Throughout a long and unpredictable career, one that’s included television stardom, bestselling authorship, inestimable wealth and celebrity that defies categorization, the conventional wisdom has long held: One day he will go too far, say something unforgivable — too vulgar, sexist, or crude — be fired or forced to resign.
Who is it: Donald Trump or Howard Stern?
It’s been amazing to hear Stern unleash his considerable power and fury at President Trump these past few weeks, culminating in an epic on-air rant Tuesday in which Stern told his Trump-supporting fans, “I hate you for voting for him, for not having intelligence. For not being able to see what’s going on with the coronavirus … I hate you, I don’t want you here,” before calling on Trump to resign.
Now, as any longtime listener knows — and despite Stern’s skepticism, I am one of them — this pandemic is Stern’s worst nightmare. It is his greatest existential fear come to life, a highly contagious airborne virus from which there is no protection.
Already a paranoid germaphobe with a soupçon of OCD, Stern has been broadcasting from his basement in the Hamptons, confessing that his wife no longer wants to take walks with him because he can’t stop yelling at fellow millionaire neighbors to mask up.
Remember, this is an on-air personality who kept broadcasting live from his Midtown studio on 9/11 as the towers fell, who has never really bragged about the courage it took to do that.
Stern has been distancing himself from Trump for quite some time, most notably when he hosted Hillary Clinton for an hours-long interview late last year. But he’s also engaged in some revisionist history, claiming that his support for Hillary was clear and well-known in the long run-up to the 2016 election.
That’s not entirely true. While Stern may have said he planned to vote for Hillary, he refused to denounce Trump, or release any of the controversial interviews he’d done with Trump over the years, or tell his listeners, as someone who has known Trump for a very long time, what he truly believed.
Why? Simple: It was a calculated business decision. Stern didn’t want to alienate half his paying fan base.
But now that all of us are mortally at risk, we see the real Stern, the id. And guess what? It’s not that different from Trump’s: thin-skinned, fearful, bullying (Stern still uses mentally impaired adults as comic fodder), insulting and angry.
There’s a great scene in Stern’s 1997 biopic “Private Parts,” in which NBC execs, desperate to fire him immediately after hiring him, examine his ratings. As it turned out, people who hated Stern listened even longer than people who loved him, and the reason given by both focus groups was the same:
“I can’t wait to see what he’ll say next.”
As entertaining and uncharacteristic as it is to hear Stern come clean — and by the way, how interesting that Trump, as of this writing, has yet to tweet at Stern — he’s at his best when humor is his weapon.
By Wednesday he’d calmed down, having a Fake Trump call in to lament his wife turning 50 (“Why would I wear a mask? I have barely anything to live for”), America surpassing one million COVID cases (“It’s like going platinum, Kanye told me that”) and his plan to replace Birx and Fauci (“It sounds like a failed TNT drama”) with beautiful people who’ve played doctors on TV.
“Like ‘E.R.,’ remember that?” fake Trump said. “I want to see great-looking doctors, not a hobbit and a scarf lady.”
It was a brilliant bit, as true as anything the real Trump has ever said and the kind of thing both Trump lovers and haters find funny.
So the question is: Which of these guys, both made of Teflon, emerge the victor? Will Stern, whose fans are as devout as Trump voters, suffer in ratings? Will Trump suffer at the ballot box?
Or will both, as they always have, walk away unscathed — if not more emboldened? One thing’s for sure: At long last, Trump has met his match.