“We have to get busy now if we’re going to save ourselves from the fate of other great empires of the past. We need to get busy now with selling our fellow Americans on the moral superiority of personal liberty and its main ingredient, limited government,” the libertarian economics professor and columnist Walter Williams told Fox News host Mark Levin at the conclusion of Levin’s new show, Life, Liberty, and Levin, which debuted Sunday night. “And we need to make the case to our fellow citizens,” Levin responded, agreeing with his guest.
Preventing the country from experiencing the imperial declines of Rome or the United Kingdom by preaching small government principles is a heady goal for a cable news program with a 10 p.m. weekend slot. And unfortunately for Levin, Fox, his audience, and, perhaps, the republic, the show’s first episode was a glacial slog, with Levin and Williams spending the hour trying to pass off warmed-over right-wing talking points as koans of wisdom.
Levin, who served in President Ronald Reagan’s administration before embarking on a lucrative career as a conservative talk radio host and best-selling author, is new to the Fox lineup. But while his profile may be lower than those of Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, who also turned radio tenures into Fox gigs, he nonetheless has extraordinary influence with the Republican Party’s rank-and-file activists.
In 2013, The Daily Beast suggested Levin was “the Most Powerful Conservative You Never Heard Of.” He helped provide the intellectual architecture for the Tea Party movement with racially charged commentary stressing the purported radicalism of the Democratic Party and the need to return to the small-government roots of the nation’s founders.
Now speaking every weekday to the fourth-largest talk radio audience in the country, Levin is popular with conservative Republican members of Congress and state legislators, the latter of which have been trying to enact his goal of triggering a constitutional convention of the states to cripple the power of the federal government.
In his first Fox episode, Levin largely focused on well-trod territory. There was a constitutional convention shoutout for the Levinheads who might be tuning in, while those less familiar with his personal oeuvre could watch him and Williams (they never disagreed during their interview) toggle between conservative political philosophy (capitalism makes the country rich, taxation is theft) and banal talking points. This is the show for you if you think the height of political discourse is someone stating that more people are killed with knives than with rifles before asking without irony, “What do you want, knife control?”
The premiere’s highlight was its discussion of slavery, which can be summarized as, “owning people is bad, but the real problems are people who criticize the founders for owning people and taxation, which is also slavery.”
In an unusual turn for a Fox broadcast, President Donald Trump’s name was not invoked a single time over the course of the show. Levin has a complicated history with Trump: He initially stated that he could never support his campaign but reversed course as the general election loomed. And he’s been a staunch supporter throughout Trump's presidency, declaring during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference shortly before his Fox show aired, “I don’t care if you agree with this president on everything or not. They're trying to take him out, and it's our obligation to defend this man, and defend his office, and defend the presidency.”
Levin chooses to ignore that Republicans control the White House -- and the House of Representatives, and the Senate, and the Supreme Court -- instead portraying conservatives as a rebel force beset on all sides by powerful foes. “Whether it’s climate change, abortion, gun control, it seems to me we’re always debating on the grounds and the terms set by the left. Why is that?” he asked Williams at one point during his Fox show.
This sense of victimization, along with the invocations of slavery and the founders, the warnings that progressive Americans share the philosophy of the Nazis and the Soviets, and the pat philosophical musings remind me of Glenn Beck’s Fox show. That program was extremely popular at first, and lucrative for the network, before ratings and ad revenue plummeted as viewers got bored with his schtick and advertisers were no longer willing to associate themselves with his racist, insurrectionist, and conspiratorial commentary.
But Beck’s show attracted an audience, at least at first, due to the host’s own substantial showmanship and decent production values. It’s hard to imagine Fox generating a phenomenon from a whiny-voiced conservatives radio host sitting across a table and bullshitting with people who agree with him at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night.
For his part, Levin doesn’t seem too sure that the show will last. He repeatedly told viewers how to find his program on CRTV, an Internet streaming service that competes with Fox:
I haven't seen a Fox personality do this sort of naked shilling for his other gigs since Bill O'Reilly was canned. It's his first Fox show and Mark Levin is telling people how to listen and call in to his radio show. pic.twitter.com/RvlgPouRfc
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) February 26, 2018