating content that boosts ratings) and the ad volume.

Although it’s only partially related, as fan of “The Big Short” this passage caught my eye:

As of spring ’04, though, the most frequent and concussive ads on KFI are for mortgage and home-refi companies — Green Light Financial, HMS Capital, Home Field Financial, Benchmark Lending. Over and over. Pacific Home Financial, U.S. Mortgage Capital, Crestline Funding, Advantix Lending. Reverse mortgages, negative amortization, adjustable rates, APR, FICO … where did all these firms come from? What were these guys doing five years ago? Why is KFI’s audience seen as so especially ripe and ready for refi? Betterloans.com, lendingtree.com, Union Bank of California, on and on and on.

The Host as Entertainer

“Host” is built around John Ziegler, but of course delves into what it means to be a host of political talk radio. Let’s start with John Ziegler’s job:

The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler’s job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible… It is to say that he has exactly one on-air job, and that is to be stimulating. An obvious point, but it’s one that’s often overlooked by people who complain about propaganda, misinformation, and irresponsibility in commercial talk radio. Whatever else they are, the above-type objections… are calls to accountability. They are the sort of criticisms one might make of, say, a journalist, someone whose job description includes being responsible about what he says in public. And KFI’s John Ziegler is not a journalist — he is an entertainer. Or maybe it’s better to say that he is part of a peculiar, modern, and very popular type of news industry, one that manages to enjoy the authority and influence of journalism without the stodgy constraints of fairness, objectivity, and responsibility that make trying to tell the truth such a drag for everyone involved.

The obvious comparison (which also comes up in a few paragraphs) is a professional wrestler: looks like an athlete but is really an entertainer.

I won’t quote from it but a long passage of the essay is dedicated to understanding the type of person that makes a good talk show host — and it’s a very particular type of person. For example, a host must be able to talk extemporaneously for long stretches with little direct feedback, but still elicit an emotional reaction from the audience. In other words, not a skill you find on Craigslist.

These hosts share some unique vocal qualities that help them get the emotional response they need:

National talk-radio hosts like Limbaugh, Prager, Hendrie, Gallagher, et al. tend to have rich baritone radio voices that rarely peak, whereas today’s KFI has opted for a local-host sound that’s more like a slightly adenoidal second tenor. The voices of [John] Kobylt, Bill Handel, Ken Chiampou, weekend host Wayne Resnick, and John Ziegler all share not only this tenor pitch but also a certain quality that is hard to describe except as sounding stressed, aggrieved, Type A: the Little Guy Who’s Had It Up To Here. Kobylt’s voice in particular has a consistently snarling, dyspeptic, fed-up quality — a perfect aural analogue to the way drivers’ faces look in jammed traffic — whereas Mr. Ziegler’s tends to rise and fall more, often hitting extreme upper registers of outraged disbelief. Off-air, Mr. Z.’s speaking voice is nearly an octave lower than it sounds on his program, which is a bit mysterious…

About John Kobylt of the John & Ken show, DFW writes the following:

The point is that John Kobylt broadcasts in an almost perpetual state of affronted rage; and, as more than one KFI staffer has ventured to observe off the record, it’s unlikely that any middle-aged man could really go around this upset all the time and not drop dead. It’s a persona, in other words, not exactly fabricated but certainly exaggerated … and of course it’s also demagoguery of the most classic and unabashed sort.
But it makes for stimulating and profitable talk radio.

How profitable?

The John & Ken Show pulls higher ratings in southern California than the syndicated Rush and Dr. Laura, which is pretty much unheard of.

Deep into “Host” DFW makes a reference to a 2002 New Statesman article on talk radio, which is worth reading if you’ve forgotten about how analog politics in the 90s were. The article offers a simple theory about talk radio’s success:

Why is talk radio so overwhelmingly right-wing? The US radio producer Randall Bloomquist believes that it is because those on the left are prone to be inclusive, tolerant and reflective, qualities which make for a boring radio show. Lefties, he says, “cannot cut it because talk radio is the World Wrestling Federation with ideas”. A failure to divide the world into a stage for black-and-white moral conflict makes, he believes, for dull radio.

