Mark Levin: the talkshow host behind the baseless Obama wiretap rumor

Jason Wilson
Mark Levin, one of the most successful rightwing talk radio hosts. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The ultimate source of Donald Trump’s wiretapping allegations – which he has presented without evidence – is one of the most prominent conservative broadcasters in the country. Yet compared with such colleagues as Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, few liberals have heard of him.

On Friday, Breitbart News reprinted and amplified allegations of an attempted “silent coup” by the Obama administration, which were reportedly the basis of Trump’s tweets about wiretapping on Saturday. But Breitbart acknowledged in its reporting that the case was first made on Mark Levin’s radio show on Thursday night.

Levin stitched together material – including from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian – on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) court warrants sought during the election. In some cases, the reports he cited were simply mentioning unconfirmed information from sources such as the rightwing tabloid site Heat Street. But Levin went on to claim that the Obama administration had used “police state” surveillance tactics against the Trump team.

Despite the slim basis for his claims, Levin has been on the attack in the first part of this week, writing open letters to reporters who have questioned his stories, and lambasting others on air.

Levin – nicknamed “the Great One” by his friend Sean Hannity – is one of the most energetic and successful rightwing talk radio hosts. His syndicated three-hour program, which airs evenings on the east coast and at drive time on the west, gets more than 7 million listeners a week, according to Talkers magazine – putting him in the same ballpark as Beck.

He has also made serious efforts to grow beyond radio. He is editor-in-chief of the rightwing website Conservative Review and the host of its flagship TV program. Over time, his books have enjoyed increasing time on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Levin’s audience is as unusual as it is loyal. The political scientist Dan Cassino, who researches conservative media, points out that in the last American National Election Study in 2013, “among all news outlets, including liberal shows, listeners to the Mark Levin program have the highest political knowledge of anyone, and it is the only show whose audience is 100% conservative”.

The intense conservatism of his audience may explain why Levin operates almost entirely within the rightwing bubble. His appeal to moderates is extremely limited, and Cassino says that his program is primarily about “helping people justify decisions they have already made”.

The relatively advanced political knowledge of his listeners may be because Levin’s show offers material, and an agenda, that goes beyond the high-octane bloviation of his competitors.

“He actually offers more of a legal and process basis for what he says. He offers the same simplistic narratives, but he really does detail work. He has legislative proposals. One of his books was about exactly what constitutional amendments he thinks we need and how we could change the amendment process.”

Ted Cruz speaks with Mark Levin at CPAC. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

His capacity to advocate for a more substantive rightwing political project is a product of his own history. Levin came relatively late to radio. In the 1980s, while Limbaugh and others were creating the stridently partisan talk radio format after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, Levin was working his way up the Reagan administration. His government career culminated in a stint as chief of staff for the then attorney general, Edwin Meese.

Later, he worked at the Landmark Legal Foundation, whose activities included bringing suits against labor unions to stop their political campaigning. In the 1990s, he was a regular expert guest on Rush Limbaugh’s show.

From the early 2000s, Levin moved into broadcasting. In 2003, he got his first daily show on WABC. He began to evolve a winning formula that combined his legal knowledge with two-fisted rhetoric, feuds, and a politics best described as hard-edged movement conservatism.

Free markets, a hawkish foreign policy, and constant attacks on Democrats and the left are important components of this, but nothing is more important to Levin than his ultra-originalist version of the constitution, which above all stresses states’ rights. He is a major proponent – on air and in his written work – of a constitutional convention for the purposes of limiting the power of the federal government.

Naturally, he hates Democrats and has spent much of the past eight years pouring opprobrium on Barack Obama – just one of the things that made him so congenial to the Tea Party movement.

But Republicans are not beyond the reach of Levin’s acid tongue.

He reserves a special scorn for those Republican politicians he sees as compromising with their opponents, or not adhering closely enough to “constitutional conservatism”. His regular punching bags get patented nicknames: Lindsey Graham is “goober”, John McCain is “John McPain”, and he once called Mitch McConnell “The Benedict Arnold of the US Senate”. Major media outlets get similar treatment – Levin regularly lambasts the “New York Slimes”, the “Washington Compost”, and “MSLSD”.

Levin received a major blow last year, when his favored candidate, Ted Cruz, was defeated by Donald Trump, whom he had vociferously campaigned against. In the era of Trump, Levin and other well-established hosts associated with movement conservatism have at times looked increasingly isolated. Among other differences, movement conservatives tend to advocate for free trade and the projection of US force, and they are far less likely to talk openly about race, preferring to trade in euphemisms about “law and order” or “welfare”.

The political scientist George Hawley, whose book deals with the recent challenges being faced by the conservative movement, says that Levin is fairly representative of the problems that movement figures have had with Trump.

Stranded between a president they didn’t support and an audience who voted for him, hosts such as Levin have lately tried to split the difference by continuing to criticise Obama – and by extension Democrats – and the left.

“They have to keep their listeners tuning in,” Hawley says. “The overwhelming majority of talk radio listeners voted for Trump. That audience is not going to want to hear talk about why Trump violates some particular abstract principle of conservatism. They’d rather hear why the other side is a bunch of criminals and socialists.”

Cassino says that focusing on the left is an easy call. “The call that Levin and other hosts have made is: we’re not going to talk about areas of disagreement.” The perniciousness of Obama is something that everyone on his side of politics can concur on.

Levin is seizing his return to relevance with both hands. On Monday night, on Levin TV, he defended his initial broadcast and subsequent appearances laying out the case that Fisa court warrants had been sought to investigate members of the Trump team.

It was all built on mainstream reporting, he insisted, and denied that he was a conspiracy theorist, asking, “Was the Guardian lying? Was a far-left British newspaper lying?”

The former British MP Louise Mensch reported in November on the Heat Street website that the Fisa court had granted the FBI a surveillance warrant of “US persons” to investigate possible contacts between Russian banks and Trump’s associates. The Guardian has reported that the Fisa court turned down an initial request for a warrant last summer.

We should expect that he and other denizens of talk radio will try to maintain their relevance in the Trump era by continuing to campaign against the last president.

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