Told  /  Antecedent

The Trigger Presidency

How shock jock comedy gave way to Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

Shock radio is a broadcast genre in which extreme, aggressive, explicit talk is meant to outrage the mainstream public while making the show’s devoted fans laugh. It took off nationally in the 1980s and ’90s, when the term “shock jock” applied interchangeably to a handful of radio personalities—Bubba, Don Imus, Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern among them—who had distinct audiences and often loathed one another, but shared a taste for the wildly irreverent. Since then, however, the spirit of shock radio has come to animate the political language of modern times, transforming from fart jokes into today’s “triggering the libs” culture, which ranges from anti-Semitic 4Chan memes of concentration camp ovens to President Trump’s relentless trolling of Kim Jong-un, LeBron James, and pretty much everyone else. And no one has mastered that language like our troll-in-chief. How the merger of right-wing politics and dick-joke comedy came to pass is a story about Donald Trump, yes, but it has its roots in the late days of the Reagan administration.

While local shock jocks like Chicago’s Steve Dahl were already established in the 1970s, the shock jock era truly began in August 1987, when the Reagan Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made two changes that literally rewrote the rules of American media and comedy. First, it repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which required radio stations to balance controversial views with an opposing point of view. Rush Limbaugh was already the top-rated show at Sacramento’s KFBK and a veteran of “insult radio” when the doctrine was overturned, finally freeing him to do the show he wanted.

Limbaugh could now be as controversial as he liked without liberal pushback (or context, or fact-checking), and his now familiar menu of right-wing satire and conservative dogma quickly connected to likeminded listeners. Within a year, WABC brought him to New York to begin his national show. To break up his daily three hours of super-villain monologuing, Limbaugh introduced news about Ted Kennedy with a song called “The Philanderer,” a parody of Dion’s “The Wanderer.” And in an early example of a conservative mocking liberals as the real fascists, he began referring to feminists as “feminazis.”