Boston radio host gave Trump the nickname “Pocahontas” to ridicule Elizabeth Warren
Donald Trump didn’t come up with the derisive nickname “Pocahontas” for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. That dubious contribution was the handiwork of Boston-based talk radio host Howie Carr, whose angry resentment of educated elites and mastery of schoolyard bullying rhetoric made him Trump before Trump.
In fact, for anyone who wants insight into the narratives and propaganda techniques in right-wing media that enabled the rise and ruinous reign of Donald Trump, a good place to start is the Howie Carr Show on WRKO — AM 680 radio in Boston.
Carr is a long-time fixture in New England media and politics who specializes in selling the party of the rich to the white working-class. Trump has long been a frequent and popular guest on Carr’s show, and he picked up the nickname — and presumably a lot more — from the radio host.
Carr is a veteran columnist for the right-wing tabloid Boston Herald and a perpetual antagonist of Boston’s liberal political and cultural establishment. But his influence extends beyond Boston. His talk radio program, the top-rated of its kind in New England, reaches well into southern New Hampshire, making Carr a factor in the Granite State’s quadrennial first-in-the-nation primary.
Carr hasn’t played a big role in this year’s New Hampshire primary because Trump is running virtually unopposed. (Former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld is also on the Republican ballot). But when the GOP primary is contested, candidates are always eager to get on the air with Carr as a way to reach not only his Boston audience, but also thousands of potential New Hampshire voters who tune into the show in its prime slot in late-afternoon drive time.
Anyone who wants to understand how the Democrats have lost so much ground with blue-collar white voters over the past generation should listen to The Howie Carr Show. The sneering, sarcastic host — along with his guests and callers — provides a perpetually updating archive of the race, class, and gender-based resentments that animate the base of the Republican Party and drive right-wing electoral politics in the early 21st century.
Many people on the left dismiss conservative talk radio as an unsavory stew of bombastic hosts and angry, ill-informed callers. In addition to the unfairness of this caricature, talk radio remains a highly influential segment of media, reaching millions of listeners daily, clearly helping to shape conservative ideology as well as the Republican Party platform. Progressives and liberals who sneer at its vulgarity or sensationalism ignore it at their peril.
In order to understand why listening to Carr can provide insight into the energies that drive Trumpism, it is useful to know something about Carr’s ideology and public persona, and the role it plays in the media and politics of Massachusetts.
Massachusetts has a national reputation for groundbreaking liberalism. For example, the Massachusetts health care system is the most progressive in the nation, and the state was the first to legalize gay marriage.
But for all its liberal accomplishments and image, Massachusetts has always contained right-wing elements. It remains a point of pride among Massachusetts Democrats that the Bay State was the only state to vote for Democrat George McGovern over Republican Richard Nixon in 1972. But just eight years later Massachusetts voters helped elect and then re-elect Ronald Reagan. It turns out there were plenty of Reagan Democrats in Barney Frank’s home state. Boston, of course, was also the site of ugly white racism in the 1970s around the issue of court-ordered school desegregation.
But for anyone seeking insight into the social psychology underlying right-wing political ideology — in Boston or anywhere else — there is no better place to go than a broadcast of The Howie Carr Show. The radio program features caustic daily diatribes by the host against state and national Democrats, liberals, government employees, multiculturalists, environmentalists, intellectuals, feminists, and most of all fawning praise and fealty to the “blue-collar billionaire” himself, Donald J. Trump.
Carr’s brand of political analysis — like the Tweeter-in-Chief’s — does not simply reflect his ideological beliefs. Instead, in classic tabloid tradition, it often gets painfully personal. Like Trump, Carr routinely launches verbal assaults on the character — and physical characteristics — of people whose politics he dislikes.
One of the 68-year-old Carr’s favorite bullying tactics is to ridicule the manhood of male Democrats in the most juvenile manner imaginable — mocking their size. He has long referred to former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis as “Peewee.” His name for the former Massachusetts Senate President William Bulger is “the corrupt midget.” He calls former Labor Secretary and current Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich “the 59-inch Robert Reich.” During the 2004 presidential campaign he relentlessly mocked John Kerry’s military service, scornfully referring to him as “the War Hero.”
Carr’s favored strategy to undermine the public sector is not to offer thoughtful critiques of government waste, but to demean public employees as “hacks” who feed off the public trough.
Racial animosity is central to Carr’s worldview, and to his popularity with his core (white) audience. Here again, he not only opposes government policies to address racial inequities; he mocks them as a way that guilt-ridden, elitist liberals punish hard-working whites. He derides recipients of government aid as freeloading “gimme girls” — his version of the racist and sexist “welfare queen” trope that Ronald Reagan popularized in the late 1970s and 1980s.
