Fear gripped the airwaves, creating an aura of approaching Armageddon, both meteorological and political.
Driving from Toronto last week, visiting family in Philadelphia, I spent much of the 17 hours round-trip flipping around the radio dial. Everywhere I turned brought dire warnings about Hurricane Sandy slamming the East Coast, and equally dark visions – from the conservative titans of talk – of Barack Obama wrecking America.
On Rush Limbaugh’s show, Mary from Billings, Mont., called in to confess: She voted for Mr. Obama in 2008. But only, she added, to teach Americans a lesson in how disastrous liberal economics could be.
“Do you realize how close you came to participating in the destruction of this country?” Mr. Limbaugh asked.
“Well,” replied Mary, who this time will go with Mitt Romney, “sometimes you have to grab the American public by the lapels and say, ‘Do you really want to give everything you earn at work away to people who choose not to work?’ ” Four more Obama years, she said, and the nation will sink like Greece. “We’re the last bastion. If we don’t do it …”
“I actually think if this guy gets elected,” Mr. Limbaugh interrupted, “we’re – that thought scares me like I haven’t been scared before. It really, really does.”
“I hope everybody’s as scared as you and I are,” Mary said.
They sure sounded like it – which, when it comes to politics, is the American way. I’m Philadelphia-born and eternally fascinated by the nation’s two solitudes, red and blue, each demonizing the other. And here again were those red-state champions of chat – oddly familiar, like encountering some distant, eccentric relatives at a family wedding and, even before they pop up behind the dessert table, instantly recognizing their voices and their shticks.
For Mr. Limbaugh, America’s top-rated talker, with a weekly audience of some 15 million, Mr. Obama suffers from his own self-created image. “He was magic,” the host said in tones of mock awe.
“He was gonna bring everybody together, the old politics was gonna be vanishing. Race relations were going to heal. …The world was going to love us.”
Not only that, Mr. Obama was likeable. In the third debate, Mr. Limbaugh intoned, “he wasn’t likeable.” Take away the teleprompter “and the real Obama surfaces.” Meaning petulant and arrogant, among other things. Anyone who tried to reveal the real Obama, Mr. Limbaugh complained, was called “racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe, whatever.”
The people who might have called him such names were nowhere to be found. The left’s answer to right-wing radio, Air America, went bankrupt in 2010. For all the right’s insistence on a liberal-dominated media, Mr. Limbaugh and company reign on radio.
Sean Hannity, the No. 2-rated talker, was pitching a package to send to undecided voters in critical states, containing a DVD “that explains the truth about how Obamacare robs all of us of the right to make our own health-care decisions.” Also included is a copy of the Constitution, “so they can see for themselves how their rights are being violated.” The donation: just $15 through hannityforsanity.com.
On the drive back to Toronto, the rolling countryside glowed yellow, red and orange but the serious storm warnings had started. Mr. Limbaugh, ever present, said some liberal commentators were hoping for major damage “so Obama can look presidential.”
Okay, enough. Maybe it comes from living in relatively calm Canada, where the political spectrum is slimmer. But this exercise in hard-right immersion was reaching the creepy stage, like binge-drinking alone at 3 a.m.
For American conservatives, though, the party was just getting started: They foresaw no electoral Armageddon after all. Talking to Mr. Hannity, Republican strategist Karl Rove reckoned more undecided voters would break Mr. Romney’s way than Mr. Obama’s.
“So,” the host said, “your prediction is, you think that …”
“Victory, my friend, victory,” said Mr. Rove, the man once known as Bush’s brain, meaning former president George W. “Victory for our country, victory for our future and victory for Hannity.”
“Karl Rove,” Mr. Hannity concluded a minute later, just before I switched to a Canadian station, “God bless you, you’re a great American.”