Chuck Ross

Will President Trump Take Another Page From the Howard Stern Playbook?

Nov 10, 2016

I have never seen an election that has upset more people who I know. Mainly because most of them are convinced that President-elect Donald Trump is a screwball. A nut.

Peggy Noonan, the terrific writer, columnist, journalist and political historian, wrote about this just last month. Noonan, who, early in her career, worked for CBS News, was back at CBS on election night, and it was good to hear her analysis. Noonan is probably best known for being a speechwriter for President Reagan, and as a longtime weekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She has also taught journalism at NYU.

I was never a big fan of Reagan. Still, I’m a big fan of Noonan’s columns. She’s smart, compassionate and always presents a well-thought out, cogent argument. What a pleasure to get an opposite point of view from mine without the histrionics that characterize too much of conservative radio or the commentators on Fox News.

Of Trump, Noonan wrote in her column of Oct. 22, “Look, he’s a nut and you know he’s a nut. I go to battleground states and talk to anyone, everyone. They all know Donald Trump’s a nut. Some will vote for him anyway. Many are in madman-versus-criminal mode, living with (or making) their final decision. They got the blues. Everyone does. They’re worried about the whole edifice: If this is where we are, where are we going?”

Later she writes, “Since I am more in accord with Mr. Trump’s stands than not, I am particularly sorry that as an individual human being he’s a nut.

“Which gives rise to a question, for me a poignant one.

“What if there had been a Sane Donald Trump?

“Oh my God, Sane Trump would have won in a landslide.”

This was written on Oct. 22,  as I said. What happened, of course, is that screwball Trump thumped Clinton anyway.

Noonan also noted in her column that, unfortunately, “people don’t change the fundamentals of their nature at age 70.”

The next week, on Oct. 29, Noonan wrote a little more about a nutty Trump vs. a sane one. First she asked the question, “Could a non-nutty Trump have broken through, captured the imagination and indignation of Republicans and many Democrats, won the nomination?”

She continues, “What struck me after the column was the number of angry Trump supporters who told me that I didn’t get it — he may act like a nut but he had to be crazy to break through.”

This made me laugh out loud. Trump as Orr in “Catch-22,” Joseph Heller’s brilliant satirical novel.

Here’s how Heller, in Catch-22, probably would have written about this interpretation of Trump having to act crazy (my apologies to Heller):

Trump had to be crazy to say all the crap he said, and sane if he didn’t, but he wouldn’t have gotten the nomination if he hadn’t been crazy. But if he was crazy he couldn’t win the general election. So if he was crazy he’d win the primaries but that would mean he couldn’t win the general election because he wasn’t sane.

As it turned out, though, Trump did win the general election. But since Catch-22 cannot be violated, something else must have been going on.

In fact, I don’t think Trump is a screwball or nutty in the least. I think, first and foremost, that his behavior can be easily understood by looking at Howard Stern, of whom Trump has been a protégé for years. Over the years Trump has made innumerable guest appearances on Stern’s show, and the two quickly fall into easy banter. Trump has long suckled on Stern’s teat.

Stern, just 8 years Trump’s junior, may be the most brilliant broadcaster of our generation. Back in the spring of 1997, Stern, then promoting his movie “Private Parts” (which Rotten Tomatoes called “surprisingly endearing” and which carries an 80% approval rating by critics on the site), appeared on Charlie Rose’s interview show. At the time Stern was still being syndicated across the country on terrestrial radio. Here, from that interview, is some insight into Stern’s shtick — and, I would argue, thus into Trump’s as well.

Charlie Rose: What is it you think you do?

Howard Stern: … I think I’m good at telling a story. … I always saw myself as a [radio] broadcaster. … It’s a very conservative medium, particularly when I got into it. And I was able to do things people hadn’t done before.

Stern says he was basically able to split his head open and “really say whatever was on my mind, and that was refreshing …”

Rose: Be willing to go wherever your curiosity takes you —

Stern: I know I have a juvenile mentality. … I think the reason people relate to what I do is that deep down inside — especially guys — there is this sort of 9-year-old sensibility.

Later Stern says, “When I’m on the radio I can probably be the most honest and unlock everything. I’ve always hated real life. Real life to me represents locking up your thoughts and behaving a certain way.”

Then Stern says, “I like the idea that I’m this controversial guy. I like that I’m this guy nobody can figure out. … I can’t even figure me out.”

