The Populist Radio Host Who Really Was Trump Before Trump
Before it was cool, Bob Grant was unabashed, skeptical of mass immigration, and concerned America was no longer great.
Somewhere in New Jersey, on the border of Trenton and Hamilton, just a few miles from where critical battles during the Revolutionary War were fought, just a block down from a German restaurant, nestled inside a blue-collar neighborhood of police officers, firefighters, and war veterans, was a barbershop right out of central casting.
It was here that I was introduced to the strong voice of Bob Grant, “the King of Conservative Talk Radio.” He was the only alternative many of us had to the Star Ledger, the Trenton Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Times, and other left-leaning media organs. There’s not much left of that world, the one before the internet gave conservatives a voice, which is why the memories of that barbershop linger.
The center of attention there was “Angelo,” the kindly, short, stocky, sharp-witted Italian barber. Angelo cut my father’s hair, just as Angelo’s father had cut my father’s father’s hair. I never knew my grandfather who came to this country from Mayo, Ireland, in search of opportunity and found it first in New York and later at the Trenton railroad. I would sometimes hear Angelo and Dad talk about how proud he was to be an American and lament how hard it is now for anyone to immigrate legally from Ireland to America.
When I came home from college, that was when I got to know “old Ang,” as Dad would call him. Oftentimes he had Grant’s program on, heard live starting at three in the afternoon on WABC-AM radio. I realize now that I was catching the tail end of a special moment in the life of the “Greatest Generation”—the one that served in World War II and lived through the Great Depression. They never expected to live to see the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Desert Storm was a bookend to that period and Grant lent his voice to the cause. I remember stopping in one day and hearing Grant unload on Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, who became New Jersey’s longest serving U.S. senator.
“And let’s be heard!” Grant would say. “Good afternoon everyone, the telephone lines are open, in a program dedicated to the free and open exchange of ideas and opinions. And what is on your mind this afternoon?”
It was Lautenberg who was on Grant’s mind this particular afternoon. Lautenberg had been showing up at rallies expressing support for the troops during Desert Storm. Yet he’d also voted against providing the president with the authority he needed to apply the “use of force” against Saddam Hussein and his army.
I’m just going from memory with this quote, but it’s close: “I understand Lautenberg, Frank Lousenberg, doesn’t like me reminding the public that he voted against authorizing the use of force in Desert Storm. Well I’m going to keep on reminding them, Lousenberg, you phony.”
Grant got under Lautenberg’s skin. There was only one time he was in any serious danger of losing his seat and that was in 1994 when the Republicans won both houses of Congress. Grant helped almost pull off an upset, but the radio host ran smack dab into the perpetual enemy of the conservative movement—polite, genteel, moderate Republicans who were unwilling to fight.
Angelo’s shop was prime Grant territory, in that it was an Old Right shop, if you follow me. Capital O and Capital R. The patrons were defined by their opposition to the New Deal, their affinity for the founding period of the United States, America’s heroic role in history, and a fervent belief in American exceptionalism.
On a Saturday, the usual drill was for Dad and his friends to linger after their haircuts and talk horseracing, sports, and, of course, politics. There was one particular Saturday when the focus was on the perfidy of the United Nations and the heroism of General “Stormin Norman” Schwarzkopf, the U.S. Army general who led coalition forces to victory in Desert Storm. A Trenton native, Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, oversaw the extensive air campaign followed by a 100-hour ground offensive that liberated Kuwait from Iraq.
At the time, the news media was expressing skepticism over the idea of an unambiguous American military victory while U.N. officials were working feverishly to block the U.S.-led ground campaign that ultimately routed Hussein’s army. There are several conversations I recall, but I’ll just pick one.
In his favorite seat at the back of the shop was “Shady,” a retired Trenton police officer, World War II veteran, and a mountain of a man who I have to say looked a lot like Schwarzkopf. Shady related to Grant because he too was concerned about “mass immigration” and uncontrolled borders. But during this visit, he was most concerned with the “transnationalists” at the U.N. and was suspicious that some American politicians were complicit in efforts to subordinate the U.S. Constitution to U.N. charters. He supported Desert Storm, but wasn’t sure what Bush had meant by a “New World Order.”
Apparently, Shade knew the Schwarzkopf family in some way. He explained to me that Schwarzkopf’s father was the founding superintendent of the New Jersey State Police and had taken on a prominent role in the investigation into the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindberg baby. There’s a lot of history packed into a small state.
Like I said, this was an Old Right barbershop.
After Desert Storm came and went, Grant returned to what I think was his central focus—the need to unwind and reverse the changes to immigration policy that Senator Edward Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson had set into motion.
