As President Donald Trump trails in polls before the presidential election on Tuesday, the right-wing media have continued to blast out a fantastical narrative that Trump is the last bulwark between the United States and leftist anarchy. Few places has that message been more clear than on conservative and Christian radio.
Last month, Salem Radio Network host Kevin McCullough appeared on the show of Eric Metaxas, a nationally syndicated host and author who also serves on the president’s evangelical advisory council, to forecast a landslide Trump victory in the election. McCullough condemned the Democratic Party for what he called “a culture of abortion, a culture of sexual anarchy” as he talked about his voting predictions.
Metaxas falsely described Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris as “literally the most liberal senator who exists in the Senate” and then went on a racist diatribe questioning whether Harris is really Black.
“It’s this cynical thing about picking somebody who is supposedly Black. I think I am far darker than she is, and she’s married, of course, to a white man,” Metaxas, who is white, told listeners.
Salem Radio Network is a group of radio and publishing enterprises started in the 1980s that has grown into a media powerhouse that reaches listeners in every corner of the country. It has openly celebrated Trump’s 2016 victory as a boon for its business and its many shows, with Senior Vice President Phil Boyce calling the president “a game changer for our format” and “the gift that keeps on giving” during a speech at an industry conference in 2018. As Trump’s attacks on fact-based media outlets have eroded trust in mainstream news sources among conservatives, right-wing radio has offered an alternative reality in which pro-Trump listeners can hear only what they want.
Salem is an explicitly conservative, explicitly Christian company. They want you to be on the Republican team, and they want their hosts to stick to that formula. Brian Rosenwald, author of “Talk Radio’s America”
“Our listeners despise the mainstream media. You can capitalize on that despisement,” Boyce said at the 2018 conference.
The symbiotic, cynical relationship between Christian media and Trump appears to be mutual. Trump has long admired the profitable empires of televangelists and megachurch pastors even while privately deriding their faith. Former aides and close allies have recounted Trump mocking faith leaders as “hustlers” and ridiculing religious beliefs while also viewing them as important resources for securing voters. And, leading up to the election, Trump has sunk money into radio ads, leveraged a sprawling network of right-wing hosts and sent out surrogates to shore up support among his base.
While most radio networks and media outlets tend to value profits above any ideological mission and may employ hosts across the political spectrum, experts say Salem’s dogmatic adherence to right-wing Christian views makes it unusual even in the generally conservative world of talk radio.
“Salem is the exception. Salem is an explicitly conservative, explicitly Christian company,” said Brian Rosenwald, author of “Talk Radio’s America” and a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.“They want you to be on the Republican team, and they want their hosts to stick to that formula.”
Executives at Salem have described the company as a vanguard in the culture war, and the daily lineup on one of Salem’s stations, called The Answer, is a parade of Trump allies and misinformation peddlers. Its roster includes right-wing activists Charlie Kirk and Dennis Prager; former White House official Sebastian Gorka; and Jay Sekulow, who was as one of Trump’s lead attorneys during the impeachment case.
Although they don’t achieve the same numbers as Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, some of Salem’s hosts, such as Hugh Hewitt, are estimated to reach a cumulative weekly audience of 8 million listeners. Other broadcasts, like Kevin McCullough’s faith and news show, claim to air on more than 200 outlets around the country. During the presidential campaign, they have used this platform to spread wild, sometimes bigoted, pro-Trump falsehoods to listeners.
Metaxas is one of Salem’s biggest names pushing Trump’s narrative. Throughout the campaign, Metaxas has been a staunch advocate for Trump as a protector of Christian values while denigrating his political opponents, including in a Wall Street Journal editorial earlier this year headlined “The Christian Case for Trump.”
Like other conservative radio hosts, notably Limbaugh, Metaxas acts as a mediator between the public and Republicans in order to massage tensions and mend rifts, including with evangelicals who have qualms about the president’s behavior.
“I’ve talked to people who know him personally, who tell the story of how he became pro-life when Barron was born,” Metaxas said on his show on Oct. 23. “I really do think he has changed.”
Many of Salem’s hosts, such as McCullough, tend to blur the line between traditional Christian talk radio and conservative talk radio, sometimes appearing on both its syndicated station focused on politics (The Answer) and its station dedicated to faith talk (The Mission). Often the voices on Christian talk radio don’t directly mention Trump, but the messaging clearly aligns with White House narratives.
“God hates lawlessness,” Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor and close Trump ally, said on a Salem radio podcast during anti-racism protests in July.
“The call you hear in many quarters now to completely dismantle or to defund or replace the police, that is contrary to the teachings of the Bible,” he added.
Christian radio, like local conservative talk and like big national conservative talk, can help excite voters ― can help drive them to turn out. Brian Rosenwald
Trump retains broad support among white evangelicals, even as the Biden campaign has tried to make inroads and target its own ads at conservative Christian voters. About 78% of white evangelical protestants support Trump, a number that has held steady since 2016 even as he has lost ground among other demographics. Although Christian radio hosts may not shift votes, experts say they can potentially remind their pro-Trump audiences why they should go to the polls.
“Christian radio, like local conservative talk and like big national conservative talk, can help excite voters ― can help drive them to turn out,” Rosenwald said.
In mid-October, the Trump campaign made a six-figure ad buy specifically targeting evangelical audiences with radio spots on Salem and fellow Christian network Bott Radio stations. One of the ads is a direct appeal to anti-abortion voters, calling Trump “the strongest pro-life president in history.”
The ad also mentions Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who anti-abortion advocates hope will aid in overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and implementing widespread restrictions on abortion. Many conservative radio hosts have focused on a similar theme, touting Trump as a “pro-life” candidate who appeals to white evangelical Protestants whose most critical issue in the election is abortion, according to polling.
“Joe Biden and the radical left want to continue the Obama-Biden policies that forced immoral values in our homes and schools and support abortion up until the moment of birth,” the ad falsely states.
“Donald Trump speaks for us boldly leading the way. He’s never let us down. And never will.”
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