BERLIN – Ross Kaminsky has been running the morning rush hour show on TalkRadio 630 KHOW in Denver for all of two months, but he’s already in hot water with many of his 50,000 listeners: They like Donald Trump, and Kaminsky doesn’t.
I drove to Kaminsky’s house on 16 hectares of forested mountain side in Nederland, a town in Boulder County, Colorado, where Kaminsky is one of very few conservatives, because I’m hooked on U.S. talk radio. Driving around primary states on a reporting assignment is a lonely business. So Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and their local colleagues are my in-car companions, their wit and eloquence making long drives more tolerable. I don’t get to argue, so in just six weeks they’ve taught me how to think like a U.S. conservative, though I disagree with myself when I do.
U.S. talk radio is wickedly good as an entertainment product, and I’m not convinced the tens of millions of people who listen to it are all hard-line Republicans. Every conservative talk radio host owes something to Limbaugh, who invented the format and has perfected it since his show started in 1984, dissecting the news to fit an idiosyncratic worldview. So does Kaminsky, though he says he’s not a fan.
A former options trader, Kaminsky moved to Colorado with his wife 12 years ago. Here, he made a name as a conservative blogger and started getting invitations to radio stations, first as a talking head, then as guest host. “The first time I filled in for somebody, I was hooked instantly,” Kaminsky says. “It was like heroin.”
Kaminsky uses his coveted morning spot and the increased influence that comes with it to wage war on Trump. “He’s so reminiscent of Germany and Italy in the 1930s,” the radio host says. “It’s all about being a strongman. The words he uses the most are ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ and ‘win’ and ‘lose.’ There’s no principle here.”
A self-described libertarian (“Rand is my son’s middle name,” he says by way of proof), Kaminsky has discovered that many of his listeners don’t care about principle when it comes to Trump: To use a Limbaugh-coined expression, they are “low-information voters.”
“I do think I have lost some listeners by being so critical of Donald Trump,” Kaminsky says. “I’m getting emails from Trump supporters saying, ‘I’m really mad at you because you have this influence and you’re beating up on Trump so much and saying you’re not gonna vote for him if he’s the nominee, and if Hillary Clinton wins, maybe it’s your fault.’ “
Talk radio, notably Limbaugh and Hannity, have gone easy on Trump throughout the campaign. Most recently, Limbaugh defended Trump when he was accused of failing to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s endorsement. Hannity (whose shows air on Kaminsky’s station, part of the iHeartMedia network) has praised Trump for his lack of political correctness and called him an “impressive” candidate.
“Rush has been bad on this,” Kaminsky says. “But radio is a business, and its purpose is to make money, like any other business. The way you make money in radio is by generating ratings. And at the end of the day the way you boost your ratings is by being entertaining. Limbaugh figured out many years ago how to make politics entertaining, and he still does it. Trump is by far the most entertaining candidate, so I don’t blame Rush for wanting to talk about the most interesting candidate, but I do blame Rush when he spends all these years talking about fundamental principles and then he plays up Trump.”
Conservative principles are important to Kaminsky, who gave up his Republican voter registration eight years ago. They’re also the stock-in-trade for such talk radio stalwarts as Mark Levin and Glenn Beck, who both back Ted Cruz.
Beck is particularly venomous about Trump, and has campaigned for Cruz. Levin recently broadcast a hysterical Trump soliloquy followed by a statesmanlike Ronald Reagan speech, creating a comical contrast. (Reagan, of course, is the ultimate hero for nostalgic talk-radio audiences.) Limbaugh and Hannity, however, have stayed above the fight, conveniently preaching the need to keep the Democrats out by any means.
This split among the most popular hosts isn’t helping the Republicans, making it harder for the conservative base to fall in behind a single candidate. But if Trump is acceptable to the loudest voices of talk radio, he’s acceptable to the listeners, too — and that’s why Kaminsky is getting those angry emails and calls.
“They may come to regret it later, but they may not,” Kaminsky says of his federally famous colleagues who have chosen not to attack Trump. “If Trump becomes president, there will be a lot to talk about. Now, the country will be going to hell in a hand-basket, but there will be a lot to talk about.”
I can’t help thinking that’s the case with the mainstream media, too. There’s no way around it: Trump is entertaining and fun to talk about. The ensuing airtime has made him more acceptable as a potential president than he should ever have been.
Talk radio was set up as an alternative to the liberal mainstream. With Trump, though — perhaps because it’s so highly commercialized — it has fallen into the same trap as the mainstream of tempting Americans to merge entertainment and politics in the important business of choosing who should run the country.
Based in Berlin, Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of five books.