Considering Peter Thiel’s recent comments about Trump and wrestling — ”maybe pro wrestling is one of the most real things we have in our society and what’s really disturbing is that the other stuff is much more fake” — the producer quoted above looks clairvoyant. Continuing with the wrestling analogy, let’s look at this DFW passage embedded in a footnote:

Of course, this is assuming one believes that information and spin are different things — and one of the dangers of partisan news’s metastasis is the way it enables the conviction that the two aren’t really distinct at all. Such a conviction, if it becomes endemic, alters democratic discourse from a “battle of ideas” to a battle of sales pitches for ideas (assuming, again, that one chooses to distinguish ideas from pitches, or actual guilt/innocence from lawyers’ arguments, or binding commitments from the mere words “I promise,” and so on and so forth).

The danger with political pseudo-news entertainment (which is what we’re really talking about here) is that we often can’t tell what’s kayfabe. But it seems like a lot is kayfabe, including the hosts’ personas, whereas wrestling acknowledged it was fake about 20 years ago.

But the reason the talk radio/pro-wrestling formula works is, in DFW’s words, its simplicity and its appeal to primal emotions:

Part of the answer to why conservative talk radio works so well might be that extreme conservatism provides a fairly near, clear and unequivocal template with which to organize one’s opinions and responses to the world. The current term of approbation is “moral clarity.”

… and …

It is, of course, much less difficult to arouse genuine anger, indignation, and outrage in people than it is real joy, satisfaction, fellow feeling, etc. The latter are fragile and complex, and what excites them varies a great deal from person to person, whereas anger et al. are more primal, universal, and easy to stimulate (as implied by expressions like “He really pushes my buttons”)

All of this can be summed in a couple of obversations. First, Trump has many of the same qualities — aurally and ideologically — as the talk radio hosts described in the article, and is obviously a celebrity in his own right. Second, and I think more importantly, the grooming of his particular audience was happening long before — decades before — Trump had political aspirations (assuming those started around 2011 when he took up the birther cause).

What It All Means in 2017

The following passage sums up several important points about political talk radio in terms that make sense today:

One of the more plausible comprehensive theories is that political talk radio is one of several important quotes “galvanizing venues” for the US right. This thoery’s upshot is that talk radio functions as a kind of electronic town hall meeting where passions can be inflamed and arguments honed under the loquacious tutelage of the hosts. What’s compelling about this sort of explanation is not just its eschewal of simplistic paranoia about disinformation/agitprop (comparisons of Limbaugh and Hannity to Hitler and Goebbels are dumb, unhelpful, and easy for conservatives to make fun of), but the fact that it helps explain what is a deeper, much more vexing mystery for nonconservatives. The mystery is why the right is now where the real energy is in US political life, why the conservative message seems so much more straightforward and stimulating, why they’re all having so much more goddamn fun than the left… It seems reasonable to say that political talk radio is part of either a fortuitous set of circumstances or a wildly successful strategy for bringing a large group of like-minded citizens together, uniting them in a coherent set of simple ideas, energizing them, and inciting them to political action.

What I’m getting at is that all of this suggests a different reading of recent history, one where Trump’s success is built on an audience that’s been primed for almost three decades with ideologically driven conservative programming. Many Trump supporters would have never experienced the pre-Rush Limbaugh media landscape. Or would’ve grown up thinking that political meta-media was a normal (i.e. fair and balanced) way to consume information.

“Host” was also written before the iPhone, Facebook and Twitter. However, I think the basic analysis holds even though the venue has changed (the electronic town hall is now on Twitter instead of KFI). What’s worth considering, though, is how much social and mobile technologies amplified — like nitro to the funny car — the “fortuitous set of circumstances” that launched right-wing news entertainment in the 80s and 90s.

But if Trump is just a symptom, what then are the underlying problems? One of them seems to be that (a) we have fast-twitch neurons ready to light up with anger over any threat, real or perceived, and (b) we now have industries built around monetizing those impulses.

In some ways it’s reminiscent of the systemic relationship between the snack food companies and the obesity epidemic described in Salt Sugar Fat and The Dorito Effect. The food industry, aiming for the quarterly profits required in this impatient society, designs food that is delicious but also terrible for us in the long term. One could argue that ABC’s The Bachelor also fits this template.

As I said earlier, it may not be comforting but it’s at least interesting to think of Donald Trump’s presidency as a systemic problem. And DFW provides a good framing of the issues (as they were in 2004) that might help us understand what’s going on today.

Postscript

This timely Backchannel article from yesterday discusses how Facebook Live is replacing talk radio and Fox News: