The New Yorker's Kelefa Sanneh profiles talk radio host Michael Savage, a homophobic, punk-loving, affirmative-action hating paranoiac who seems — almost refreshingly — to be made up of 100% real bile.
Savage is famous for telling a caller to MSNBC to "get AIDS and die, you pig," and, more recently, for making it onto an "undesirables" list compiled by the (now ousted) Home Secretary of the UK. How did Savage get himself on a list with a former KKK Grand Wizard, a neo-Nazi leader, and the Rev. Fred Phelps, whose church's slogan is "God Hates Fags?" Well, by saying things like this:
There is certainly a possibility that our dear friends in the Middle East cooked [swine flu] up in a laboratory, in a cave, and brought it into Mexico, knowing that our incompetent government would not protect us from this epidemic because of open-border policies.
The homosexuals have taken over every aspect of the culture. That's how we have the President that we have, because we've twisted everything into what it isn't [...] Diversity is a cover for perversity.
Obama hates America and the history of this country [...] Obama is raping America. Obama is raping our values. Obama is raping our democracy. And he's saying to you, who are you gonna believe, me, with this sonorous Kenyan voice, the con man in front of your eyes? Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?
Savage is also a professional paranoiac, who claims to record his show from several "hidden locations" (he is aided in this by an executive producer named Beowulf Rochlen). This ad from his website pretty much sums up his attitude:
Given all these — and many more — wacked-out expressions of bigotry, it's odd that Sanneh finds Savage kind of charming. Savage says Sanneh looks like Obama (not true, but maybe he thinks all black men look alike?), but he also serves him tasty beer and waxes philosophical about the futility of it all. He tells Sanneh,
I watch shows where they're digging up the mummy from four thousand years ago, bothering his tomb. That person shaved, brushed his teeth with a stick, took a shit, got laid, whatever. And now what? Who the fuck knows what his politics were?
Savage talks a lot about his own death, and he seems to think he will die without truly making a difference. While Sarah Palin sees herself as a rebel leader at the head of "real America," Savage seems to cast himself in the role of Cassandra. In his rant about diversity and perversity (part of a larger ran about Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton, "a man who hates women so much that he won't have sex with them"), he says "15 years I've tried to warn you [...] and I've failed." Tried to warn you about what? Well, gays, liberals, immigrants, anti-Americanism, all of which he links in one big web of evil that he doesn't really believe he has the power to untangle.
Demagogues (people like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and now Sarah Palin) often speak simply. They toss red meat to their base (i.e., calling George Tiller's assassination a "termination"), they try to inflame the opposition, they create slogans. Savage, by contrast, frequently rambles bizarrely. Here he is on his dog, Teddy:
My dog is only eleven pounds. What's shocking to me is that my dog's, like, hindquarter — I looked at it the other day, when he got wet... I looked at his leg. It looked like a large chicken leg. I got frightened. So I said, how could you eat a chicken, and savor it, and the dog's — I can't do it.
Savage's dog's leg has nothing to do with any conservative cause (and, for the record, he hates both animal cruelty and animal rights activists), but Savage doesn't necessarily let conservative causes, or any causes, dictate what he talks about. As Sanneh points out, despite his previous Times bestsellers, he chose to sell his 2008 book, Psychological Nudity: Savage Radio Stories, solely through his website. Sanneh asks, "What other political firebrand would self-publish a book of autobiographical anecdotes at the peak of election season?"
Michael Savage doesn't seem to be trying to impress people, or to rally a coalition around him. He may not even be trying to convince anyone. And while this I'm-just-an-independent-stating-my-opinions routine has been used dishonestly by others, in Savage it feels genuine. Conservative pundits frequently claim that they say out loud what everyone really thinks — Savage really thinks what other people say out loud. But given that what he thinks is so frequently hateful and bigoted, is this better or worse?