Rose: You seem pretty straightforward to me. It seems to me you’re the following things: A guy who really does say what’s on his mind. A guy who’s very savvy about who he is and how each thing fits into a pattern. A guy who works his head off in order to be good on the radio because he wants to be successful. A guy who comes from a certain value system. What am I missing?

Stern: People are confused by me.

Rose: They want to think you’re a bad boy.

Stern: Yeah.

Rose then notes that in ‘Private Parts’ there is the contrast between Stern the “family man” versus “all the stuff you do that some people find repulsive, disrespectful to women …”

Rose (again): The other side is the cruelty. Some people see cruelty. If you say I wish they were dead — speaking of an FCC commissioner — that seems to be going over the line —

Stern: Not to me —

Rose: … If we accept the notion you mean it. It’s not just funny. You mean it.

Stern: I’ve always said the show is opening up your brain and saying whatever dirty little thoughts you have in there, even the thoughts that aren’t so respectable. And I know that all of us have said, ‘Oh, I wish that he’d drop dead. I really do. I hate this person.’ It’s a matter of expression.

But at the same [time], having said [that], I’ve always said that speech is a wonderful thing. It’s great to be free with speech. You cannot say anything at this table that would offend me. Your actions might offend me, but not your speech. And that’s why I can do the type of show that I do.

I love interviewing Klu Klux Klan guys. I’ve said this before — it’s like being in a rock group. It’s their way of getting girls down South. They’re in the KKK. … I don’t mind interviewing them and hearing their stupid, racist thoughts. If they killed somebody, then I’d have a problem. There’s a big difference. So thought and speech and all that kind of stuff doesn’t bother me.


Speaking of Stern being cruel, I remember listening to him years ago when he started talking about Rosie O’Donnell. He blasted her. Really excoriated her in a shocking manner.

O’Donnell has also been a target of Trump’s.

In a 2012 YouTube video O’Donnell picks up the story, saying that Stern “terrified me. So then I had Parker and he was at pre-K and every day Stern is talking about me on the air. One day Parker is walked in with the cops. One of Stern’s fans was on the way to Parker’s school to kidnap him.”

Actress Mia Farrow, who was friendly with both Stern and O’Donnell, arranged for Stern to call O’Donnell privately. O’Donnell says in the video, “I told him, ‘You scare me Howard. I’m afraid of you. Men have scared me my whole life.’ And he said, ‘I’m sorry and I’ll never do it again.’”

Flash forward two years later. Stern had been good to his word, and O’Donnell decides to go on his show to promote a charity event. “I did it from my house. I was terrified and I had just one rule — that I’d just tell the truth. And we started to click.” She’s now been on the show numerous times and both she and Stern speak well of one another.

Here’s my point. I think much of Trump’s persona is similar to the “open book” Stern is on-air. Trump is also a student of reality TV. He reminds me of Richard Hatch and other players on “Survivor,” which is one of the pioneering programs of reality TV as we know it today. To win, one needs to lie, cheat and even sometimes, steal. Oops, I mean one needs to “outwit, outlast and outplay” everyone else.

We’ve heard from a number of Trump surrogates that, in private, he’s generally thoughtful and measured. In other words, much more presidential. Let’s hope now that he’s president-elect that he drops his Stern-like and reality TV-influenced personas. After all, Stern was able to do that when he was a judge on “America’s Got Talent.” Now Trump needs to do it for “Make America Great Again.”

One Comment

  1. Hmmmm… seems to be a column that says it’s all just really ok. See, it’s ok for stern to be the sexist wretch that he is because he’s such a nice guy off air. Words matter. Words create hate, actions finish the job. Words create the fear that create actions. Stern has belittled and marginalized women for years continuing to propagate the belief that 9 year olds think of women as sex objects to be disregarded and exploited. I have a 9 year old. He’s pretty much just happy playing Mario game boy and laughing a lot when he farts. This crap stern has been spewing for years is adult in its origin and nature.. albeit young adult at best. The comparison of the two is a good one. Trump is stuck just as stern has been for years in an adolescent/ young adult irrational sexist racist homophobic antisemetic delusion. That stern has been idolized because of it says a lot about our country. And that’s why Trump won… we’ve been groomed for years to accept all this crap as some extension of normal. To me your column simply supports it all in an effort to explain it all. We must be more clever than this.

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