Here’s one segment that was typical of Grant’s commentary:
Do you know that the Immigration and Naturalization Reform Act of 1965, which was signed in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty by then President Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th president standing there with Hubert Humphry smiling, standing there with Teddy Kennedy smiling, Bobby Kennedy smiling? But I looked up at the face of the lady holding the lamp and I don’t think she was smiling. Do you know why? That Act changed America forever because it said henceforth only 15 percent of our legal immigrants will be allowed to come from Europe. The other 85 percent shall be dispersed from Asia, Africa, and South and Central America. And that’s what it is, folks. Teddy Kennedy said not to worry, this is not going to change, no pun intended, the complexion of America. I leave it to you. Did it?
Anytime a caller with rough, uneven English protested Grant’s views on immigration, he’d ask, “Hey, just where are you from, pal?!!” If they continued to protest, he’d do an impersonation of the caller that could bring down the house in that barbershop. We all knew what was coming next: “Get off my phone, you fake, you fraud, you phony!!”
Grant was tough, entertaining, insightful, articulate, knowledgeable, patriotic, and incendiary. He could be highly effective as a foil to the left in academia and the media. At his best, he was a fearless truth teller who defied political correctness while opening up honest discussions on race relations eschewed by the mainstream press. In his most undisciplined moments, he made himself the issue with overheated rhetoric that was not helpful to the conservative cause.
Grant has been somewhat lost to history since he died in 2013, but he is highly relevant to today’s politics and instructive to conservatives in the Age of Trump. We can only imagine what Grant’s tweets would have been like. He might even make Trump appear moderate and restrained by comparison.
Like Trump, Grant was an effective communicator who operated deep inside enemy territory and knew it. But what made both men effective in their preferred mediums (Grant on radio, Trump on Twitter) also brought some baggage.
If you want to understand Trump, his brand of populism, and how he appeals to conservatives who may not be with him on every issue, then go back to Grant. He was not optimistic about America’s future and made it clear to listeners that in his view, the 1965 Immigration Act would lead to a radical transformation of the country’s culture and institutions. On Grant’s broadcast, there was no talk of Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on hill.” He described America as a “once great country.”
Is that too bleak? Consider today Grant’s home state of New Jersey. There, Governor Phil Murphy and other top Democrats are pushing for illegal aliens to acquire driver’s licenses. Murphy has also signed off on legislation that would allow for what his administration and its allies term “undocumented immigrants” to qualify for financial aid.
In many instances, illegal aliens already receive in-state tuition at colleges and universities, giving them a leg up on legal citizens who seek higher education in states other than their own. Let’s also not forget that many Democrats sound serious about providing free health care for illegals while plotting to torpedo private insurance for citizens.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a former Democratic presidential candidate, was last seen escorting migrants from Mexico into El Paso, Texas, where they can process asylum claims.
Standing in opposition to permissive immigration policies that do not put “America first” is President Donald Trump who has made an issue out of illegal immigration in a way that no other recent president has. Like Grant, Trump has demonstrated a willingness to get down in the mud and fight elitists and globalists in both parties who are unwilling to protect America’s borders and to prioritize American sovereignty over international agreements forged at the U.N.
With Americans now attuned to Grant’s prescient warnings about the dangers of mass immigration without assimilation and its impact on the rule of law and the nation’s finances, Trump’s appeal to key voting blocs in 2016 is easy to understand. Like Trump, Grant understood that elites in both major parties were unwilling to step up enforcement of existing immigration laws while failing to press ahead with necessary reforms.
Grant was an ardent supporter of California’s Proposition 187, which prevented illegal aliens from receiving taxpayer-funded benefits. Voters approved the measure in 1994 after it was championed by then-Republican governor Pete Wilson. Grant was sharply critical of conservative stalwarts Jack Kemp, a former congressman, and William Bennett, a former education secretary, for opposing the law. Kemp and Bennett argued that the economic benefits of immigration outweighed the costs. Grant didn’t agree with their math and expressed enthusiasm for Wilson as a presidential candidate to take on Bill Clinton in 1996. Wilson ultimately ran into trouble with social conservatives in his party who felt some of his views were too permissive. Wilson was, for instance, pro-choice on abortion. But then again, so was Grant.
So what did it mean to be a conservative when Grant was at the peak of his fame and popularity? He dominated the airwaves in the New York market beginning in the late 1970s and continuing through the 1980s and 1990s. He was not exactly a Christian conservative and went so far as to express doubts about the second coming of Jesus Christ. Grant also had some sympathy for the use of euthanasia in certain circumstances and he seemed open to some form of gun control. But Grant was also an enemy of the left and consistently challenged the political establishment in his home state of New Jersey and in New York. He was a proponent of constitutional limited government who celebrated the ideals of America’s founding. Grant also had a keen appreciation for the dangers of judicial activism, a topic he discussed at length.
