Conservative Radio Host Has Doubts About Trump. His Audience Doesn’t Want to Hear It.

TIBURON, Calif. — In January 2011, four and a half years before Donald Trump glided down the escalator at Trump Tower and began a campaign for the White House that few conservatives were taking seriously, Michael Savage invited him on the radio and declared that he had found a president. It was their first interview.

Mr. Savage isn’t as well known or as widely listened to as heavyweight conservative talk show hosts like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. But his early backing of Mr. Trump helped the candidate build a bridge to the millions of people in his “Savage Nation” audience who identify with the host’s nationalist beliefs, a worldview he sums up in his unofficial motto: “Borders, language, culture.”

Now Mr. Savage is an outlier once again, dismayed more each day as the budget deficit continues to swell, thousands of new migrants are apprehended at the border, and the wall Mr. Trump promised to erect and make Mexico pay for remains unbuilt.

“Read my lips: no new immigrants,” Mr. Savage said one recent day, taking a swipe at what he says is just one of the president’s major unfulfilled promises.

But his skeptical take is not something many of his 7.5 million weekly listeners seem to want to hear as the president prepares to kick off his re-election campaign Tuesday with a rally in Florida.

“To too many people he’s not a human being, he’s a demigod,” Mr. Savage said one afternoon after wrapping up a broadcast from his home studio, which sits on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco Bay. This especially includes his colleagues in the conservative media, he said. “It’s embarrassing to listen to some of these people.”

Scoffing at the suggestion that he was playing with fire by criticizing the man he once hailed as the “Winston Churchill of our time,” Mr. Savage posed a rhetorical question: “I’m going to get up every morning and do nothing but say how great he is?”

Making himself a lightning rod is nothing new. Among his more infamous controversies, Mr. Savage was barred from entering Britain in 2009 after making inflammatory comments about Islam, including calling the Quran a “book of hate.” And after a brief stint as a host for MSNBC in 2003, the network fired him for telling a caller to “get AIDS and die.”

Still, in the world of conservative media, where questioning the president’s greatness can be an apostasy that tanks ratings and ends careers, Mr. Savage is taking a major risk. His views aren’t widely shared among conservatives, though they do represent a small crack in the foundation of Trump loyalists who are not buying the president’s “Promises made, promises kept” motto.

Instead of finding himself at the head of the bandwagon as he did in 2011, Mr. Savage sometimes feels as if he is shouting into the wind.

During one program last month, a “lifetime listener” from San Francisco named Sharon told Mr. Savage as politely as she could that it was ridiculous for him ask his audience whether they harbored doubts about voting for the president in 2020. “I really like you,” she told the host, “but I’m wondering why you’re losing confidence in Donald Trump?”

Dave in North Carolina asked how anyone could blame Mr. Trump when he is fighting so many enemies at once. “He’s not just fighting Democrats. He’s fighting the deep state. He’s fighting the cabals,” he said. “Without him, we have nothing.”

Mr. Savage, 77, was surprised there wasn’t more second-guessing that day. “I don’t think they care very much about issues,” he said of his listeners, with a hint of disappointment. “They’ll vote for him no matter what because he’s not ‘them.’ I think it’s come down to ‘them’ or ‘us.’”

He took calls that afternoon for a little over an hour. Of the dozen people he spoke to, only one, Joe from Salinas, Calif., declared that he was sitting out the 2020 election. “I believed Trump,” Joe fumed. “He said he was going to do something about immigration.”

“Four thousand are coming over every day,” he went on, saying that the influx of migrants would only benefit Democrats. “Once it’s all blue, who cares about this great economy?”

Mr. Trump once said his political base was so rock solid that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters.” He may have had a point. While public polling has consistently shown that the majority of Americans disapprove of how he handles his job, the percentage of Americans who think he is doing a good job has been relatively stable — though still a minority.

