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Right wing talk radio pours gas on the flames of Republican civil war

Right wing talk radio pours gas on the flames of Republican civil war
(David Horsey/LA Times)

Traditional conservatives and Republican Party operatives are gobsmacked by the virulent, anti-establishment mood among Republican voters. They find themselves in a fight for the soul of the Grand Old Party -- a fight they seem to be losing.

Each new poll ratifies the fact that nearly half of Republican voters favor either Donald Trump or Ben Carson, candidates who have never held public office and who tout their lack of political experience as a major attribute. Add on the numbers for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has spent his time in Washington as a thorn in the side of the entrenched leadership, and Carly Fiorina, another political outsider, and the anti-establishment vote goes well over 50 percent.

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The dismayed mainstream conservatives who are used to being members of a party that, until now, always coalesced behind sensible, seasoned nominees like John McCain or Mitt Romney act as if they have no idea how the grassroots have become so overgrown with the wild weeds of anger and intemperance.

They need to switch on their radios. Specifically, they need to tune in hardline conservative talk radio and listen to the angry voices that fill the heads of their voters.

There have been right-wing preachers and polemicists on the radio nearly as long as there have been commercial radio broadcasts. After World War II, Christian anti-communists such as Billy James Hargis, Dan Smoot and the Rev. Carl McIntire camped out on the far edges of the AM dial. Their ominous warnings about communist conspiracies and morally bankrupt, treasonous liberalism were dramatic but also so grim that they lacked appeal for a wide audience.

Then along came Rush. When "The Rush Limbaugh Show" went national in 1988, the game changed. He made paranoia and vein-rupturing anger fun. Dispensing with the dense "documentation" proffered by the old guard right wingers, Rush riffed on the news, engaged in satire and sold himself as a personality. In the process, he became the biggest name in radio and turned himself into a major influence in Republican politics.

Mr. Limbaugh's success spawned a legion of emulators. According to the trade publication "Talkers," there are as many as 5,000 political talk radio hosts burning up the airwaves across America. The vast majority of them cater to a conservative audience. Most offer little in the way of sophisticated political insight; they do not want to be stuffy old George Will, after all. No, they want to be like Rush -- all anger and attitude.

A recent SUnday New York Times Magazine profiled the latest of these Rush spawn to swim out of a small pond into the national conversation, a chunky, 42-year-old college dropout named Steve Deace. Strategically based in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. Deace is a potential kingmaker for the Iowa GOP caucuses. Republican presidential candidates have lined up to get on his radio show -- just about everyone but Mr. Establishment, Jeb Bush, whom Mr. Deace calls "America's Hispanic fertility czar." Mr. Deace has now given his formal blessing to Ted Cruz.

Mr. Deace is enthusiastically engaged in what he describes as the "civil war" within the Republican Party. Predictable on-air rants about Obama's "Marxism" or attacks on gay rights -- "the Rainbow jihad" -- have given way to frontal assaults on mainstream Republican leaders. His biggest challenge, he says, is matching the militancy of his listeners. "The only time we have tension with our audience these days is when we're not as brutal on the GOP hackery as they are," Mr. Deace told the Times.

The Republican Party now has a large base of voters who have marinated their brains in the anger, distrust, paranoia and sneering belligerence of right-wing radio. And, unlike the old days when their world view might be tempered by an alternative version of reality offered in the mainstream media, these folks are ideologically cocooned by right-wing websites and Fox News. Their feedback loop is hermetically sealed.

In their rhetoric, Republican politicians have parroted the hot button talking points of the talk radio cranks for years, even when they had no intention of trying to put those ideas into law. This has given the hard right wing more credibility and, ultimately, more influence in the party than they have ever enjoyed, but also set them up to be disillusioned and infuriated by the pandering.

Thus, having ridden the tiger for so long, mainline Republicans now find themselves, not on the tiger's back, but down in the dirt staring into the merciless eyes and sharp fangs of the beast.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go tolatimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

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