Conservatism is a much bigger church today than it was when Grant first became ascendant. There are economic conservatives, cultural conservatives, Christian conservatives, libertarians, neocons, traditionalists, and subdivisions thereof. But even in his time, Grant understood the necessity of finding common cause with average Americans who might have differed on cultural questions but were united in their opposition to runaway taxes, oversized government, and unaccountable bureaucracies. In many ways, Grant was the ultimate fusionist who brought together seemingly disparate groups to achieve larger goals beyond single-issue concerns.
His approach hit a high water mark during the 1993 gubernatorial race in New Jersey. Christine Todd Whitman, a former Somerset County Republican freeholder, was running to unseat Jim Florio, the incumbent Democratic governor. The 1993 Florio-Whitman contest occurred on the outer fringes of the Gingrich Revolution that was to deliver the House to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years. The New Jersey race was widely and correctly viewed as one with national ramifications and a bellwether for what might happen the following year. James Carville, President Bill Clinton’s campaign operative, nicknamed the “The Ragin’ Cajun,” came in to save Florio, and Ed Rollins, the former Reagan campaign manager, intervened for Whitman. After forcing through a $2.8 billion tax hike, Florio had become extremely unpopular.
A grassroots movement known as Hands Across New Jersey (HANJ) brought together a broad cross-section of state residents who felt victimized by the high costs imposed on them. Grant amplified the scope and reach of the movement on radio. Think of HANJ as a prototype for the Tea Party movement that emerged in 2010. Bumper stickers that read “Florio Free in ‘93” were widely dispersed throughout the state. But by the time 1993 came around, Florio had found a way to put Whitman on the defensive, attacking her as an out-of-touch elitist who could not relate to average people. He also, remarkably, moved to her right on issues like welfare reform.
But Whitman found her footing after making repeated appearances on the Grant program where she reminded voters how costly and damaging Florio’s tax hikes had been. She also embraced a Reagan-style tax cut package co-authored by businessman Steve Forbes and economist Larry Kudlow. After trailing by double-digits in some polls, Whitman pulled off an upset victory on the back of her proposed tax cuts. She also received more than a little help from Grant who provided her with a powerful media platform.
Fred Lucas, author of The Right Frequency, details in his book what happened next: “It was not until Bob Grant’s show had a clear impact on political contests that Democrats and Democratic operatives decided to smear him.” In 1994, Lautenberg knew he was in trouble for the first and only time in his career. He had been losing ground to Republican Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian. Like Whitman, Haytaian had gained notoriety by calling into Grant’s program. But when Lautenberg accused Grant of racism and seized upon what Lucas describes as “insensitive comments,” Whitman and Haytaian quickly turned on Grant. Whitman joined in the criticism while Haytaian headed for the tall grass.
Lautenberg was able to put his opponent on defense and shift the public’s attention away from his voting record, which was not friendly to taxpayers. He ultimately won re-election. That’s the short version of what went down. The lesson for today is that if you want to win a tough election, then make it about your opponent’s defects. In 1993, Grant made the election about Florio. In 1994, Lautenberg made the election about Grant.
Today, with a pandemic raging and issues of police brutality rising to the fore, there are plenty of avenues open to the Democratic nominee to make the Trump the issue in this year’s election. The president could do a lot worse than to label the Democratic Party as a giant advocacy group for illegal aliens. In fact, now would be a great time for Trump to revisit Grant’s commentaries on immigration policy and other issues where the radio host was ahead of his time.
Did Trump and Grant ever meet?
Apparently, there’s a photo on the walls of the Reo Diner in Woodbridge, New Jersey, that says they did. Grant, who was a resident of Woodbridge for a time, would occasionally broadcast from the diner. He died on New Year’s Eve in 2013 at the age 84. But as one of his final acts, Grant anticipated an opening for Trump before anyone in the punditry took the real estate mogul seriously.
“There is only one potential candidate who has demonstrated he is not afraid,” Grant wrote in a commentary published in April 2011. “And if you people are looking for someone different; if you are looking for the right man at the right time, then you don’t have to look any further than the man who stands beside me in a photo on the wall at the Reo Diner Restaurant…Donald Trump!”
Angelo died shortly before Bill Clinton was elected. I think Dad and I went to get one of the last haircuts. Just three years ago, our friend “Shady,” the Trenton police officer, passed away. Dad is the last one left from that group. Recently, we drove past Angelo’s old neighborhood. Many of the homes had been redesigned with new facades. The German restaurant, my old landmark, is gone. I couldn’t even tell which one was once the barbershop.
We were on our way to an Irish pub, one that Dad has been going to for as long as I can remember. He asked me why it’s so hard now for the Irish to immigrate legally into the U.S. I reminded him of Grant, the conversations he’d had with Angelo, and the 1965 Immigration Act.
The rest of the ride was subdued and quiet.
Kevin Mooney is a journalist and investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.