Mr. Savage, a former member at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, embodies the contradictions of much of the president’s base. He insists “I’m no Benedict Arnold,” and will still vote for Mr. Trump in 2020 despite his misgivings because there is no Democratic candidate he could imagine supporting.

But he has no plans to pull his punches when it comes to the president. Mr. Savage believes his words have already cost him access to Mr. Trump, whom he has not spoken to since the White House Hanukkah party in December.

“They keep pushing me away because they don’t like what in their mind is not 100 percent sycophantic behavior,” he said.

His bridges to the Trump White House are not as scorched as those of Ann Coulter, who has accused the president of lying about his pursuit of funding for the border wall and attacked him as “a shallow, narcissistic con man.” But Ms. Coulter said she believed there were far more people like her and Mr. Savage who are dismayed. They are just less willing to speak up.

“A lot of wingers are desperately hanging on to Trump as flotsam in a tsunami,” Ms. Coulter said in an interview. “So loads of Trumpsters are beside themselves — but almost none of them will say so publicly. I think the issue is: How many voters, who voted for Obama, or didn’t vote, and then came out to vote for Trump, are done with him?”

Though Mr. Savage’s relationship with Mr. Trump has cooled lately, their mind meld on substance and style once made them fast acquaintances. Mr. Savage, like Mr. Trump, often provokes controversy in the bluntest ethnic and cultural terms. And during the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump appeared regularly on Mr. Savage’s radio show to discuss their shared opinions on issues like hitting China with tariffs, closing the borders to Muslim refugees and withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

“A lot of the platform Trump was running on seemed kind of outrageous and it fit within the outrageous policies that Savage talked about,” said Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers, which covers the radio business. “They were truly compatible. It didn’t matter to Savage if Trump was going to win or lose. It was good copy.”

Mr. Savage harbors hard-right views on border security. He believes in a more restrictive immigration policy because he says too many “illiterate” people are coming over to “sit on their fat behinds” while they take advantage of the country’s social services. His monologues about immigration often warn of the risk of diseases carried by migrants.

He says he does not understand the apathy he is seeing from the right when it comes to holding the president accountable on immigration.

“If Hillary were president,” he said to his audience last month, “there’d be riots on the border. Nobody would tolerate this on the right. So why are they sitting this out?”

His anti-Trump stances have come at a cost. Though his show is still rated among the top 10 for talk radio, he no longer has as large a national following after several major stations in markets like New York City and Washington took him off the air. His live show is now only one hour, cut back from three last year.

Mr. Savage has always been an eccentric character in the world of conservative talk radio. His background is not in politics but plants. He studied medicinal properties in plants in Hawaii and Fiji and earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in nutritional ethnomedicine, a field that examines how various cultures and ethnicities use natural products for health purposes. His affinity for the Bay Area is one that few conservatives share.

He wrote numerous books about health under his birth name, Michael Alan Weiner. He picked Savage as his radio name after Charles Savage, a sailor who is believed to be the first to introduce firearms to Fiji but was eventually murdered by the islanders.

Mr. Savage turned to radio, he said, after being denied repeatedly for jobs as a professor. “White males need not apply,” he said. “And I remember to this day the humiliation.”

Though he is disillusioned with the Trump administration in many ways, he still takes pride in his role as an early supporter. He often tells the story about the evening in 2017 when he visited Mar-a-Lago as a guest of Christopher Ruddy, the president’s friend and chief executive of Newsmax. When Mr. Trump saw Mr. Savage, he threw his arm around him and said loudly enough for anyone within earshot to hear, “I wouldn’t be president without this man.”

Mr. Savage insists he does not need or crave that kind of access anymore. He believes enough people in his audience would see through it as phony if he did, he said, because they appreciate his independence even if they don’t share his skepticism.

“The day they think I’ve been turned and I’m willing to sell myself out for a pat on the head or another piece of Hanukkah candy,” he said, “they’re going to say he’s just like the rest of them. ‘He’ll do anything for access to the king.’”

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