A long-running theme on his show and his Boston Herald column is the conventional conservative narrative that starting in the 1960s, middle- and upper-class liberals deserted the white working-class in favor of the black and Latino poor. Although his family was lower middle-class, he wrangled a scholarship to tony Deerfield Academy, graduated from the University of North Carolina and managed to make enough money to move to the wealthy (and liberal) Boston suburb of Wellesley.
Nonetheless, Carr fashions himself a tribune of the white working class, a regular Joe who’s sticking up for the little (white) guy who was left behind when “politically correct” liberals embraced multiculturalism and gender and sexual diversity.
But perhaps above all, Carr is a master of the inverted conservative cultural politics of class resentment. In his moral universe, the enemies of the white working-class are not the forces of capitalist greed in the finance, banking and insurance industries. They are “the Birkenstock crowd” and “the kind of people who ride bicycles,” go to bookstores in Cambridge, and vote Democratic.
In fact, his career as a conservative media figure over the past several decades provides a useful case study of how the right has been able to deflect the angry passions of white working-class voters away from the true sources of growing income and wealth inequality and aim them instead at poor and dark-skinned people, and their liberal advocates in politics and academia.
Consider Carr’s response to the 2009 death of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. While countless voices in mainstream media praised the peerless legislator as a tireless champion for working people, Carr wrote a dissenting column where he expressed contempt for Kennedy, and pointedly accused him of forgetting about “the white ethnics.”
As a native Bostonian and talk radio aficionado who has logged countless hours listening to his show over the years — and who also happens to have grown up in a blue-collar, white ethnic family — I can’t remember ever hearing Carr explain how it was possible that Kennedy and “the liberals” had forgotten the white ethnics.
Weren’t those same liberals the driving force behind the creation and maintenance of unemployment insurance? Didn’t they successfully expand access to affordable public higher education for children of the middle and working classes? Didn’t they expand insurance coverage for families that lacked the means to afford health care, and fight to prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions?
Wasn’t it liberals and progressives that pushed corporations to pay workers living wages, passed laws which mandated businesses adhere to workplace health and safety regulations, made paid sick leave the law of the land, and promoted a myriad of other liberal policies that provide tangible and sometimes life-saving benefits to working-class people of all races and ethnicities?
Didn’t the “white ethnics” benefit from all of these and many more efforts of the hated libs and progressives?
For Howie Carr’s brand of right-wing populism to make any sense to his listeners and readers, he has to refrain from pointing any of this out, because it would contradict his central message and risk alienating his audience. Much safer to stick to the tried and true narrative: blacks get special preferences; dark-skinned immigrants are taking “our” jobs; liberals think (white) working people are uneducated yahoos. Why abandon a lucrative talk radio formula and winning political strategy?
Which brings us to Carr’s animosity toward Elizabeth Warren. Carr has been using the Pocahontas epithet against Warren for years, long before Trump adopted it as his own. The idea is to paint her as inauthentic and insincere. He also rarely fails to mention that she was a Harvard Law School professor, an association that fits neatly into the highly effective right-wing narrative that Democrats — especially liberals and progressives — are condescending elitists that don’t understand or care about the needs of the white working class.
It is especially important for Carr and his fellow conservative talk radio hosts to utilize sophomoric taunts and crude class stereotypes in the case of progressive politicians like Warren, precisely because it deflects attention away from their actual political priorities.
For example, far from being elitist, Elizabeth Warren’s entire political career has been devoted to advocating for the rights and interests of the working and middle class. The classic example of this is her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, established in 2010 to protect consumers in the wake of the great recession of 2008.
The CFPB was designed precisely for the purpose of utilizing the power of the federal government to defend the working and middle class — of all races and ethnicities, including whites — from exploitation at the hands of the financial industry. That is why it has been opposed by the elite interests represented by the GOP — and the Trump administration — at every turn!
Try explaining that to Howie Carr’s listeners — the vast majority of whom are white, vote Republican, and love Trump. Try explaining to them that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders would really fight for them and their families, and not just pretend to care about them, like Trump does.
Millions of white working and middle-class voters are so immersed in the name calling, stereotyping, and white male-centric identity politics that are central features of right-wing media that they’re rarely forced to think about such things.
That is the power of right-wing populist propaganda. It deflects people’s attention away from the unfair economic/political system that is the true source of their struggles, and sets the stage for radio hucksters like Howie Carr, and political demagogues like Donald Trump, to (absurdly) claim the mantle of working-class hero.