This week’s This American Life kicks off with an uncharacteristically topical segment: an examination of Donald Trump’s appeal among Christian evangelicals. Producer Zoe Chace goes to Greenville, South Carolina to talk to Dr. Tony Beam, the host of the radio show The Christian Worldview Today.
Tony, it turns out, has misjudged his listeners. He thought that his Christian evangelical audience would support Ted Cruz’s presidential bid, as he did. But they flocked instead to Trump. And they let him know, too. To his chagrin, his listeners call in repeatedly to extol the triumphs of Trump—so persistently that at one point Tony wonders if he should give up his radio show altogether, lest he inadvertently provide a platform celebrating a candidate he views as un-Christian and grossly immoral.
The segment features multiple clips of Tony’s show and of his verbal altercations with his Trump convert-listeners. Few This American Life listeners, I suspect, will have heard even seconds of Christian Worldview Today before this episode. Through her reporting on a radio show aimed at—let’s face it—well-educated middle-class liberals, Chace gives us a glimpse of rightwing talk radio, a media world arguably much more influential than NPR. (This American Life draws about 2.2 million listeners a week; Sean Hannity’s radio show attracts 13.5 million.)
The clips Chace selects of Tony’s evangelical radio show suggests a sensibility far removed from that of This American Life. The inclusion of material from Tony’s show makes for an interesting juxtaposition. This American Life tends to be softly quirky, searching, and bittersweet. Ira Glass’s reporters dig up offbeat stories that listeners are encouraged to reflect upon open-mindedly. Tony’s show operates with a different set of argumentative procedures. In one clip, Tony demands of a listener who’s called in to place a “stake in the ground”: does he support Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country or not? In another clip, a caller asks Tony to assess multiple actions taken by Trump. Is it good or bad that Trump does this? Is it good or bad that Trump does that? In a third clip, Tony cuts off a caller: “It’s my turn to talk.”
Tony’s show is organized around debate, but debate of a particular kind. The style of reasoning the show appears to endorse is Nicomachean: is Trump good or bad? Do you support Trump or do you not? It is unclear what use these “stake in the ground” assertions are in the absence of arguments that support or disconfirm them. This style of conversation perhaps fulfills a different need: the verification and regulation of Christian evangelical identity. On air, Tony, a fatherly guide for his listeners, is working out what Southern Christian evangelicals should and should not believe. No wonder, then, that he feels the abandonment of his listeners to Trump as such a blow.
This presentation of an alternative radio world is secondary, however, to the segment’s broader question: why are so many evangelicals leaping on the Trump train? In search of answers, Chace takes us to a biker rally held in support of Trump. She nabs some choice audio: the rally organizer advises felons in attendance to put away their guns in case Secret Service comes by, but encourages anyone with a permit to carry their weapons.
What Chace finds out is that Trump’s supporters aren’t just angry, alienated, working-class whites. They’re also having a blast. Trump rallies—as is true perhaps for all political rallies—are more about social solidarity than political expression. By depicting Trump’s supporters as happy, rather than angry, Chace humanizes them, providing a necessary counterbalance to other media accounts that tacitly characterize the “Trumpeters” as a bigoted rabble stoked by nativism and resentment.
Act two is a stand-up segment by Jay Larson from a show at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. This American Life sampled comedy from the Laugh Factory in its most recent episode, and again, the collaboration works. It highlights comedic work that, while not obscure, might go unheard by the standard This American Life listener; it also helps the pace of the episode by inserting a moment of levity after a long reported story.
The third act is a bit that originally aired in 2007. Eve Abrams, a freelance radio reporter, tells the story of a student she once taught, and his relationship with another teacher at the school. Robert, the student, didn’t like teachers much. He misbehaved in class and never did his homework. He died at age sixteen. This story is moving and well-told by a reporter with an intimate connection to her subject.
Act four is a series of variations on a single joke: Todd Glass, a comedian, doesn’t know anything about the band U2, or about music at all, really. Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott, U2 diehards and hosts of a podcast called “You Talkin’ U2 To Me”, invite him on their show. They play him clips from songs and ask him whether the band playing is U2. It rarely is. I recommend this segment for U2 purists only.
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